San Francisco's Folded Surface vs. New York's Verticality
One thing that will never cease to delight me about San Francisco is that it constantly juxtaposes itself with itself. Every street promises a different perspective, every turn a different view. This city is a crumpled piece of paper, an endlessly modulated surface, a billowed plane.
New York — the New York I remember growing up in, the Manhattan of the 70s — is a city of heights and depths. As you ramble through its tenement girded corridors, you feel the belly of the beast quite literally grumble to unimaginable depths. What's down there? you wonder at times. But, for the most part, you just assume that the ground you walk on gives way to a baroque universe of oddity, wonder, and curiosity. Meanwhile, above you, mystery maintains its grip. What happens in those offices, those penthouses? Not that you care but it's safe to assume that something is going on....
San Fransisco does not know depths and heights. There is no real subway — and, no, BART doesn't count: it's a commuter train. It does not crisscross the guts of the city. And while there are a few taller buildings, they live amongst themselves and are bereft of mystery.
Even its one signature skyscraper, the Transamerica Pyramid, is not like its imposing siblings in Manhattan. No, the Transamerica Pyramid is friendly to pedestrians, offering itself with great generosity as its contours mimic the walker's line of sight. Which is to say, from down below, we can still take in the enormous edifice, visually make sense of it. (In NY, skyscrapers loom heavy: they are walls to be walked by. Even when you crane your neck, it's impossible to take them in.)
And this is true of San Francisco as a whole: it is generous, offering itself up to those who desire. San Francisco is not a difficult city to master. Sure, there are some urban planning oddities — the way Market cuts at angle can be confusing for a while or the way 3rd St intersects 22nd St. It is a peninsula, after all, which sometimes makes it difficult to remember which side has the ocean and which side has the Bay (ocean, west; bay, east).
And, yes, there are nuggets that will surprise you — a first-run movie theater in West Portal; a second run double feature way the fuck out on Balboa; Vietnamese food on Noriega; sushi in a place that seats around 10 and is only open 3-4 nights a week on Arguello, tucked next to the park; an outpost of Samovar across from the Zen Center on Laguna, affording a respite from the fray; handball courts in that enormous, wondrous park that enjoys a whiff of the wild. (NY's Central Park, an amazing park, is much more sophisticated, made for strolling. Golden Gate Park, true to the way of the West, is made for exploring.)
But all these things are fundamentally available, there for the taking. They are obscured by a hill, nuzzled behind a neighborhood, but they are not forever out of view. In NY, there is always something else, something you don't know about, something weirder, cooler, more expensive, less expensive, something you will never be privy to and probably don't want to be privy to.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, gems may not always sit right in front of you but if you peek around the corner, hike over the hill, you'll find them.