Monday, March 5, 2012

Opinion — The Art Of The Flaneur, Conclusion

One of the most fulfilling explorations for the flâneur — the words sounds like an insult — in San Francisco is the discovery of long, steep, often hidden stairways that lead to more celestial neighborhoods. Often, along these stairways are homes with no access to streets, simply to the steps. Only a flâneur, which is essentially a person who takes walking and observing seriously, would undertake this kind of energetic exploration.

Probably the most famous of the city’s stairways are the Filbert Steps, which lead up to Telegraph Hill, a few blocks from the grand Embarcadero and from an area inhabited by converted warehouses and relatively new offices, including the Levi Strauss &Co corporate park. Featured in many films, the climb seems to go on forever — not for the frail elderly to be sure. Homes of an eclectic nature line both sides of the stairway and wild, if not feral, cats romp about. And speaking of celestial, two other long stairways stand out. The Vulcan Steps may be the longest. Like the Filbert Steps, homes, with fantastic views, line the long, steep stairway. With no streets or alleys for the homes on the steps, I often wonder how refrigerators are delivered. Many of the homeowners on the path make sure the climb (or descent) is filled with flowers and plants. Not far from the Vulcan stairway is the Saturn Stairs. At the bottom one is just a few blocks from the Castro. At certain times of the year, the blue blooms on the ground cover and the blue blossoms on the trees provide an incredibly dramatic view. Benches exist on two levels for the weary to sit, meditate and look out over the neighborhood below.

There are dozens more, most of them less grand, but often just as mysterious. Sometimes they are impossible to miss. Just as often they are unannounced, which means the walker must look for the entrance. Certainly folks in cars will not notice them. These stairways are in both the wealthiest of neighborhoods and in the more modest areas. And in fact, many individual homes have steep sets of stairs up from the sidewalk and street to their front doors — sometimes landscaped, sometimes curved, sometimes narrow. San Francisco is a city with more hills than Rome. Wherever you look as you walk, you see levels of the city. In fact, the city is not just before you as you walk, it is also above and below you. The walks are full of incredible surprises. There will be moments when you believe you’ve landed on some cold, stark Atlantic coast. A few moments later, you’ll think you’ve suddenly found yourself in the tropics.

This is what the city is about. One moment you are in China and, after taking a few more steps, you’ve landed in Italy.

On a closing flâneur note: The other night, a dark, drizzly evening, a friend and I visited Glenn Park, another little neighborhood city visitors are not likely to know about. We celebrated a birthday dinner in a warm, crowded little French restaurant. The windows were all fogged up. We could make out the blurred light from the streetlamps outside or the taillights of a passing car. Inside, there were the usual sounds of clinking glasses and silverware amidst pleasant aromas and undecipherable conversation.

Dinner was prepared by Parisian expatriates whose accents provided a bit of romance to the English language. Afterward, we braved the chilly dampness for a walk around this tiny slice of the city. The business district was little more than a couple of restaurants (Chinese, Japanese, North American, Italian and French) a bookstore, a great food market and a cheese shop. A few blocks away was the hub for the city’s Metro and Bay Area Rapid Transit.

Not far from this cozy little intersection were modest but handsome homes on the streets that went back down into the city and another street that curved up and around the rest of the hill. My friend remarked, as we walked in the drizzle, catching the reflection of golden light from the damp puddles at the curb, that a person who lived in Glenn Park could pack a little suitcase and walk a few blocks from their home to the station. BART, in a matter of minutes, would take them to San Francisco International for a direct flight to anywhere in the world. If they wanted something more authentic than the French restaurant in their neighborhood — though I can’t imagine why — in a few hours they could be sitting in restaurant in Paris, the ultimate flâneur’s delight.

CAPTION: (TOP) Humphrey Bogart as an escaped convict with a fresh new face traipses up the Filbert Steps in the movie, Dark Passage. (BOTTOM) A house on the top of Hill Street, the rise between Castro and Noe Valley neighborhoods.

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