Ellis Street, San Francisco

Looking westward out from my office in San Francisco, I can see the entirety of Ellis Street, heading from downtown towards the interior hills of the city. Recently, I finally got a chance to walk the street from one end to the other.

Ellis Street downtown view from building

Ellis Street is a relatively modest east-west street, but like many others in this city it traverses a diverse cross-section of terrains and neighborhoods. It begins at the intersection with Market Street and Stockton Street, shown in the photo above. At the corner is the San Francisco’s flagship Apple Store. The large construction project that has taken over the intersection is part of the new Central Subway project, in particular, a series of tunnels that will connect the existing Powell Street BART and MUNI station to the new line that goes up Stockton Street.

At ground level, we can see the mixture of tall buildings, hotels, restaurants and tourist places that dominate the blocks around Union Square.

Ellis Street near Union Square

The street is an exercise in contrasts. As we move just a couple of blocks westward, the cityscape gives way to older ornate buildings house boutique hotels, lounges, dive bars, massage parlors, youth hostels, and apartments of long time residents trying to hold on in a changing and increasingly unaffordable city.

Ellis Street sign

Heading into the heart of the Tenderloin (“TL”) we cross Taylor Street, which we wrote about this summer. The neighborhood has its reputation for being sketchy and having among the last concentrated pockets of poverty in the city, but the diverse neighborhood contains beautiful architecture and a wide range of people and interests.

Ellis Street, TL

Friends live here. There are cultural institutions here, such as the “509 Annex” of the Luggage Store Gallery where the regular Outsound New Music Series was temporarily hosted (it is now back at the main LSG building on Market Street). A couple of blocks south is the new home of Counterpulse, an experimental performance arts organization. Glide Memorial Church is a veritable institution at the corner of Ellis and Taylor that serves many in the neighborhood and beyond.

The social and architectural landscape again changes dramatically as we approach Van Ness Avenue, one of the main north-south boulevards in the city. It is lined with both tall (and expensive) apartment buildings as well as quite a few car dealerships.

Ellis and Van Ness

Heading west from Van Ness on Ellis we continue up an incline to Cathedral Hill. Not surprisingly, there is a cathedral here: specifically St. Mary’s, a beautiful gem of modernist architecture. They also have a huge modern pipe organ and I have heard several concerts there.

St Mary's Cathedral

Several of the apartment buildings in these blocks are quite tall, and remind me more of 1960s/1970s New York City apartments than those typically associated with San Francisco. I particularly like this cylindrical building.

Apartment building on Cathedral Hill

Continuing westward, we enter a more low-rise residential neighborhood, and the first of a few continuity gaps in Ellis Street. It stops at block of schools anchored by Rosa Parks Elementary School before picking up again a block later.

Dead end at Rosa Parks Elementary School

This section of the street has quite a few gaps, actually, some of which are probably from the redevelopment of the Fillmore District. Indeed, Ellis is mostly pedestrian walkways at its intersection with Fillmore in the middle of the “Jazz Heritage District”. A block south is the building Fillmore Heritage Center that housed the ill-fated San Francisco branch of Yoshi’s.


It still has a restaurant and concert venue under various managements, as well as the larger-than-life photos on its facade.

When Ellis Street resumes two blocks to the west, it is a smaller, treelined residential street with pretty two-story residences of the classic San Francisco style.

Ellis Street residential block

The next large crossing is Divisadero. I have never quite figured out exactly what it is that Divisadero is dividing.

Ellis and Divisadero

In recent years Divisadero has been a destination street in itself. I have done a bit of photography here a few blocks south, and had one of my photos from that set displayed in a show at Rare Device.

Just past the intersection is the final uphill block that I had been able to see from the office window.

Final block of Ellis Street

It is the steepest block of the street, and the houses reflect that. This is a rather archetypical San Francisco street scape.

Iconic San Francisco residential block

Ellis Street ends at the top of the rise at an unassuming intersection with St Joseph’s Street.

