The Richmond

Though Thursday is usually my day off, my work requested me to come in on Nov. 1 to do the Richmond route.

With pleasure, said I. The Richmond route is barely any work at all.  It is a chance to spend the day threading through the avenues of one of San Francisco’s most vintage and rarefied neighborhoods, checking in on old gems like the Simple Pleasures café on Balboa St. and finding new ones up and down Clement St.

The Richmond comprises one half of “The Avenues,” with the Sunset District making up the other half. The two neighborhoods are separated by the 3X1/2-mile Golden Gate Park. In the old days, this was all considered the Outside Lands, suitable for burying the dead and various semi-rural enterprises, but well outside the understood confines of San Francisco proper.

Later, when all of the Outside Lands were appropriated and added to San Francisco’s infrastructure, a street grid was quickly drawn up with a series of numbered avenues stretching from 2nd Avenue to 48th running all the way down to the seashore.

Interestingly enough, there is no 1st Avenue in this grid. In its place is Arguello Blvd. But the Richmond really begins the block before Arguello, at a place called the Columbarium.

The Columbarium

The Columbarium

The Columbarium is a functioning mausoleum, the last of its kind in a part of San Francisco that used to exclusively house the city’s graveyards before they were relocated en masse to Colma. Today the Columbarium sits remotely at the end of an unlikely residential cul-de-sac, forever linking the Richmond’s modern residents with their predecessors in the cities of the dead

If you’re used to the distance between one numbered street and the next in the Mission or SOMA (the walk between 16th St and 24th St for example), the Avenues will pass by astonishingly quickly. The numbered streets in total run from 1st to about 29th, while the Avenues run from 2nd to 48th, yet it will take you less than half the time to traverse those avenues than it will the Streets.

It’s easy to think you’re somewhere else entirely when you’re out in the Avenues with the varied immigrants and the weather that blots out any of the telltale landmarks of the City. At times like this, only the familiar street signs, such as Geary, remind you that you’re still in SF.

For three reasons, there is an equality of grimness in the Avenues, a grimness that I find invigorating. The first reason is the people: The Avenues’ story is the immigrant’s story; a legacy of burden, trouble, and sorrow. To be sure, this seems like a chess-playing class of immigrant, someone as likely to be in the US for intellectual freedom as economic opportunity, but with a slight penumbra of sadness nonetheless.

Then there’s the weather. If there’s any one thing San Francisco is known for, it’s having the coldest summers in the country. And when it comes to cold summers, the Avenues (especially the Richmond side) are San Francisco’s San Francisco, socked in all summer long under a blanket of fog wet and cold enough to make visitors from less rigorous neighborhoods like the Mission freeze up on contact.

Combining the robust fog with the long daylight hours of summer, you end up with a season of extended dim twilight, not unlike a Scandinavian winter, and the effect it has on people.

An equality of grimness.

An equality of grimness.

Thirdly, the architecture conspires to downplay expectations in the Richmond. None of the structures, commercial or residential, are particularly high-end or optimistic in appearance, let alone ostentatious. What fuels this place is not its physical attributes, but the human spirit–which takes us full circle back to the immigrants.

They possess the baggage of the past but also the keys to the future. The cause of their sorrows is an ocean behind them. They are here for new beginnings, free to pursue their happiness and all that stuff, though happiness may be too gauche a word for what happens in the Richmond.

There aren’t many signs of conspicuous fun or decadence; but there’s not a lot of unhappiness either.

For all the above-mentioned reasons, the Avenues seem like a great place to grow up. All the stuff that seemed to matter so much when I was a kid in SoCal simply doesn’t appear to factor in here. The consumerism is not very conspicuous. The beach is not a Baywatch shooting location. The Richmond is not a climate conducive to showing off a body, a tan, or athletic prowess.

In the summer sun, flowers grow taller, beauty shines brighter, but not in the Richmond. It’s a place for long walks and deep thinking, for winter activity all summer long. As a kid, the summer is when you’re supposed to blossom, shine, and conquer. But in the Avenues, it’s just about getting through summer.

Not a Baywatch location shoot.

Not a Baywatch location shoot.

Even though the Richmond is part of San Francisco, SFers make it out there less often than they go to Berkeley or Oakland. The problem with the Avenues is that it’s hard to get past those Midtown barriers; there’s no painless way to get through that Van Ness to Stanyan stretch. But once you do get through, and especially once you get past 19th Avenue, you’re home free. There are hardly any traffic lights in evidence. You can relax and stretch out a little. There’s elbow room and leg room. The closer you get to the beach, the less infrastructure there seems to be. Parking becomes easier.

That’s your reward if you come out to the Richmond.

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The Simple Pleasures café. The name says it all. This coffeehouse is reminiscent of the Haight or Valencia in the Bush/Quayle years. There are no electronic devices or ulterior motives on display here, just pure slacking. There’s a help wanted sign on the front window. Somebody’s dream could be made right here right now.

Maybe way out here in the Outer Richmond, they haven’t heard of gentrification or Google buses yet. Out here, the signs suggest you can still make it work with a job in a café; maybe somebody knows of a room in a house for the right kind of person at 20th Century rents. Out here in the Avenues, a San Francisco life can still be created on idealism and unskilled labor alone, just like the old days.

Before I know it, I have run out of continent. I have reached the coastline where the American landmass meets the mighty Pacific, which occupies fully 1/3 of the earth’s surface.  Rarely in this world are two realms as sharply delineated as land and sea. With entities the size of continents and oceans, you expect a much wider buffer zone for these two intrinsically opposite forces to meet and fight it out, possibly a time zone or two, but there is nothing more than the euphonic tug of war between wet sand and dry sand.

I take a left on the Great Highway and head south, merging with the coast for a short spell, just until the first light, where I turn left again. East.

I’m on Lincoln now, heading back to the City along the southern perimeter of Golden Gate Park, the Sunset side. I’m struck by the abundance of barely street legal trailers, trucks, and other axle-borne live-work spaces that are parked snugly against the parkside curb. What a stroke of genius to dock here and attach yourself to this 1,000 acre public green. Between your passenger-side and the park nothing gets in the way, no sidewalk, no joggers, no poodles on leashes. Just you and your ride flush up against the mile-deep botany of Golden Gate Park.

Whatever’s happening in San Francisco’s interior, the Outside Lands are still moving to the beat of their own drum, and out here you can bet it’s a circle, not a machine.

Heading south along the Great Highway.

Heading south along the Great Highway.

1 comment for “The Richmond

  1. December 4, 2012 at 2:43 am

    Yeah Will. When I first moved to SF, a primal force beckoned me to head west and explore. I knew the ocean was there, so I just walked up Stanyan and turned left, without having any idea what lay between me and the sea. That was how I discovered Clement St., the Balboa Theatre, as well as the buffalo in the park, and that is why I still love going to the Richmond.

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