Sentimental Journey: Traveling in 1957's S.F. Bay Area

If the ingredients of comedy are tragedy plus time, the formula for nostalgia must be time plus banality. Given ample years, everyday items morph from detritus to conversations to treasures. As Belloq told Indiana Jones just before entombing him, “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.”

Which brings us to Let's Go: A Family Guide to Fun in the Bay Area. Published by the Richmond branch of the American Association of University Women, and listed as being the brainchild of a Mrs. Paul Chiles, Let's Go hails from a time when women could go to universities, earn degrees, and put lots of letters after their names — just not their own names. That injustice notwithstanding, a cheerful atomic-age family emblazons its cover, complete with a cheerful mom dressed like Wendy from Peter Pan, a cheerful dad eerily resembling a pregnant Billy Bob Thornton in a lumberjack shirt, and two cheerful kids.

The year 1957 was squarely in the middle of the decade-long stretch during which America transformed from a nation in which no one had a TV to a one where people had a TV in every room. As such, many of the “fun” outings this guidebook recommends demand an attention span longer than — stop looking at your phone!

What did Mrs. Chiles and company consider fun in '57? Trainspotting — literally. “Just watching trains pull into or out of the station gives a thrill to 'car bound' youngsters and grown ups alike,” reads the guide. There must have been some truth in this, as trainyards offered group tours.

If trains are a thrill, what are planes? “Airports are exciting!” notes the text. “Children and adults alike love to watch the big wings come in and take off.” San Francisco International Airport has “many interesting planes and people to see” — in that order. You could even tour the control tower or United Airlines maintenance shop. Needless to say, you can't do that now. And if you could, the folks with the rubber gloves would be asking to see inside the bulge in pregnant Billy Bob Thornton's lumberjack shirt.

Once you've hit planes and trains, you need automobiles. Driving was big in 1957. A suggested treat for out-of-towners is “The Three-Bridge Tour,” a voyage across the Golden Gate, Bay, and “new” Richmond-San Rafael bridges as an end in itself. Today, we can agree that a trip without a destination has its advantages. Kids, for one, can't yell, “Are we there yet?” It'd be like dividing by zero.

Blessed with the hindsight of 54 years, the Let's Go description of the Ferry Building is surprisingly poignant. The aforementioned “children and adults alike” could take in the “Paradise Panorama,” a 600-foot-long, three-dimensional relief map of California. Half a century ago, something as wondrous — and wondrously impractical — as a 70-ton map was not only conceivable but on public display — for free. As cars replaced ferries, the Ferry Building fell into decline. Many years and millions of dollars later, it's beautiful again. But now the Ferry Building features artisanal cheeses for new San Franciscans instead of wonders for families of old. Today that extravagant map is moldering in 73 boxes in a warehouse at the port. Like a single-screen movie palace, it was just too beautiful — and expensive — to exist.

The other suggestion Let's Go makes for a Ferry Building family outing is illuminating: No child should miss the “comprehensive display of minerals” exhibited by the Division of Mines. Family outings to view comprehensive displays of minerals in the 1950s essentially explain the 1960s: The children forced to look at stones in 1957 would be getting stoned in 1967.

Families of the day could also enjoy Playland at the Beach. The waterfront amusement park, sadly, ceased to exist back in the Nixon years. Had it not, today's bloggers would, undoubtedly, troll for readership by keeping a running count of the near-daily stabbings that would occur there in modern times. Today's San Franciscans can also no longer pay their respects to the Gjoa, the vessel of polar explorer Roald Amundsen, which was unceremoniously mounted at the cusp of Golden Gate Park like an oversize miniature golf obstacle. In 1972 the Norwegians took it back; it draws thousands of visitors yearly in Oslo. The San Francisco Maritime Museum, meanwhile, is still here — its “pictorial representation of the handling of general cargo in the Port of San Francisco” a reflection of an era when the port still did that.

You can also still go to Coit Tower (“interesting murals”), Lombard Street (“an interesting byway”), Chinatown (“an interesting Oriental atmosphere”), the Wells Fargo Headquarters (“interesting mementos of early California”), the California Historical Society (“interesting California historical items”), and, of course, the aforementioned airport, home of “interesting planes and people.”

San Francisco, it would seem, is interesting. For all that's changed, that hasn't.

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