17th Street in San Francisco

17th Street is one of the longer numbered streets in San Francisco, though not the longest. What makes it unique among its peers is that it forms an almost perfect horizontal line through a large swath of the city, cutting through a variety of neighborhoods and terrains. Like reading geological strata or tree rings, it is an efficient way to explore San Francisco’s geography and history. For quite a long time I have wanted to walk the length of 17th Street. And on March 17 of this year, things lined up in terms of numbers, schedule and weather to make the perfect day for this walk.

17th Street begins at a modest corner with Pennsylvania Avenue at the base of Potrero Hill, next the I-280 elevated section. This used to be a rather forlorn block, but it has been upgraded quite a bit with the addition of a small park at the end of the street.

The street then heads westward through the flat land below Potrero Hill and crosses many of the streets named for U.S. states. Along the way one passes Bottom of the Hill, a club that I recently played at (you can read the gig report here). There is also Parkside, where I have yet to play. The architecture in this area changes between industrial and the modest wooden houses that typify San Francisco. There is also some newer condo and office development.

The street then heads uphill and underneath the US 101 freeway. From here, one can look down at the junction with I-80 and the downtown skyline beyond.

This neighborhood, at the boundary between Potrero Hill and the Mission is the location of Art Explosion, where I have had photography shows over the past couple of years. I have since left that space in order to focus on my other creative projects. From here, 17th Street heads downward into the Mission.

This is a huge neighborhood with numerous subsections each with their own character. We start off in a very industrial area that continues until we cross South Van Ness, at which point we enter the very densely packed core along Mission Street. Continuing westward we find ourselves in the heart of San Francisco hipsterdom, particularly along Valencia Street and the wide park-like Dolores Street.

The houses along this section of the street are a more upscale variety of the ornate San Francisco Victorians, some in colors that one would never instinctively think to paint a house. There are also numerous alleys that poke in either direction off the street.

From here, we continue eastward into the Castro. I have never been entirely sure where the Mission ends and the Castro begins, but I think it is probably at Church Street. Further on it becomes pretty clear where we are as 17th Street approaches its six-point intersection with Market and Castro streets. At this intersection, we find the huge landmark pride flag.

This is also the terminus for the F-Market streetcar line, which uses vintage streetcars from around the world.

After crossing Market Street, we come to the 4000 block of 17th. We have already come a long way, but there is still quite a bit ahead of us.

From here, the street heads up a steep hill into a very upscale neighborhood with large (and undoubtedly very expensive) houses. While 17th Street remains straight as it goes uphill, the intersecting streets, a few of which are named for planets, are more curved and follow the contours of the terrain. There are also numerous staircases here, providing access where it is too steep to build cross streets or alleys.

17th Street eventually reaches its apex at a large intersection with Clayton Street. To the south is Twin Peaks. To the north is Mount Olympus, the geographical center of the city. I had explored the strange little park at that point on a previous excursion. There is a pedestal that presumably contained a statue at one point. I used it as a backdrop for some of my doll photos, one of which you can see here. From this point, 17th drops precipitously into the Cole Valley neighborhood.

This section is purely residential, and the streets straighten out. Even after descending the hill, the street still remains higher than the rest of Cole Valley and the Upper Haight to the north. 17th Street comes to an end here at an intersection with Stanyan Street.

Thus, the mission to walk the length of 17th Street was complete. But this was not the end of the story. The city recently opened the long-closed Interior Greenbelt park, and the main trail begins half a block away on Stanyan. One ascends a narrow wooden staircase and enters into a completely different world.

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I am surprised I had never before made it to this gem of a park, though it did only open to the public in 2011. The woods are not unlike those one might find in parks outside the city, with no visual cues of the urban surroundings at all. There are some sounds from the city that penetrate into the woods, but they are overshadowed by the combination of silences and natural sounds. The late afternoon lighting was perfect on this trip as well. I spent about 30 minutes or so wandering the main “historic” trail of the park before exiting on a small brick-paved street with a spectacular view of the city.

Tired but contented, I picked up a nearby MUNI Metro to get home. And this really is the end of the journey.

I-710 and the Los Angeles River

After the intensity and non-stop stimulus of NAMM, I try to reserve the final Sunday for solitude and exploration of the greater Los Angeles Area. My most recent post-NAMM exploration included a trip north on I-710.

