Thursday, February 04, 2010

Slow Ride

"Seeing through the Fog" may be the best guidebook to San Francisco ever written.  Its secret: it doesn't rely on a professional reviewer.  Instead, it consists of dozens of mini-articles written by local high school students.  Each is told in the student's own voice, on whatever subject they feel like discussing.  This does include, for example, a chapter on cable cars (written by the daughter of a gripman) and on Alcatraz, but the majority of the book is devoted to topics like the best burritos, underground graffiti art, why the Sunset is so boring, doggie haute couture... all sorts of stuff.

The book is a project of 826 Valencia, McSweeney's non-profit publishing arm devoted to youth advancement.  The student authors come from a huge variety of racial and financial backgrounds, with pretty much everyone represented: Black, White, Hispanic, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, etc.  They even manage to snag several native San Franciscans, which is very rare, and one fourth-generation resident, which is unheard of.  Some came to this country to seek asylum and see the city through the critically proud eyes of an outsider; others grew up here.  In one section that I violently disagreed with, the author tries to convince you that Sacramento is a much better city than San Francisco.  Still, it's the fact that you get such a variety of perspectives that makes this book great.  You have chapters that moan about all the tourists in Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf, but also chapters that take those places seriously and describe what's worth seeking out there.  A significant minority of the book is devoted to the Sunset, which is one of the largest residential neighborhoods in the city but isn't even included on many tourist maps.  Reading all of these chapters helps you get an idea of the place: quiet, cold, foggy, peaceful, inexpensive.  You may love or hate it, just like the writers love or hate it, and since each section is written in the author's own voice, you can get a better idea for how to respond to their suggestions.

(That said, one nice and minor improvement would have been to cross-reference the chapters.  I'm thinking of one section that gave encouraging rah-rah prose about how great the theater district and City Hall are.  The architecture is nice, but anyone who's been here knows that you do not want to be walking around that part of town, especially after dark.  The book is designed for browsing and flipping and exploring, so the occasional warning would be good.)

The book is brilliantly and loosely structured into three broad categories.  The first is highly personal, giving the students' subjective stories about the city; the second is more proscriptive, aimed at visitors, and focuses on areas that a tourist might want to see; the third is directed more at locals, and helps point peoples' attention towards some of the more esoteric or out-of-the-way features of the city.  In practice, there is a ton of overlap between these.  All three sections include advice on good places to eat; I'd conservatively estimate that more than half of all the sections include at least some restaurant recommendations.  Still, the tone is a bit different... the first section might be more likely to describe the types of food that would would find in the city, while the second section would describe the best dining choices in a particular neighborhood and the third... well, okay, the third will do the same as the second, but more likely in a place you haven't been before.

I've definitely picked up a ton of stuff from this book that I'll have to try out.  I love the city and have been spending a lot of time here, but have only really explored a small fraction of what's available (mainly downtown, SOMA, and the Mission, with jaunts out to Chinatown, North Beach, Pacific Heights, the Richmond, the Inner Sunset, and Potrero Hill; also Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Golden Gate Bridge, and Crissy Field).  With this to guide me, I have a lot more promising areas to explore: the Russian district, Bernal Heights, Glen Canyon Park, and various other scattered locations.  I've also learned about new ice cream that I must try, like Bi-Rite Creamery, and restaurants, like Taqueria Cancun

One should keep in mind that this book was written by high-school students, and so their tastes and desires may not match those of older people.  They explicitly and cheerfully explain that they aren't allowed into nightclubs or bars, so those locations are totally missing from the guide.  I also get the feeling that some of the things that might be wonderful for a group of 17-year-olds might be less interesting for a solo 29-year-old; Seniore's Pizza may get more mentions than any other restaurant, but I'm less excited about visiting that than I am for other places.  Again, though, what's great about this book is that it wears is prejudice on its sleeve: unlike a more professional travel guide, where you're left guessing why a reviewer picked one place and not another, here you get a real sense for everyone's tastes.

So, yeah: phenomenal book, both for visitors and wannabe residents like me.  I'm not sure how long it will be around for, and it may get more out of date as time goes on; most notably, Muni fare has now increased to $2 from the $1.50 it was when the book was published.  It would be great if 826 Valencia periodically revisted this concept, say every four years with a fresh class.  Each guide would be totally different, provide more up-to-date thoughts on the City, and the collection would eventually form a kind of oral history of life here, focused on the mundane reality of everyday life more so than the landscape features.  In any case, they're off to a great start.

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