I took this photo in downtown San Francisco almost three years ago as an exercise in cityscape photography.
What I did not know at the time was that the most interesting feature was neither the old brick buildings nor the forlorn lot, but rather the alleyway barely visible on the left side of the image. This is Elim Street, the second narrowest street in San Francisco. I explored this tiny alley in detail earlier this month, with both my big camera and iPhone on hand.
On the southwest side (adjacent to the lot), it is wide enough for a vehicle. But beyond that, it narrows down to just 2 meters, or 6.6 feet.
No stopping seems like a good idea. 6.6 feet between two large old buildings feels dark and closed-in as one might expect. I don’t quite have the arm span to touch both walls, but someone only a little taller would be able to do so.
Looking upwards, the narrow slit of sky is especially bright.
The eaves of the two buildings come quite close together at the front of the alley on 1st street.
Here is some pipework on the older brick building in the alley.
Apparently Elim Street has existed this way for quite a while. But it is uncertain how long it will last in the heavy redevelopment of downtown San Francisco. It could get squished out of existence. Or new buildings could celebrate this narrow street with their architecture. I hope it is in fact the latter.
This weekend included a 30-hour but still too brief visit to Shanghai. Shanghai is of course a massive city, and an increasingly vertical one, and probably reminds me more of New York than most cities I visit.
This photo captures both the old and new of the city. In the background is the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower. In the front, we see a high-rise building on side, and one of the tenement buildings that line many streets, with five or more stories of clothes (and the occasional cooked duck) hanging to dry.
It was taken while walking east from a downtown neighborhood towards The Bund, the riverfront in an older part of the city One can look across the river and see the new Pudong district that is most visually associated with Shanghai and features it’s tallest, newest buildings.
Visibility was relatively poor on both days, and I did not cross to the other side of the river to see the view of the Bund.
Food was a major part of day (as it has been throughout my stay in China), and Saturday featured both a snack of “soup buns” at small hole-in-the-wall shop where the upper level was barely tall enough to stand in, and an extraordinary Japanese-fusion meal at which my friends and I over-indulged for a couple of hours. After that, we headed to a local jazz club called the Cotton Club (I wonder where they got that name from?), where we heard what I would describe as a “typical jazz-club combo” that wouldn’t be very memorable except of course that it was at a jazz club in China.
The night concluded with brief stops at a few of the dance clubs. One featured two sections, an upstairs with a mixed-crowd of foreigners and locals, and a downstairs that was almost exclusively local. The latter definitely had better music (deep synth trance and beats). Of course, one of the main attractions of the nightlife (which continues well beyond the hour when almost every city in the U.S. closes down) is the people watching. Without dwelling upon it too much in this article, Shanghai did afford great opportunities for people watching, starting with our walk along the extremely crowded Nanjing Road and concluding as we departed the last club well into the morning.
I did have an opportunity to explore more on my own Sunday. I began in some of the quieter neighborhoods near where I was staying, and experienced a more local view of the city.
A walk through Zhongshan Park was in some was a more aural experience than visual. The park was already relatively crowded, with numerous groups practicing traditional Chinese exercises, dance lessons, and band practicing for the upcoming New Years celebrations:
The “music” of the park would change every few meter, as one moved from the metallic percussion of the band to a group dancing to disco from the 1970s. A few feet later, the disco and 1950s pop is overtaken by slower more meditative traditional Chinese music that serves as the background for exercises. Finally, a small portable player of low quality provides something akin to circuit bending.
Regular readers of this site know that I am fond of urban side streets and alleys, so I spent a few minutes in the narrower side streets of the neigbhorhood:
This alley reminded me of a photo I took not far from home in San Francisco last summer.
Along Ding Xi Road, I met the proprietor of a small boutique clothing store and her cat. Look for them to be featured in the next “Weekend Cat Blogging.”
After lunch together with friends again (one really cannot dine alone here), I headed back downtown via the Metro. I pride myself on being able to get around a city when I have a good subway system, a map and a general sense of direction. I was able make my way back to the Bund and Nanjing Road to see them during the daytime. I think the one word description of this area would be “crowded.” And I mean crowded on a level one rarely would see even in New York, and with far more dangerous street crossings. Plus, unlike my earlier walks, people expect foreigners in this district and are constantly on the look for sales opportunities. It is relatively easy to simply ignore them, but the crowds and constant interaction did become a little draining at times. It’s something to consider, I am a “city person” and I don’t mind crowds, but I do need breaks.
At Peoples Square, I did brave one last round of crowds to arrive at the Shanghai Art Museum. Even though it was only a block from one of the busiest open spaces and transit hubs in the city, the courtyard was a remarkable oasis of calm. After taking a moment to relax, I went inside to see the current exhibition, a retrospective of Wu Guanzhong. His work, which includes both oil painting and ink painting, and often focuses on Chinese scenes and themes. Many of paintings are of clearly of landscapes, animals and architecture of China, with an impressionist quality but also more minimal. However, many of later works were more abstract, although with Chinese themes. This was especially true of his ink paintings, some of which were quite large in size and reminded me of the “Autumn Rhythm” series of Jackson Pollock. One of the abstract in paintings called Entanglement relates back to the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, which I had the opportunity to visit before heading into Shanghai and will be the subject of the next article…