Officially the “Long Beach Freeway”, the highway runs alongside the Los Angeles River for much of its length. The Los Angeles River is a naturally flowing river, but it has been encased in a concrete channel. It’s a rather dystopian vision, but very much characteristic of 20th century LA. It has served as a setting for numerous movies – think the scene in Terminator 2 where the cars crash in a giant concrete ditch and the shapeshifting guy walks away. Of course, I had to photograph this monument myself as well. I joined I-710 at its interchange with Highway 91. The river immediately comes into view to the right, concrete channel and all. However, along this section there has been a lot of work to provide green space on the banks, with bike and walking paths connecting a series of parks. I left the freeway at the Imperial Highway exit for a closer look.


[The mighty Los Angeles River.]

This location is actually the confluence of two rivers. The San Gabriel River, also enclosed in a concrete channel for much of its length, flows into the larger Los Angeles River – the merging of the two concrete channels is unique.


[The San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers.]

I suppose I choose to see the beauty in scenes like these where others refuse to or can’t. But on another level, it is not entirely a choice. I am inexorably drawn to such things. Even as are attitudes towards development change from 20th century models, I’d like to see artifacts like this concrete river preserved.

North of the Imperial Highway, I-710 crosses the Los Angeles River to the east bank.


[I-710 crossing the Los Angeles River.]

The freeway begins to diverge from the river, heading due north towards Pasadena and controversial “dead end”. You can read more about the efforts to complete (or not complete) the highway at the California Highways website. However, I chose to leave the highway and follow the river instead.

A stretch of Bandini Boulevard grazes the river, affording views of a section that is unequivocally industrial. No parks or bike paths here. But even here I can find visual beauty in the bleakness of the scene.

The river is of course in no way devoid of life. Tenacious vegetation can be found along the channel, and there are plenty of birds who take advantage of the shallow water.

I continued north near to the river into the city of Los Angeles. The industrial character remained for a while, and reminded me a bit of the southeastern section of San Francisco that I often frequent, but on a grander scale. I didn’t stop here, but perhaps I should have. Towards downtown, the river becomes incorporated into the greater city, with classic art-deco bridges spanning the channel. I crossed it one last time on the First Street Bridge:


[By Downtowngal (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

It was early enough to still visit a couple of L.A.’s art museums, but I am glad I was able to spend time first with this piece of the city’s history, and a work of art in its own right.

Fun with Highways: the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge

Today, we visit the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge to mark the passing today of former New York Mayor Ed Koch. The bridge, which carries New York State Route 25 from Queens to its terminus in Manhattan at 2nd Avenue, is known locally at the “59th Street Bridge.” It’s actually over 100 years old, having opened in 1909.

[By Lasse Fuss (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The Queens side connects to a tangled nexus of ramps that are mixed up with elevated subway structures. And as these structures are all aging, they become interesting photographic subjects. The bridge was named in honor of the former mayor in 2010.

Here is cute video that has been circulating today, in which Mayor Koch welcomes passersby (including the current mayor) to “my bridge”. (You need only watch the segment until about 2:00)

It’s very typical of his style, being a larger-than-life character but also a bit self-deprecating. It is quintessentially “New York”. From the New York Times obituary:

…out among the people or facing a news media circus in the Blue Room at City Hall, he was a feisty, slippery egoist who could not be pinned down by questioners and who could outtalk anybody in the authentic voice of New York: as opinionated as a Flatbush cabby, as loud as the scrums on 42nd Street, as pugnacious as a West Side reform Democrat mother.

I did have the opportunity to meet him twice on visits back from Yale to New York City, as part of the Yale Political Union. Although my colleagues seemed to treat him rather coldly, I was quite happy for the experience.

Fevered dreams

After a relaxed and healthy Saturday (including a 4-mile walk through SF), I found myself all-of-a-sudden quite sick for the second time this month early on Sunday morning, including a fever. It dissipated by midday, but not before some interesting fever-induced dreams. Here is one of them:

It took place in Western New York, but the landscape had been replaced with a relatively flat desert environment. At the south end was a transplanted version of Yale – there was still the New Haven town green, but the university had different architecture, more columns and arches. A large numbered highway (I don’t remember the number) snaked its way north from the university into the desert along the southern edge of a large shallow lake. The road then split into two that were labeled “Masculine Dr.” and “Feminine Dr.” on Google Maps (yes, Google Maps appeared in the dream). Zooming out, the lake was shaped exactly like the entirety of all five Great Lakes in miniature – probably about the size of one of the Finger Lakes.

Dreams aside, I recommend to readers in the U.S. that they get a flu shot this year.

