Saturday, May 24, 2014

Social Network

Wired and Inspired, San Francisco is a Kinetic World where Creativity runs off the Grid.

HELLO dampness, my old friend. The  familiar cold compress of a Bay Area morning makes me shiver as I pad out my bedroom to admire my suite with its sleek white couch, gleaming hardwood, and vivid artwork. Beyond, the big window frames pretty Victorian houses marching up a hill. I push open the door the bathroom-all frosted glass and steel lines-to discover the requisite designer bath soap. It’s the best boutique hotel I’ve ever stayed in ,but it’s no hotel at all. I’m showering in a house belonging to people who were complete strangers to me 11 hours ago. Moreover, they’ve left for the weekend, entrusting their home and all in to someone they just met.

Welcome to what I call “Share Francisco,” where a mix of digital connectivity, social ambition, and bubbling optimism has this city by humming anew. It’s   glossier and richer and tastier than ever-the exotic capital of the $4 cuppa joe with notes of lemon curd at Ritual Coffee and cantaloupe-cayenne ice cream at Humphry Slocombe. Its smells-nightjasmine, Szechuan beef, medical marijuana-are as diverse as its streetcars, dinging their way from the Castro’s rainbow flags to the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. With the last decade’s dot-com bust a distant memory, San Francisco is start-ups and yoga pants, “Painted Lady” houses and panhandlers, programmers and poets, transvestites and tourists, plus the rudest bicyclists on the planet. Inspiring and twee, smug and seismically changed, it is bawdy, beguiling, and beautiful. In short, the city is sensational. Or as one newcomer confided to me: “Every day in San Francisco feel like a first kiss.”

Pucker up, travelers. Technology is redefining a visit to America’s favorite city and my old hometown. Roving chefs use Facebook to alert diners to where they will pop up  next. Locals tap iPhone apps like SF Climates to ascertain the weather from any of the city’s famously varied microclimates (there’s often a 20-degree termperature spread between them). They check into Waze to duck traffic jams on the Bay Bridge and search Twitter to find out what food trucks are rolling to Fort Mason for Friday night Off the Grid dinners. And they offer their rooms online with Airbnb,  a start-up based here that connects guess with amateur innkeepers.

“Social media has woven itself into the very fabric of this town,” says my host, Brad Olcott, 41. “It’s not just about making money in this new share economy; we want to meet  people and show the mwaht makes San Francisco so unique.” By listing their space on Airbnb, the Web designer and his wife, Julie, 36, and son, Rye, 3, have opened their home to me suing the power of the online platform. I pay them $150 a night. In return, they’re giving me more than any concierge could: a local-eye view of their shinning city on a hill.
I’m nervous ringing the doorbell, but Julie’s welcoming smile melts any fears. I learn she’s an artist, commissioned to design the terrazzo floors for the rising TransBay Terminal, the city’s futuristic Grand Central Station. Dinner consists of a thin-crust pizza from Delfina’s, a bottle of rose, and the inside scoop on good restaurants: Tacolicious for Mexican, Locanda for Italian, and Tartine, a French-style patisserie that inspires almost religious devotion.

The next morning of the Olcott family is up early to fly to an East Coast wedding, leaving me to reacquaint my self with the city. Acting on a tip from Brad, I download SideCar, a new-ride-sharing app rolling out in San Francisco that links passengers with ordinary drivers interested in making a few bucks in their off-hours as citizen chauffeurs. The negotiated fare, or “donation” as they the company calls it, is paid by phone. SideCar’s easy interface and its cost (usually less than a taxi) have made it my go-to app. “You need a ride, and who picks me up in his Toyota van the first time I use the service. “It’s a community. We’re both doing this together.”

The backseat views are still the same: the grand Chinatown Gate, Nob and Russian Hills, the Embarcadero’s Canary Island date palms. The Ferry Building’s clock tower (modeled after one in Seville, Spain) still speeds their ferries to Sausalito and larkspur. Inside, Acme Bread will sell you loaves of crusty sourdough, while McEvoy Ranch sells the small-batch olive oil to dip it in. farther up Market Street, the wood-fired “chicken for two” still draws folks to Zuni Café, a classic San Francisco restaurant. But there’s a new pace. The city now counts 44,000 tech jobs. Digital synapses crackle in rising neighborhoods like Dogpatch and SoMa and energize the shoppers in Hayes Valley- the neighborhood Twitterista Marcia Galiardi, editor of popular restaurant newsletter Tablehopper, calls “the hipster family’s Fifth Avenure.” All the action colldies in the Mission District.

