We’ve already established that when it comes to San Francisco, I’m pretty clueless. I don’t understand the city’s neighborhood boundaries; its streets, lacking a numbered, lettered, logical grid system, leave me disoriented and, too often, sputtering elaborate and nonsensical profanities. If you asked, I couldn’t recommend a nice place for lunch or a favorite bar to go grab a beer.
So even though part of me feels I should be entitled to love San Francisco, I’ve never been able to say the words without feeling like a poser. The weird thing is, I can fall head over heels for a foreign city or country mere days or weeks after arriving, and all it takes is natural or architectural beauty, friendly people, a welcoming vibe. But drop me somewhere closer to home and I can’t help but feel I’ve got to earn the right to love it. I need extensive stays and intimate knowledge, blisters from walking too far, late nights at off-the-radar bars, the kinds of trying subway experiences that will make the locals smile knowingly.
And as of late, I’ve been wondering if maybe it’s time I try to feel that way about San Francisco. So last week, when I set out to “rediscover” this city I never really knew, I wanted to make sure I stuck to the places I really didn’t know at all. I wanted to focus more on neighborhoods than iconic activities, to seek out quirky little landscape features rather than stand-out monuments and attractions. And I already had my first destination in mind when I arrived in the city last Wednesday morning: the Sunset.
“The Sunset,” I’m led to believe, is the sort of generalized term only the uninitiated would use. That’s because the area feels as if it’s roughly the size of Rhode Island, and so is further divided into at least two distinct neighborhoods (that I know of): the Inner Sunset and the Outer Sunset. The Inner Sunset begins inland at 19th Ave.; the Outer Sunset ends to the west of that, around the time you cross over 48th Ave. and realize you’re about to dead-end at the Pacific Ocean. I cannot even begin to comprehend the spatial implications of its northern and southern borders other than to tell you that between Golden Gate Park and Stern Grove, there’s apparently a hell of a lot of neighborhood.
I’d never known much about the Sunset, but what I had heard had always sounded pretty great: it’s close to the beach; it’s got actual free-standing houses rather than apartment buildings; it’s where urban surfers live. So it had always surprised me to hear the way San Franciscans would often dismiss the neighborhood: it’s far from the city’s center, people will tell you; its public transportation options are pretty limited; and, being the closest neighborhood to the ocean, it gets more of those famous foggy days than anywhere else in town.
The Sunset even apparently used to be called “the Outside Lands,” which sounds like the kind of place you’d contract dysentery looking for on the Oregon Trail. After spending an afternoon wandering the neighborhood from east to west, I met a woman at dinner who happened to live in the Sunset. I told her where I’d been that day and she answered, “On purpose?” So this wasn’t exactly the kind of destination I had in mind because Lonely Planet told me it was a “can’t-miss.”
But here’s the thing: I kind of loved it. I loved the sight of the entire neighborhood from the hilltop park on 16th Ave., the way the rooftops were low enough for an unobstructed view out to the ocean but colorful enough to distract me from looking all the way out to the waves. I loved the whimsically tiled, vertigo-inducing stairway up to that park. I loved seeing front lawns and crossing the quiet streets without stopping to look both ways; passing periwinkle-, sea-foam-, and violet-hued stucco houses all on the same block. I loved how any signs of commerce — the raw food restaurants, the coffee shops — were all clustered into the last few blocks before the beach. By the time I reached the Great Highway, running along the ocean at the city’s western edge, I had yet to see any fog. It was still so sunny, in fact, that I’d shed two layers of clothing and reapplied my SPF 30. I grinned with dopey “Dammit, this is cool” awe at a guy sanding his surfboard in his garage with the door open to the salt air. I yanked off my boots, rolled my sleeves up past my shoulders, and sat on a burnt log on the sand, watching the waves while my earbuds pumped out piano and strings. And when I had to take three different buses to get back to my hostel near Union Square, I didn’t even mind much. It seemed that mostly, I loved this part of the city precisely because it was so far away.
I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface here; hardly conducted a comprehensive study by foot. I’m sure I would have been much less willing to overlook the hassle of the trek to and from the Sunset were it tacked onto both ends of a long work day. I’ll bet I would have found my 30-plus-block walk from the 16th Ave. steps to the ocean far less charming, would have spent the afternoon cursing the fog, had the city not been in the middle of a welcome hot snap. Reason persists in reminding me there are days’, weeks’, months’ worth of Sunset streets I didn’t have time to turn down. And instead of telling you I didn’t get to the San Francisco Zoo or Lake Merced or Stern Grove, I’ll just go ahead and admit I wasn’t even aware at the time that they were landmarks of the neighborhood.
But I suppose that’s one of the great things about travelling locally: you can take your time, be aimless, skip the guidebooks, and leave a few days later without worrying you’ve missed something. Because there’s no reason there can’t always be a “next time.”