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San Francisco - Around Town : Central Neighborhoods (part 1)

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As with every quadrant of San Francisco, diversity is the keynote here. This area encompasses the oldest money and the highest society of the city’s founding families, as well as some of the poorest of citizens. It takes in the staunchest pillars of the politically savvy – though true conservatives are a rarity in this progressive city – as well as the wildest let-it-all-hang-out free-thinkers. Then, too, there’s a considerable swathe of the comfortably middle-class who, like all San Franciscans, are simply intent on enjoying the beauties and pleasures of their great city.

Flower Power

In 1967 San Francisco witnessed the Summer of Love, including a 75,000-strong Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park. People were drawn here – many with flowers in their hair – by the acid-driven melodies of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors. Love was free, concerts were free, drugs were free, even food and healthcare were free. Soon, however, public alarm, and too many bad trips, caused the bubble to burst.


Sights and Neighborhoods
  1. Golden Gate Park

    One of the largest, finest parks-cum-cultural centers in world. No visit to the city is complete without taking in some of its wonders.

    Golden Gate Park
  2. Union Street

    A neighborhood shopping street loaded with tradition, Union Street is noted for its sidewalk cafés, antiques shops, bookstores, and designer boutiques, housed in converted Victorian charmers. The street is at the heart of the Cow Hollow neighborhood, whose name invokes its antecedent as a dairy pasture .

  3. Pacific Heights

    A grander, more exclusive residential area is hard to imagine. Commanding as it does heights up to 300 ft (100 m) overlooking the magnificent Bay, everything about it proclaims power and wealth. The blocks between Alta Plaza and Lafayette Park are the very heart of the area, but the grandeur extends from Gough to Divisadero and beyond. On a sunny day, there’s nothing more exhilarating than scaling its hills and taking in the perfectly manicured streets, the to-die-for views, and the palatial dwellings. The Spreckels Mansion, a limestone palace in the Beaux-Arts tradition, on Washington and Octavia streets, is the brightest gem of the lot, now owned by novelist Danielle Steele.

    Spreckels Mansion

    Typical house, Pacific Heights
  4. Japantown

    The Japan Center was built as part of an ambitious 1960s plan to revitalize the Fillmore District. Blocks of aging Victorians were demolished and replaced by the Geary Expressway and this Japanese-style shopping complex, with a five-tiered, 75-ft (22-m) Peace Pagoda at its heart. Taiko drummers perform here during the Cherry Blossom Festival each April. The extensive malls are lined with authentic Japanese shops and restaurants, plus an eight-screen cinema, and the Kabuki Springs and Spa. More shops and restaurants are found along the outdoor mall across Post Street. This neighborhood has been the focus of the Japanese community for some 75 years.

    Japantown
  5. Haight-Ashbury

    This anarchic quarter is one of the most scintillating and unconventional in the city, resting firmly on its laurels as ground zero for the worldwide Flower-Power explosion of the 1960s. Admire the beautiful old Queen Anne-style houses, a few of them still painted in the psychedelic pigments of that hippie era. There are still some tripping freaks and neo-Flower Children here, along with far-out shops and the venerable Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. Groove along the street and recreate your own “Summer of Love.” The Lower Haight is noted for its edgy clubs and bars.

    Positively Haight Street, Haight-Ashbury
  6. Hayes Valley

    Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of racial unrest in what used to be a very rundown African-American slum, this small area has now become one of San Francisco’s hipper shopping and dining districts. The dismantling of an ugly freeway overpass following the 1989 earthquake helped turn the tide, along with the razing of a housing project nearby. The result is a chic area that hasn’t lost its edge. Hayes Valley festivals occur at midsummer and Christmas, when the streets are thronged with revelers.

  7. Geary Boulevard

    One of the city’s main traffic arteries, sweeping from Van Ness all the way out to Cliff House, is a typically unprepossessing urban thoroughfare, but functional. It begins its journey at Market Street, sweeps past Union Square, and then forms the heart of the Theater District, before venturing into the notorious Tenderloin, home to seedy clubs and sex-workers. After it crosses Van Ness, it zips past Japantown and the funky Fillmore District. Soon you’re in the Richmond District and before you know it, there’s the Pacific Ocean.

  8. Presidio Heights

    Originally part of the “Great Sand Waste” to the west, this neighborhood is now one of the most élite. The zone centers on Sacramento Street as its discreet shopping area. It’s worth a stroll, primarily for the architecture. Of interest are the Swedenborgian Church at 2107 Lyon Street, the Roos House at 3500 Jackson Street, and Temple Emanu-El at 2 Lake Street.

  9. Western Addition

    This area, too, was once sandy waste, but after World War II the district became populated by Southern African-Americans who came west for work. For a short time, it was famous for jazz and blues clubs, as embodied, until his death in 2001, by John Lee Hooker and his Boom Boom Room. Today, it is still largely African-American in character and rather rundown, although it does comprise architecturally odd St Mary’s Cathedral and photogenic Alamo Square.

  10. The Richmond District

    This flat district of row houses begins at Masonic Street, sandwiched between Golden Gate Park and California Street. It ultimately extends all the way to the Pacific Ocean, being more and more prone to stay fog-bound the farther west you go. The district is very ethnically diverse and resoundingly middle class. Over the decades, it has been settled by White Russians, East European Jews, and most recently Chinese-Americans and another wave of Russians.

    Russian shop, Richmond District
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