[Paul Madonna, the well-known San Francisco artist who beautifully illustrated my book A Writer’s San Francisco, was recently seriously injured in a car accident. I am wishing him a very speedy recovery and wanted to share with you a few pieces from that book that he enriched so much.]
I’m American by birth but an urban writer by nature. My true homes are Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, San Francisco, and the world’s resonant cities. I am calmest in a Paris jostle or a Manhattan stampede and edgiest hiking a mountain trail or shopping at Wal-Mart. Everything in the universe may be equally spiritual but not equally congenial to a blue-state person like myself with a horror of orthodoxy and of the grandiosity of ordinary people.
I need cafés and bars where everyone is an outsider. I need bookstores, small parks with a comforting glimpse of the concrete beyond, and markets filled with people speaking languages I don’t understand. I need a place with more knowing smiles than blank stares and more wry asides than hate-filled sermons. I need a place a full standard deviation above the mean. I therefore choose to live in a village neighborhood of San Francisco where, when a house catches on fire, half the people who rush out to watch are Spanish-speaking ladies and the other half are working-from-home lesbian graphic artists.
The neighborhood is called Bernal Heights. Many of the homes are Edwardians from the post-Earthquake years of 1907 and 1908. This area of San Francisco, anchored by Bernal Hill and bounded on the west by Mission Street, on the east by Bayshore Boulevard, on the south by Ale-many Boulevard, and on the north by Cesar Chavez Street, is reputed to have San Francisco’s best seismic properties. The well-heeled middle class of 1907 built homes here after the Great Earthquake to take advantage of its bedrock, then abandoned them after World War II, as the Latin population of the Mission District encroached. Gangs flourished, and lesbian couples arrived to buy affordable homes.
Now it is in transition again as “Noe Valley families,” young urban professional couples with a small child, an infant, and a dog in tow, further gentrify this sunny spot. These young families come here because of their dogs—a little joke, but a half-truth. Bernal Heights is the dog-friendliest San Francisco neighborhood, since Bernal Hill is an off-leash heaven for dogs and their masters. The Hill boasts 360-degree views of San Francisco and dogs by the dozens, trained to be civilized at local dog manner classes. For the dogs, it is a mixed blessing: very little poison oak but many foxtails.
Bernal Hill soars five hundred feet above the surrounding roofs of Victorians and Edwardians. You can spy the Golden Gate Bridge to the west, Mount Diablo to the east, and all of the Mission and Downtown directly in front of you. It is the perfect place to watch the fog roll in and the last place the fog gathers. People come here from all over the city to watch the Fourth of July fireworks, as might we, if fireworks moved us.
Ours is an Edwardian flat, the second floor of a two-family home, that lives large at 950 square feet. It has a double parlor, that traditional Edwardian feature, a sleeping bedroom, a bedroom/study, a single bathroom, and a large eat-in kitchen that we use as our primary living space. With its tall ceilings, generous windows, good light, and million-dollar view, the kitchen is where my wife, Ann, and I drink wine and catch up. We have a pair of director’s chairs by the window, a small table in between, and greenery, freeways, and the Bay beyond.
Since it faces east, the kitchen is sunniest in the morning; as the earth moves, the double parlor at the western end of the flat begins to warm up. In the afternoon, the living room sofa is the place to nap—if we napped. We have a string of small Christmas lights wrapped around the banister, one white orchid on a stereo speaker, and Ann’s raku vases on the tables. The street outside is sunny and windy, the doorbell has a ghost in it and rings of its own accord once every two weeks, and my mother’s cane, which she uses on visits, doubles as sculpture.
To see my creativity coaching clients, I walk down the hill a block and then head west three short blocks to Progressive Grounds Café. I pass the upscale vegetarian restaurant, the Catholic church, the senior center, the yoga studio, the blues bar with live music, the Italian bistro where we are mocked for ordering so little (one pizza to share and two glasses of wine), and Red Hill Books, named for the time when Bernal Hill was a hotbed of labor organizing and Communist sympathizing.
In good weather, which is virtually year-round, I meet with clients out back, where a two-level patio smelling of jasmine is home to thirty-something Bernal ladies-who-lunch, delicately munching on the best falafel, hot-pressed in phyllo dough rather than stuffed in pita bread, and to students studying. There is always sun, and there is always shade; the Arabic torch music playing inside doesn’t reach outdoors; and the stillness, punctuated by light conversation, is palpable.
This is the right place for a coach to meet with a writer. It is also the right place to write. It has a perfect tattooed Zen ambience, a place where body piercings and inner calm meet, where an idea, any idea—a really stupid one, a salacious one, a radical one, an excellent one—is supported by strong coffee, a brick fireplace filled with toys, and a shelf of free books to borrow. Nature gives us thirty years or a hundred, a quill pen or its equivalent, and odd thoughts that need to settle on paper or else turn to dust. In Bernal Heights, they settle nicely.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock