This might seem silly, but I got acquainted with San Francisco through an old PC racing game, Midtown Madness 2. The game featured two cities, San Francisco and London. I was 13 years old and played all sorts of racing games… The Porsche part of Need for Speed (NFS 5) was always my favorite. And then came the Test Drive Unlimited, which blew my mind. And, of course, Grand Theft Auto III (although I did play the second GTA, but the third person shooter made the game iconic to me and so popular among many of my guy friends at school). I had an old computer that always froze when I tried to park my car at the safe haven garage, so I never managed to finish the game because I had to restart the computer and go back to the same mission over and over and couldn’t save my progress. I finished Vice city and San Andreas several times though…
But we’ve diverted from the topic…
I get incredibly nostalgic every time I think about San Francisco. Not only because it reminds me of the innocent times of my youth when all I did after school was play my favorite racing games. I visited the city once when I was 15 and then for the second time a couple of years ago. The first time, we spent something like 3 days in San Francisco. This time was enough for me to fall in love with this city. Ever since, I dreamt of coming back to SF.
So the very first spring break in America, I took a friend with me and flew to California.
This time, the city appeared much less fairy-tale-like to me. The Midtown Madness associations were still there. I remembered how I drove around in a Hummer at 150 mph, smashing into beautiful cathedrals and Victorian-style buildings and trying to get away from police cars chasing me. Speeding on the Golden Gate bridge. Drowning in the SF bay. The game used to be so detailed, and even the map of the city was so accurate that I really felt like I knew the city before I discovered it with my own eyes.
But SF beats any other city I’ve ever been to in quantity of bums on the street. Interestingly, bums in San Francisco are very intrusive. If you pretend to not hear them yelling at you and ordering you to give them your money, they’ll catch up with you and pat you on your shoulder to make sure you heard their demands. This was incredibly annoying to me. But since we lived downtown, we had to put up with the bums for 10 days.
SF became much more real to me when I visited for the second time. There’s a huge aesthetic difference between districts of SF. It’s a very segregated city. You will literally cross an intersection from an affluent neighborhood to a neighborhood downtown and see many more bums, gums and cigarette butts on the ground. Some neighborhoods are always crowded, loud, and dirty, and some look like an upscale all-white country side, very green, clean and quiet.
The guide book I read on the plane on the way to San Francisco contained a very detailed description of places where I shouldn’t go after around 9 p.m. Some of these dangerous places are downtown, in the very heart of the city, with bars, movie theaters, and concert halls. Interestingly, the book said something like “avoid western side of the 3d, eastern side of the 4th, and northern side of the 1st. When coming from the 5th to the 2d, turn right on the 4d and left on the 3d.” Anyways, one wrong turn, and you’re screwed.
I liked Castro a lot. This is the gay district in San Francisco. There’s a theory about gay people being this creative class in America. They come in and transform a neighborhood. They bring in business, money, beauty, and style. This is exactly what happened in Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle. No one wanted to live there because of crime, riots, and unemployment. Then the gays came in and made Dupont Circle the best neighborhood in DC. The best bars, restaurants, and small art galleries are there.
Finally, SF is full of great street art. Notably, graffiti. Oh yes, and wonderful small bookstores with very friendly and intelligent employees.