After surviving the surreal, albeit terrifying, quarantine experience living in San Francisco, I knew it was time to start running again. To my chagrin, my body and mind were behind the ball. In a study of about 13,000 applicants, people who exercised 1-2 times a week increased their exercise routine by 88% on average. Moderate athletes also increased their frequency by 38% on average. I hadn’t run or done much of anything in over a year. Maybe I did a few meager push-ups to remind myself I still had arms, but even that could be a lie.
I delivered bread for Josey Baker Bread for around twenty hours a week. Driving, walking, and lifting bread racks constituted some exercise, though much of my stress came from catching the virus. Some level of risk weighed down every interaction with the outside world. I reminded myself that the past year was nothing but danger, from visiting friends and relatives to not wearing a mask/glove combo at all times. So, after getting my second shot, those reasonable preventative measures could no longer hold me back. Sometimes the only way to move on and move forward was by sweating it out.
The few benefits of putting myself through those heavy-winded, sometimes foggy, sometimes clear, always beautiful San Francisco mornings were taking in the eclectic architecture of the various houses around the Lower Haight neighborhood. Being cooped up inside, sobbing through old Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves, was my only form of travel. I had been lucky enough to live abroad in Prague for three years, explore Shanghai with an old friend, and venture alone through Granada. Travel was how I got to know the world and who I was. Locked away, hurriedly shuffling from one end of my apartment to the other, I had forgotten about the multitudinous world outside my window.
Starting, my bones and joints near collapse, I huffed and puffed around my block, admiring the Victorians as I ran up Page Street toward the Upper Haight. There, I caught my breath, trying to figure out what the hell that figure was over the apartment’s doorway on Waller and Central. It looked like some angel sculpture from another world. There were hundreds of instances like this as I trudged along, pondering over engravings, unique moldings, and trims. Over the weeks, as my strength grew, I discovered different styles like Queen Anne, Craftsman, Mission Revival, and Edwardian buildings.
I’m reluctant to admit it, but growing up in Marin and living in San Francisco for almost ten years, I had become tired of the elegance surrounding me. I realized I had no idea of the actual history of these structures. In addition, I was growing more and more enraged by the 10-plus years of the city shifting sociologically, economically, and aesthetically, seemingly all for profit. In our new and improved plans for adding housing, some good, some not so much, one of the subtle effects has been forgetting their design’s soulful lineage.
What happens to a city founded by gold-hungry pioneers along with idealistic immigrants and true creatives (John Shertzer Hittell, a historian of San Francisco writing in the 1870s, wrote “were, in large proportion, men of knowledge and capacity”) where the average rent for a two-bedroom is more than $4,600? What happens to its population as home prices climb 95 percent while median income increases a comparatively modest 61 percent? What happens to a city that puts skylines over its resident’s needs?
Locals know about the inequalities and disparities in the city. We groan about our favorite local bars, restaurants, and businesses closing, but we also have little say about modern buildings popping up around the city. Residents may fume at their prices and de facto exclusivity. However, these bland, obnoxious, soulless, cookie-cut tumors growing in neighborhoods like South of Market, the Mission, and the Castro jeopardize San Francisco’s architectural history.
Architects seem indifferent to maintaining the original structure and seem more devoted to either adding in-law units or doing away with the original design to build something “new,” “better,” and ultimately bigger. This tact perpetuates our ever-influential waste culture and its true motivations: practicality and money. These buildings and their see-no-evil counterparts - some city planners, some private contractors, some as high up as the Senate - have no apparent awareness or interest in staying true to San Francisco’s original aesthetic. Cheaper is almost always associated with progress, yet a neighborhood's lineage is often lost in these cases. Concerned with this was the Junior League of San Francisco and their desire to conduct “a definitive study of historically and architecturally significant pre-1920 buildings” in the late 1960s. That study became the fantastic book Here Today: San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage.
Some will argue that design suffers due to code regulations, construction materials, and waterproofing or energy efficiency complexities. To that, I say Fuck you. There are ways of keeping one of the main draws of tourism in San Francisco intact. In 2016, SF welcomed 25.1 million tourists who had no desire to visit wart patches like the apartments in the China Basin. They wanted to see the Painted Ladies, the cafés in North Beach, and the maze-like district of apartments butting up against Twin Peaks. They wanted to see houses like the ones running up and down Guerrero Street. They wanted to see the magic they’d heard about and seen in movies.
They don’t want buildings like the one on 2100 Market Street (seen below) that made no effort or attempt at paying homage to any of the beautiful Edwardian houses in the surrounding area. Being forced to look at that million-windowed bycocket hat (I live right down the street) is like saying hi to that one weirdo in the office that never seems to leave the water cooler.
