I wrote this with author Kenji Kai. It was published in Eskimo Pie Lit Mag this July… Kenji and I are both interested in quirky San Francisco history…
The photograph is of Bradford Street, the steepest street in San Francisco. It’s in Bernal Heights, not an area where tourists hang out. Everyone thinks Filbert Street is the steepest, but it’s only a 32% grade and Bradford Street here is a 41% grade. Not the best photograph, but you get the idea…
Did you know there are two separate Arguello Streets, Lombard Streets and Moraga Streets in San Francisco? Two and a half Mason Streets? Two North Points?
Or that no 1st Avenue or 13th Avenue exists but that there are two 13th Streets?
Or that the streets are in alphabetical order in the Sunset District, Hunter’s Point and in Glen Park but not the rest of the city?
You probably know that the Golden Gate Bridge is not gold, and you might know that the crookedest street is not Lombard Street, which is more than my sister Mary knew.
Mary flew out from Birmingham, Alabama to visit my partner Kenji and me in San Francisco where we live. Mary’s in her fifties, is a lot of fun, and had never been to San Francisco before.
She was excited about seeing the city. We told her we’d take her on something we called Alternative Tours, our made-up tourist agency for our friends who visited from other places.
We boarded our tour bus, or Kenji’s red Prius, Kenji and I in front, Mary in the backseat with her tourist map, and set off for our first stop, the Golden Gate Bridge. “You know, Mary, the Golden Gate Bridge ain’t so golden,” Kenji announced while driving.
“It’s more of a reddish color, right?” she asked. “Don’t they call it the gorgeous redhead?”
“It’s neither gold nor red but is painted a color called international orange,” I spouted. “The reason why it’s called the Golden Gate Bridge is because it’s named after a nearby body of water named the Golden Gate Strait.”
“Okay,” Mary said, and once there, she loved the bridge to pieces. Who wouldn’t with its graceful arches? “Where to next? Can we see the crookedest street in the world? According to my map, it’s close by.”
“Sure,” Kenji and I said in unison, both of us knowing full well that this is where the fibs began. The crookedest street was not located on fancy brick-paved Lombard Street in tony Russian Hill, but on a section of Vermont between 21st and 22nd Streets in the not so tony part of Potrero Hill. We shot down Van Ness Avenue.
“We’re here,” I said twenty long minutes later.
“Why did it take so long?” from Mary.
“We thought you’d like to see the real crookedest street in the world,” Kenji chimed in, “not the crookedest street in San Fib-cisco.” Mary acted confused when we drove down the cement rollercoaster with its careful switchbacks. It was a lot like Lombard with its houses and trees, but not as nice.
We told her we’d later take her to Lombard Street and she said great, as she wanted to drive up Filbert Street between Hyde and Leavenworth, the city’s steepest hill. They seemed closeby on her map.
“Filbert Street is the steepest street in the city, right?” she asked.
“Maybe in San Fibcisco,” Kenji said.
“You see, Mary,” I said, “what the tourists flock to are crooked streets and steep hills in pricey, touristy areas, but if you want the real story, then you need to drive out to some of the less glamorous neighborhoods. We proceeded to nearby Bernal Heights and showed her the real and true steepest hill in San Francisco located on Bradford Street above Tomkins with a 41% grade. You feel like you’re going to topple over. “Filbert Street actually comes in 8th as the steepestt hill in the city, tying with three other streets at the same 31.5% grade.”
“Well, what about Goden Gate Park?” Mary asked. “It’s the biggest, most beautiful park in San Francisco, or am I wrong again?” Her eyebrows narrowed. “Don’t tell me I’m wrong.”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” I said. “It’s beautiful, yes, but my favorite is McLaren Park.”
“Golden Gate Park is indeed the biggest park in San Francisco,” Kenji said in his best tour guide voice. “It clocks in at over three miles long and is 20% bigger than New York’s Central Park. It houses museums, playgrounds, picnic areas, boats, gardens, and even buffalo. It also houses a lot of visitors and it’s a parking nightmare. If you could diagonally hop across a map of San Francisco you would find McLaren Park, located in the south-east portion between the Excelsior and Hunter’s Point Districts. Although it’s the second-biggest park in San Francisco, it’s often treated like an ugly stepchild. If Rice-A-Roni is the San Francisco treat, then McLaren Park is San Francisco’s best-kept secret. You can often have this park to yourself, as it’s usually unoccupied, leaving plenty of peace, quiet, and parking over which San Franciscans are known to start fisticuffs.”
To show her what Kenji was talking about, we got on Mansell Avenue and made our way to McLaren Park, unknown most likely because of its location. The surrounding neighborhoods are thought to be dangerous compared to the ones that surround Golden Gate Park, thus leaving it with little to no publicity in tour books and among tour guides. But as more of San Francisco becomes gentrified, expect McLaren Park to slowly fill as the Mission District’s Dolores Park has since the invasion of the techies.”
“I think I’ve had enough for today,” Mary said, and as we made our way home we filled Mary’s head with other factoids about the city.
Did she know that 3rd Street was the longest numbered street in San Francisco?
Or that the 38 Geary was the busiest busline?
Or that there was only one three-digit Muni line, the 108.
“It’s the bus that goes to Treasure Island,” Kenji reported, and I seconded it.
When we dropped my sister off at her hotel, we noticed she’d left the map in the back seat.
© Eliza Mimski and Kenji Kai (Co-authors)
*Kenji was a finalist in both the 2012 and 2014 San Francisco Writers Conference Contest.