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Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco by Gary Kamiya

July 26, 2015


This collection of essays about San Francisco is perhaps named for the 49 square miles that make up the uneven, unpredictable, unruly, seedy, beautiful, sometimes magical city by the Bay. Or maybe it’s named for 1849, the famous year of the Gold Rush, one of the events most responsible for making San Francisco what it is today. Could be either.

Like the city, these forty-nine short essays are random, surprising, sometimes delightful. Kamiya, a former taxi driver, seems to make a concerted effort to cover a hodgepodge of topics—everything from the prehistoric Bay (when bison, horses, camels, mastadons, mammoths, saber-tooth cats and dire wolves roamed what was then just a broad valley, land extending out to the Farallon Islands) to the Gold Rush, various buildings, parks, trails and other landmarks, famous and obscure. He sometimes uses the locations as trailheads for jaunts through history, but not always.

While forty-nine is significant, the collection would be improved by editing out seven or eight of the weaker essays. For example, the essay where Kumiya ponders the meaning of the 60s ends with a kind of inconclusive, non-committal shrug (perhaps an homage to that decade?). One would think there would be something definitive to say about a decade that in many ways defined San Francisco’s image, right or wrong. And another pass over the whole book to eliminate some of the less insightful musings (e.g. “The good thing about trails is that you don’t know where they’re going to end up.” Really?) could have strengthened what is, I think, a pretty strong book.

I have lived Oakland and worked in San Francisco for over a decade. It still doesn’t quite feel like home. And like many residents, I have mixed feelings about San Francisco’s various inconsistencies and hypocrisies. But San Francisco is without a doubt one of the most beautiful, most envied cities on the planet, something I usually take for granted. This book reminded me how lucky I am to live here. But more importantly, it caused me to open my eyes. To look down the alleys and up at the buildings. To imagine what it used to be like, why things are the way they are, to wonder what crazy stories have taken place on these streets I walk every day.

My favorite chapters include the aforementioned essay on the pre-historic Bay. Crossing the bridge on my commute, I sometimes try to picture a low grassy valley, a pack of dire wolves stalking a mastodon as it makes its way toward the ocean.

And the chapter on the Tenderloin, the “large turd” in the middle of San Francisco, a seedy neighborhood “populated by characters out of a Denis Johnson novel.” I have walked through the Tenderloin in the day and at night. Both can be exhilarating because it is real. It has not been cleaned up. The junkies and prostitutes and pimps and homeless have not been run out. The “Museum of Depravity” is still there, even as the city around it blows up with billions in gentrifying tech money yet again. Because San Francisco wants it that way—a heart that is left over from a different time, of a different world.

And the chapter about the Farallon Islands, 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, a National Wildlife Refuge that serves as home to 30,000 birds above the water. And below are whales, great white sharks, elephant seals and hundreds of other types of mammals and fish, oblivious hitchhikers on a geologic houseboat that, thanks to continental drift, is wandering northward at a relatively fast clip (the Farallons will be off the coast of Oregon in a mere 10 million years).

There’s a great chapter about the discovery of Drake’s Bay and Point Reyes, one of the most beautiful areas within the area. Another chapter about the famous, outspoken San Francisco newspaperman, Herb Caen. The best “random building” chapter, I think, is about the Hunters Point shipyard—alive and thriving during WWII (another favorite chapter is on San Francisco during WWII) but now standing vacant like a post-apocalyptic ghost town, a bastion of the forgotten Hunters Point neighborhood, one of the poorest, most neglected, most violent neighborhoods in the city.

Surprisingly, some of the most cliché San Francisco topics make for some of the best chapters: a beautiful portrait of the cable cars shutting down for the night, an essay that captures the madness of the Gold Rush, a comparison of the two big earthquakes, a short-but-sweet chapter on the Beats, the corruption-laden story of Chinatown and a buzzing portrait of the Ferry Building in the days before the Bay Bridge connected San Francisco to Oakland, when 60,000 people commuted through the “front door” daily.

Cool Gray City is scattershot, but flipping back through these chapters again, I’m reminded of how many little bits of trivia (some of it a little dubious, but most of them interesting) are packed into these essays. I’ve already given this book to a couple people when they moved to San Francisco. It’s a good read. It captures a mindset. And if you have a memory for it, this book arms you with hundreds of opportunities, over a cocktail or during a walk (probably up an impossibly steep street), to say, “Hey, do you know the story about…?”

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