Recall Why You Stay by the Bay

Falling in love with your city all over again is easy if you try

It's like the bumper stickers say: Regime change begins at home. The sentiment may have political origins, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be applied much closer to home.

We're talking about your home, San Francisco, and that sorry cynical attitude you copped sometime back in the dot-com heyday that's left you with a hole where your heart once bled.

Don't deny it. There was a time you used to get weepy over the annual earthquake survivors' gathering at Lotta's Fountain. Now you just shrug and wonder why those people aren't all dead yet.

And while it's hard to pinpoint the exact turning point, sometime between the nullification of your stock and the defeat of Matt Gonzalez (or Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader, take your pick), the salmon swimming “upstream” at the Bay to Breakers race started being irritating rather than amusing.

Lord knows, it's been many moons, temporal and corporal, since you actually wore a costume to Halloween in the Castro. You've become so jaded your inner regime needs far more than just a change; it needs an enema.

Before that green rot growing deep in your mercurial soul gets too metastasized, you need to find a way to recapture your joie de vivre and wide-eyed innocence, and remember the reasons that you live here. You need to revel once again in the things that are pure San Francisco, and to celebrate the wonderful weirdness of the City by the Bay (next to the fault line, beside the white zone, kitty-corner to the No Smoking sign).

So flush down the old, and fill up with a new outlook. The city is here to help.

Looking back to go forward

Someone once said that the only way to move forward is to understand and embrace the past, with a heaping ladleful of nostalgia. When I lived in the Midwest, and San Francisco seemed but a distant call of a lonely foghorn, just hearing Tony Bennett's voice was enough to send me over the edge into a lovesick stupor. Living here, you have to work a little harder to get that tear-jerk reaction.

Transport yourself back to a time when civic pride was shouted from the rooftops, not spouted as an ad for See's Candies or hybrid cars. The 1906 earthquake hit San Francisco at an impressionable age, when the city was struggling to prove she wasn't a mere flash in the Gold Rush pan. But disasters have a funny way of bringing out the best in people, and San Fran proved she was a real scrapper, rising phoenixlike from the ashes bigger and better than before.

Set the mood by renting San Francisco, the 1936 movie classic starring Clark Gable as the ne'er-do-well Blackie Norton and Jeannette MacDonald as his muse/conscience, Mary Blake. If there isn't a catch in your throat by the time you get to MacDonald belting out her soul-stirring version of “San Francisco (Open Your Golden Gate),” you may be a sociopath.

Afterward, head to 20th and Church streets to pay homage to the fire hydrant that saved the Mission District. Painted gold and commemorated with a plaque from the city, the brave little hydrant was the only thing that kept pumping during the great post-quake fire and is the reason there are still so many pristine Victorians in the neighborhood.

Next, swing over to Golden Gate Park and the shores of Lloyd Lake, where the most poignant memorial to the old city lies moldering. Christened Portals of the Past, the stately marble portico is the city's only surviving relic of the Nob Hill mansions that were dynamited to make a firebreak.

Lastly, make a pilgrimage to Lotta's Fountain on Market and Kearny — this time with an open heart. The old drinking fountain, with its lions' heads and scrolly ironwork, may seem a bit cheesy by modern standards, but its core is pure gold. Donated to the city by native daughter Lotta Crabtree, a song-and-dance child star of the Gold Rush stage, it served in the post-1906 melee as a beacon where families and friends could gather and reunite with loved ones. Four years later in 1910, in a triumphant show of hope and unity, a quarter-million San Franciscans rallied there on Christmas Eve to hear opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini pay tribute to the city's indomitable spirit. When she launched into “Auld Lang Syne,” there was not a single cup-half-empty cynic who wasn't moved to join her.

Art for all the people

Head past the Land o' White Shoes to the San Francisco Art Institute on Chestnut Street, a place that will restore your faith in the notion that not everything here comes with a built-in ticket vendor. The Spanish colonial revival building, designed in 1926 by Brown and Bakewell (the same architectural team that gave us City Hall and the War Memorial Opera House), opens to a tiled courtyard and fountain in a state of genteel, almost melancholy decay. To the left, you'll find the skylit Diego Rivera Gallery, which houses “The Making of a Fresco,” a splendid mural painted by Rivera in 1931 as a tribute to the architects, artists, and laborers who helped build the modern city. Sit on the bench in the center of the room, in the stillness of the fading afternoon light, and contemplate Rivera's backside (he painted himself into the mural), then make your way up to the roof deck and cafe for one of the best wharf views you've never had to pay a quarter for. The sunny concrete pad is walled-in, castle-style, allowing you to gaze out through the trees and over the apartment houses, to smell the crab pots, listen to the barking seals and the moaning fog horns, and maintain complete, blissful anonymity.

Only-in – San Francisco spiritual renewal

For a thorough San Francisco-style soul cleansing, get yourself to the African Orthodox Church of Saint John Coltrane (930 Gough St.), where you need be neither African nor orthodox to get your groove on. The church is dedicated to the beliefs and music of its patron saint, jazz genius John Coltrane. Step through the doors around noon on Sunday and you'll find yourself swept up in a cacophony of saxophones and hallelujahs as Bishop Franzo King, saxophone in hand, leads the congregation in a service that is part gospel, part all-out jam session. Accompanied by house band Ohnedaruth, the weekly event unfolds like a half-scripted improv session: The reverend, resplendent in fuchsia robes, alternates between congas and the soprano sax; more saxophones come crawling out of the woodwork; a full-throated chorus of gospel singers joins the fray; and pretty soon everyone's stomping their feet and clapping their hands, until the room's rocking in a full-on jazz jam. Should you feel inspired, the congregation is invited to join the band — you can bring your own instrument or you can borrow a tambourine or sleigh bells. By the time you leave, you may find yourself wondering if it's pure coincidence that John Coltrane and Jesus Christ have the same initials.

Be a member of the wedding

In most towns, going down to City Hall to get hitched is about as romantic as getting your driver's license renewed. But most towns don't have a City Hall as magnificent as ours. Each year, hundreds of couples exchange vows in the stunning rotunda at the foot of the grand marble staircase, beneath the soaring copper dome of this 1915 French Renaissance masterpiece. Sometimes the ceremonies are conducted en masse, followed by a formal presentation of the newlyweds, who cascade down the stairs like they're walking on air. Sometimes, it's a quasi-celebrity shindig with the officiant being none other than the mayor himself.

Even if you're years away from marriage, or have sworn off commitment completely, you can't deny the power of a good three-hanky wedding, especially here. Trust me. Bring flowers and give them to a bride who's bouquet-less, be a witness for a couple who forgot to bring one, or just stand on the sidelines and beam like a silly schoolgirl as domestic partners seal the deal with a three-way kiss: husband, wife, and Superman cape-wearing toddler.

Somewhat adapted from the author's book San Francisco As You Like It: 23 Tailor-Made Tours for Culture Vultures, Shopaholics, Neo-Bohemians, Famished Foodies, Savvy Natives & Everyone Else, second edition, Ulysses Press, 2004.

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