Fun with Highways: California 247 and 18

After a few cold weeks in the city, I am looking back fondly at my trip to the desert this past summer. Today we look at the final leg of that trip, leaving Joshua Tree on Highway 247. I had been curious about this highway which heads north from Yucca Valley at a junction with Highway 62 out into the desert hills. There is actually quite a bit of residential development near the start of highway, with a great many dusty side streets with a diverse collection of homes. I acquired one of my sculptures at the home of an artist there several years ago. But on this occasion, I kept going north. One of first reassurance markers was, appropriately enough, next to a joshua tree.

The narrow two-lane highway wound its way uphill between a rocky ledge to the west and a desert valley to the east, with occasional rocky outcroppings. A few of them had graffiti on them. Perhaps I should have taken a photo, but I feel differently about graffiti on natural objects than I do on walls. Eventually, the road turned from north to east-west and entered a wide, flat valley, with the classic “road in the middle of nowhere” appearance.

The day was pleasantly hot, probably in the low 90s Fahrenheit (low 30s Celsius), a far cry from the triple digit temperatures at the start of this trip. There was a moderate breeze at times, but not too much. So standing on the side of the road here was an opportunity to experience silence punctuated by the occasional passing vehicle. It is rare that I have the opportunity to hear moments with so little sound, but so much other sensual information in the texture and temperature of the air and the sparseness of the visual space.

Highway 247 then enters the town of Lucerne Valley on the edge of the Mojave desert. It does not have much in common with Lucerne in Switzerland. The lakes here are dry lake beds, but like the more famous Swiss town it is surrounded by mountain ranges. Here, 247 turns north towards Barstow, so I switched onto Highway 18 heading east out of town. This odd highway winds around the mountains and valleys of San Bernardino county through a variety of geographies. The section that I traveled started with crumbly red-brown rock formations up against the sparse commercial development of the town. After an empty section, the road entered the town of Apple Valley where the landscape turned all of a sudden into suburban development and the highway became a multilane expressway known as the “Happy Trails Highway”. The sharp contrast was a little jarring, but not unexpected given the history of development in the deserts north and east of Los Angeles. But this was stark industrial development as I had seen in New Topographics a couple of years earlier, it was just dull suburban sprawl. Upon entering Victorville, Highway 18 becomes a regular city street along with Business Loop 15.

From here, I was able pick up I-15 and ultimately wind my way north along more familiar highways back to San Francisco.

On and off the 1 and A trains in The Bronx and Manhattan

Each trip to New York has been characterized by particular subway lines, and on this trip is was the 1 (Broadway / 7th Avenue) and A (8th Avenue Express). I usually began in the Bronx, not far from where I encountered the Bronx cat, getting on the elevated section of the 1 over Broadway.

At 168th Street, I regularly switched from the 1 to the A. This is an odd station. The tunnel for the 1 train is quite deep underground and the platform is in cavernous curved hall with old-time light fixtures.

It is an eerie place, but was the most important transfer point of this trip. The tunnel connects to the more conventional station for the A train above via elevators, the only station I know of that is arranged this way. From 168th Street southward, the A served as an efficient spine along the west side of Manhattan, connecting to Chelsea, the village, and on into Brooklyn.

This worked well, until the elevated section of the southbound 1 was closed last Monday. After weighing the options, I decided to walk the route instead. It was actually the first time I had ever walked on Broadway south of West 230th Street – in all the times I crossed the Broadway Bridge over the Harlem River, I had never done so on foot. The view from the bridge looking over towards Spuyten Duyvil and the Hudson River beyond is quite scenic.

Broadway continued south from the bridge to the Inwood section of northern Manhattan. This is another area I had never walked through before. Among the more interesting things was this mysterious looking archway behind some storefronts on Broadway near 216th Street.

I had seen it before from the elevated tracks, but now on foot I had a chance to take a closer look. It seemed to be incorporated into one of the auto-repair places, but nonetheless completely out of place from the current landscape. I posted it to Facebook and Twitter as the “mystery arch”, and a friend pointed me to some information about the arch and associated mansion. It is in fact The Seaman-Drake Arch, and its story from a grand landmark to a forgotten one is a bit sad. But it is still there, even surviving a 1970 fire, and could be restored and protected if there is enough interest. (It was still for rent as of this 2010 article).

Broadway continues south to 207th Street, where the A line begins. Before descending into the subterranean station, I saw a sign reminding us that this section of Broadway is in fact U.S. 9.. But rather than following the highway, I descend the stairs to catch the A and resume my regular journey.

The chance to explore a new neighborhood, so close to one I already knew, was an unexpected gift from what was annoying subway-line closure. I will have to come back to see more detail sometime (when it is warmer).

Wordless Wednesday: California 41

This is one of the new pieces I have this fall for San Francisco Open Studios!



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