One thing is sure: many changes are running rampant in the city, but one thing that is not happening at lightning speed is housing. We are decades into a shortage, and the construction sites today were, for many years, doing a whole lot of nothing for anyone while permits, financing, and neighborhood meetings had to be sorted out. It may seem disgraceful that new buildings are going up while people sleep on the street, but they are related. With the proper mandates and programs, more housing should mean less displacement. My concern lies in the contractors and architects who appear to care more about cutting installation costs than staying true to San Francisco’s past. Why can’t there be both?
James Baldwin once wrote, “It is through your sense of your history that you arrive at your identity.” If the local government doesn’t recognize San Francisco’s architectural history, it will fall into the hands of its residents. Rarely do the people in power look back and see it as a promising financial strategy for their future. That, unfortunately, is our job as residents.
I kept running, eventually shifting directions to get up and over from Lower Haight into Pacific Heights. Basking in the glory of the Bay, Alcatraz, that familiar Golden Gate Bridge, and Marin County, I stumbled across buildings like the Vedanta Temple at 2963 Webster Street. I would learn from reading Here Today that it was built in 1905, and its various architectural aspects attempt to capture the Vedanta belief that all religions are paths to one goal. Swami Trigunatitananda, working with architect Joseph A. Leonard, combined Queen Anne, Colonial, Medieval, and Oriental features in one building. You don’t see those things in urban architecture lately, do you?
As the weeks and months passed, I pushed further into the Marina and found one of the oldest homes in the city at 825 Francisco Street. The Stick-style house was mainly built from lumber salvaged from ships abandoned during the Gold Rush. The facade is still the same from the 1850s; the house was saved from the 1906 fire by wine-soaked sacks applied to the roofs and walls. The paint job was a soft, inviting white, city’s dreams yellow cream surrounded by dark, rich ivy. There was a tiny circular window between three rectangular windows, and I imagined for children to peek through and gaze at the Bay below.
On days I felt the impetus to switch my route, I ran toward the Mission from Lower Haight through Alamo Park. Dodging swarms of dogs on their walks, passing old and new local staples like El Castillo and Beit Rima, I came across “the Trio” at 120, 122, and 126 Guerrero Street just off Market Street. All of them had a “restrained” Italianate design. Built in 1878, the Trio was constructed by the same builder, all seemingly identical. The Junior League’s Here Today writes: “The pipestem colonnettes of the slanted window bays and the entrance columns are cabled in their lower third to break up what might be a solid vertical line in these narrow houses.”
Switching my path, I challenged myself to jog through Golden Gate Park, my aim - China Beach. Months passed. I’ll put it plainly - I struggled, nearly giving up, feeling like my knees, calves, and legs would explode. One morning, exhausted but smelling that sharp uplifting sea air, I passed Ansel Adams’ childhood home at 129 24th Avenue. The isolated chalet was built in 1903 on a dune that overlooked Golden Gate Park, but today it’s covered in heavy foliage and almost impossible to see from the street.
Further on is the remarkable Queen Anne at 457 25th Avenue, a multifamily home built in 1903 worth an estimated $1,608,572, according to Redfin. My favorite thing about it was the small red door with a one-turn staircase leading up to the entrance. There was something quaintly magical about this design, almost like a fairytale. As the Anne sat, somewhat overwhelmed between the two apartments on either side of it, I couldn’t help but see her as a kind of underdog, kind of like me as I ran trying to make it to that next step, that next block, that next mile, striving to persevere.
That same morning, beaten, sweaty, and shaking, I trudged back and passed a Victorian just a few blocks from where I lived at 1198 Fulton. The Villa, dating back to 1889, once housed the builder of the Palace and St. Francis hotels. The enormous wooden palazzo — designed by Henry Geilfuss, one of the lodestars of SF architecture — was the definitive version of the towering villa form. The Stick expression with the characteristic squared bay window of the 1880s captured all the city’s dreams as the fog rolled in and enveloped everything.
Of all the cities across America, the City by the Bay is one of creativity, drive, and adaptability. Its history is so rich that to forget these stories is to forget what San Francisco has gone through. The modern apartments with their redundant, blank design, the piss-poor mute grays, and over-excited hues with faux college campus amenities are designed to keep people in their communities rather than building upon their history. There can be both. Currently, they show no grasp of the rich cultures that influenced the 50,000 Victorian and Edwardian homes built between 1849 - 1915, along with the Italianate, Stick, Queen Anne’s, Monterey Revivals, and Marina, all of which make San Francisco truly San Francisco.
Who will we be if we lose sight of that and succumb to the idea of forwarding momentum, meaning the loss of all of these stories? What will we stand for? Who will define us then?