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People Soup: Tourist Tourism
Dan Bollwinkel
3/24/2008



Golden Gate
There’s a little bar in the Tender-Nob (where the Tenderloin and Nob Hill meet) where a certain group of friends have long been gathering regularly to throw back a few and catch up on each others’ lives. In order to arrive at this long-time staple of my Bay Area existence, whether coming by train from my current home in the East Bay or my job downtown, it usually involves crossing through Union Square on foot. Typically, at all hours of day or night, this means wading through a sea of people armed with digital cameras and H&M bags so thick that you come out blinded and smelling like a cosmetics counter. That is, if you survive the cable cars: 15 tons of steel packed with Midwesterners careening down hills out of an M.C. Escher painting with a semi-well paid driver and one handbrake between you and whatever god you profess. And for some reason I never seem to mind. In fact, I occasionally go out of my way for the people-watching. That’s right, I am a self-proclaimed tourist tourist.

Everyday, just like hundreds of thousands of other people that live and work around the Bay Area, I traverse “tourist” landscapes and attractions. So how does my interaction with the tourists and the tourist economy of my adopted city affect me? How do we view each other? And in the end, aren’t we all tourists? It’s a fact that we live in a tourist economy. Our everyday surroundings have become tourist attractions and more and more of the environment of this city is being constructed with the wandering gaze of the tourist in mind. One of the many eccentricities of life in a city filled with eccentrics is that the tourist economy is celebrated by some, loathed by a few and accepted by most. The sites and sights discussed here may seem obvious, but I’m merely trying to point out that we tend to take for granted areas of the city we deem “just for tourists,” thus missing out on some potentially great experiences.




The Red Room
Union Square and the Red Room

Up there with Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square is one of those San Francisco clichés where unabashed consumerism is couched in some form of alleged historical authenticity. Slap a monument in the middle of an urban mall and there you have it: tourists will come there to buy shit, just because. But for those of us whose livelihoods are somehow tied with this locale, whether via commuting to the office or the bar, Union Square provides us with a much-needed glimpse into the outside world. Like it or not, San Francisco, like New York City, and as much as I hate to say it, Los Angeles, is pretty much its own little country. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. But we tend to get lost in our NPR and fair trade coffee and foggy summers and obscure Italian liqueurs (fun fact: 50% of the Fernet Branca sold in the entire United States is sold within San Francisco city limits), losing sight of the greater human community, most of whom have never tasted soy milk or a latte, for that matter. Look no further, Union Square is where to find them. And its outlying areas are where the world of tourists and locals, and more and more the Academy of Art University, intersect.

There’s no danger of outing my super-secret watering hole by mentioning it here. The Red Room is perhaps one of the best-known watering holes in San Francisco amongst “locals” and tourists alike. Due to its location on the fringes of Union Square, in the aforementioned Tender-Nob, the Red Room attracts a wide array of patrons. This cozy bar is emblematic of the city itself and the landscapes discussed here. Tourists, locals, regulars and even the occasional well-behaved puppy successfully mingle and take what they will from their interactions at Red Room.

The beauty of drinking in such an atmosphere lies in the alchemy of curiosity, gregariousness and booze. You never encounter the same crowd, aside from your fellow regulars. It is a veritable UN of drinking. Surrounded by an equal mix of apartment buildings, hotels, hostels, and the ever-multiplying Academy of Art University “campuses,” the Red Room is smack dab in the center of one of the city’s most divergent geographies. People from all over the city, and simultaneously the world, come together for cocktails in perfect harmony. The Red Room would make for an outstanding sociology dissertation, or at the very least, a Billy Joel song.




The Red Room
Our Proudest Erection: The Golden Gate Bridge and Spencer Battery

Of course the singular distinctive icon of San Francisco is the Golden Gate Bridge. Aside from its global status as the symbol of our fair city to everyone from farmers in Kansas to tribesmen in the Kalahari Desert, the bridge is perhaps the most interesting site of intersection between daily life and tourism in the entire Bay Area. Millions of people fly from thousands of miles away, on vacations of a lifetime, to take a picture of one of the most photographed works of architecture in history, which so happens to be the very same bridge that hundreds of thousands of people commute across to work on a daily basis. Think of all those grumpy souls with coffee mugs clenched in one hand ending up as background minutiae in someone’s favorite vacation photo. Then think about that photo eventually ending up on that person’s desk at work thousands of miles away: a photo that they’ll look at and think of happier times as they sit there grumpy and clutching a coffee mug. Where tourism and the real world collide: everything comes full circle.