Terminus of Ellis Street

St Joseph’s is one of several streets here that is confined to the small hill neighborhood of Anza Vista. Over a century ago, this area was a large cemetery. All the plots have long since been moved to Colma, and it is now a fancy hilltop neighborhood whose apartment buildings and houses look more like the Berkeley hills or Daly City than the traditional parts of San Francisco.

Anza Vista

The architectural dissonance is not surprising as Anza Vista was developed after World War II.

The walk was quite a nice one, not too long or strenuous and it was a lovely warm autumn day. But I was ready for a break, and caught a 38 Geary Express MUNI back downtown and plotted future walking adventures for the city.

Weekend in Shanghai (updated)

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…

Walking in San Francisco

This morning, I find myself in the Castro – or is it the Mission District, it is increasingly ambiguous where one ends and the other begins. Some thoughtful person took it upon himself to suggest that I would go blind using my laptop. He of course said this while puffing away on a cigarette. I ask you who is taking the bigger health risk here?

One activity that almost no one disputes as being healthy is walking. And San Francisco is a great walking city. For one, it is quite small, and the areas of the city one would actually want to visit are even smaller. So instead of presenting another highway article this weekend, we at CatSynth will share a little walking tour of our new hometown, weaving in other articles from the past month. The approximate path is indicated in the map below:

[click to enlarge]

Heading north from CatSynth HQ through the South of Market neighborhood, we quickly arrive at Yerba Buena Gardens, next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. It still amazes me how close this is to home now, just a short walk if one knows the short cuts underneath the highway. I continue to enjoy the gritty industrial nature of the area as typified in these photos from Gabriele Basilico.

After crossing the welcome greenery Yerba Buena Gardens, one is only a block from Market Street, San Francisco's main commercial thoroughfare through downtown and the Financial District The main activity on Market Street is attempting to cross it. Though it is also home to the Luggage Store, where I performed in February and will play again in May.

The side streets of the Financial District are strangely quiet on the weekend as one continues north, towards the Jackson Square neighborhood This is the oldest part of the city, with old three-story iron and brick buildings crowding narrow alleyways that typify nineteenth century urban areas. Some of the buildings here do in fact date back to the nineteenth century, having survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, right around the neighborhood park are a bunch of low-rise residences that look more like the 1970s than the 1870s, and a bit surreal given the surroundings. Nestled in the old (and not-so-old) buildings and alleyways are furniture and interior-design stores that are a bit on the expensive side, as well some restaurants and watering holes, art galleries, and the hair salon at which I had an appointment.

North and west of Jackson Square, one weaves in and out of Chinatown, which is hard to miss, on the way to North Beach. This is a typical place to end up for food and drink, and I was headed to a pub on Washington Square park that was recommended to me. They had an unusual selection of beers, including a chipotle ale. I cannot eat or drink and do nothing else, and having not brought my computer or a book on this trip, I did something I normally wouldn't do and got something to read from City Lights Bookstore: a small book of surrealist games from the 1920s. This might actually be useful, but in any case it seemed to go well with chipotle ale.

If one plans to do any walking in San Francisco, one has to be prepared for hills, either scaling them or taking extra-long routes around them. North Beach in particular is surrounded by hills, and from the Washington Square, one can head east on Union Street towards Telegraph Hill (which is featured in many a film, including the recent Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) and then down to the bay. Or one can head south along Powell Street to Nob Hill. As you climb Powell, you can watch tourists waiting at cable car stops.

This is not a short walking trip, a few hours in all (including stops). One can try to catch a bus or a streetcar, but my experience has been that one can walk several blocks in the time it takes to wait for a bus, so unless it is one that is frequent and reliable, might as well try and walk. Of course, if one is headed to one of the districts further away, the calculation changes. But we will save those for future articles.

This article is featured in the March 26 edition of the Carnival of Cities, hosted by Family Travel.