Once a week or more, I walk at dusk along San Francisco’s northern waterfront. From that spot, I can see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Crissy Marsh, the hills of Marin and the East Bay, and in the distance the Palace of Fine Arts and the city’s shimmering skyline.
It is a spot of staggering beauty, and on sunny days it is jammed with walkers, bicyclists, wind surfers, kite fliers and dogs of all sorts – from scraggly mutts to pups with fancy pedigrees. Late in the day, though, the crowd thins out, and it is easier to absorb the texture of the place. The brown pelicans, egrets, sea gulls, shorebirds and blue herons hunting their next meals. The container ships slipping under the Golden Gate Bridge, heading to distant realms. The fading sunlight making the city’s skyscrapers sparkle.
It is impossible to deny the exquisiteness of the place. It took me some time, however, to come to love San Francisco – on my own terms – after I first moved here 35 years ago. I had grown up in Southern California – in Santa Monica, where I loved the wide beaches and chaparral-covered mountains. After college, I spent almost a decade in Sacramento, where I loved the rivers, the canopy of trees and the old-time feel of many neighborhoods, where it seemed that time had stopped sometime before World War II.
So I had little patience for the chest-thumping pronouncements I heard from those San Franciscans who contended their city was the most wonderful metropolis on Earth and that all other cities were pale by comparison. Particularly annoying were the individuals who dismissed Los Angeles as a cesspool of freeways and smog. Usually, I said nothing when I listened to the boosters. But I would remind myself of what I heard the late Mary Holmes, a University of California, Santa Cruz, art history professor who had taught at UCLA, say once. “It is easy to love San Francisco,’’ she observed. “You have to find Los Angeles.”
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As the years went by, I realized that many San Francisco boosters had a constricted geographical sense of the city that encompassed only the well-to-do neighborhoods, the upscale restaurants and the smorgasbord of museums, opera, symphony and ballet. To them, the Mission district did not beckon, and neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, the Bayview and Hunters Point were places they knew about only from crime stories they read.
Spending three decades as a reporter here, I went on assignments to all corners of the city and found a San Francisco worth loving. It bore little resemblance to the city described with such braggadocio by the boosters. Mine is a love shaped by how I begin the day, swimming in the bay next to Fisherman’s Wharf, by how I often end the day with walks in parks or by the waterfront, and by all facets of the city I have come to know – the good and the bad. With this love, there is no need to pronounce San Francisco the fairest of them all.