And just when it couldn’t get any stranger, in a clear indicator of the continual trend toward marketing, there is now talk between the public and the Golden Gate Bridge District of selling advertising space on both the northern and southern approaches to the bridge. I can see how this one might play out: Viagra puts together an impressive package celebrating one of the world’s most famous erections, but Cialis beats them out at the last minute with a campaign celebrating one of the world’s longest lasting erections. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in that boardroom…

But seriously, if you’re ever feeling despondent about life in the Bay Area, certainly don’t jump off the bridge, just drive over it and get off at Alexander Drive. Take a left heading toward the Marin Headlands and pull over at the top of the first hill, a half-mile up the road or so. This is Battery Spencer, former home to 3 enormous cannons designed to protect the bay from whatever foreign hoards might have invaded the west coast during
the first half of the twentieth century. Today foreign hordes come here to take pictures of perhaps the greatest and most publicly accessible view in the world. When the fog isn’t lingering around the towers like cotton on a Q-tip, you can see almost the entire Bay Area sprawling out behind the bridge. From this air one gathers the true immensity of the towers as well as a stunning profile of the city’s figure.

I like to head up there from time to time and take pictures of other people taking pictures of other people. It’s kind of like dating someone extremely good looking. Everyone wants to stare and take pictures of my city. After just a few minutes up on the hill at Battery Spencer your ego swells so much with civic pride that you forget all about the fact that the dollar amount of your monthly rent exceeds your square footage by a four digit number.




Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach: Surfers and Tourists and Dogs… Oh My!

In my opinion, the best cup of people soup in San Francisco, pound for pound, is the stretch of Ocean Beach along the Great Highway just north of 19th Avenue. On any given afternoon, barring winds that turn the entire place into a sandblasting factory, a cross section of humanity that rivals Times Square is out there doing any number of savory and unsavory things. If the conditions are right, someone is throwing an outdoor rave around an enormous bonfire, providing a droning, thudding soundtrack to your visit. Couples walk-hand-in hand past tourists standing before the mighty Pacific for the first time. Any number of projectiles traverse the sky, with dogs, children and hippies in mirthful pursuit. Joggers trot past panhandlers while young teenagers huddle together and cough on cigarettes. Wedding parties directed by photographers saunter awkwardly across the dark sand to the sea where they loll about like some confused amphibious landing force, Hummer stretch limos idling in the parking lot awaiting orders for the next sortie. Surfers run to and fro in the riptide, most just hoping to make it out to the breakers. And the whole scene is framed by enormous concrete barriers that are shaped like the scoop of a bulldozer, ready to shove the whole fascinating mess into the frothy Pacific.

This is not a beach for taking a casual swim or getting some sun. Most of the time the surf is extremely burly with the aforementioned riptides dragging people half way to Korea on a regular basis. And the fog is perpetual. The irony of naming the district of the city that buttresses this stretch of Ocean Beach “The Sunset” doesn’t escape the residents of these avenues. They rarely ever see a sunset, or the sun for that matter. But
it is a beach for taking a walk amongst the strangest mix of folks you may ever encounter and getting a realistic portrait of the make-up of San Francisco that you won’t find on any packaged tour. Needless to say, I never set foot on Ocean Beach without a camera.

Conclusions

I see a great value in considering one’s self a tourist in one’s own city. Think of what is missed by enclosing yourself in a bubble of local exclusivity. We have such a rare anthropological opportunity as residents of such a unique and wonderful place: the world comes to us, in a sense. And we might as well embrace it, because as the city evolves, it’s becoming more and more apparent that daily life and commerce is inseparable from tourism.

Just as cable cars weren’t originally designed to ferry throngs of tourists or grace the covers of boxes of processed rice products, sites such as One Rincon Hill, the now tallest residential structure on the west coast that has redefined the city’s skyline, and the proposed monstrosity of Transbay Terminal, seem to be destined to add to the already mystical aesthetic draw of San Francisco. And I, for one, hope this means even more opportunities to take pictures of people taking pictures of other people.

Postscript
We at NFT are deeply saddened to report that shortly after this story went to press the beloved Red Room closed its doors for good. While details remain sketchy, all parties involved are certain that the Academy of Art University, mentioned in this article, and its unchecked acquisition of property in San Francisco is to blame. These nights many a sad drinker wanders the streets of the Tender-Nob pining for faux vinyl booths bathed in Red light. A comparable cosmo will surely never be found. Good night, sweet prince...




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