In a town of inclines and perpetual chill, the Mission is hot and flat – filled with rows  of two – and three-story wooden Victoran that came through the great fire and earthquake of 1906 relatively unscathed ( though the Northern Mission was flattened). Then it was a haven for the German and Irish families. Today it is a global mash-up. A skinny skateboarder with tattooed arms deftly sweves around a middle-aged Latina hawking phone cars to Mexican construction workers and avoids a walking-while-texting businessman. Even therestaurants advertise a jumbled patrimony, to judge by their names: Crafstman & Wolves (a bakery café) or Hog & Rocks (a ham and oyster bar).

I’m intrigued by the Mission’s evolution and pull up Airbnb for a stay in this still scruffy but irrepressible community. There’s a listing from a guy named Wyatt at $100 a night with vacancy for later in the week. I book it.

The future may come sooner to San Francisco than anywhere else, but the city’s rich past is what draws the tourists. For me, too, I think, booking a stay at one San Francisco’s newest hotels, the Inn at the Presidio. My  SideCar driver pulls through the gates of the 1,490-acre former Army base, and I see that the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the brick-and-wook houses sheltered by Monterey pine and eucalyptus is unchanged despite the Presidio’s new designation as part of the Golden gate National Recreation Area. The 22-room hotel opened just last year in what once what was the unmarried officers’ barracks. Built in 1903, the Inn is one of the handsomest of the 433 historic structures here that include the Walt Disney Family Museum and a commanding fountain statue of Yoda channeling the Force in front of LucasArts.

There’s a crackling fire in my suite’s hearth. As I prepare for the evening, I can hear the wail of foghorns rolling across the water. Old-School San Francisco. How is it faring in this Google-ized new world? To find out, I’m dinning tonight with one of its avatars. Barnaby Conrad III epitomizes the city’s unhurried, courtly charm. His father, Barnaby Conrad, Jr., was a best-selling ‘50s novelist, who operated El Matador, his famous Barbary Coast saloon patronized by the likes of William Saroyan, Robert Mitchum, and Marilyn Monroe.

I’m meeting Barnaby 3.0 in Pacific Heights at Florio, an elegant bistro celebrated for its hanger steak and sangfroid. Upper Fillmore Street is bustling when I arrive. Thin blond women in black jackets carry shopping bags marked with the names of boutiques: Kiehls, Nest, Margaret O’Leary. Their men sport blue blazers. The silver bars across their loafers gleam in the setting sun. we don’t have a reservation, but that doesn’t appear to matter when you’re with Barnaby. Ordering a negroni, he stops to chat briefly with Hollywood director and writer Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The right Stuff, Hemingway & Gelhorn) and greet other friends. It’s a scene those glamorous, if fictious, local detectives Nick and Nora Charles of the 1930s would recognize-right down to the martini coupes. Things have changed in San Francisco. But, clearly, not much.

“I was born here in 1952,” Barnaby said. “And I’ve seen it evolve, but this city has always done the same thing: It’s made things. We had shoemakers, printers, and shipwrights then, and in North Beach they still make pasta, cocktails, and romance. Now, in SoMa they are crafting social media. Whatever it’s called, it’s making things. That’s our cultural franchise.”

Making and remarking them. Over the past few years the city has opened new attractions like the Disney and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, located in the Yerba Buena district, and expanded others, from the Asian Museum to SFMOMA (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). To experience the cultural revival, I venture to Golden Gate Park to the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum, San Francisco’s striking fine arts center. Built in the early 20th century, the institutions once faced each other across a fountain like two aging preppies sipping gimlets at the Palace Hotel bar. I emerge from the complex’s basement parking lot and discover that the two duffers have been transformed beyond all recognition.

Gone is the old-money rectitude. The two august buildings have been transformed into theater. The de Young, torn down and reimagined in 2005, resembles an aircraft carrier designed by Darth Vader, all metal cladding with a coppery, twisting tower piercing the tree canopy nine stories up in the air. The academy has become the forest itself-sporting an undulating green roof covered in grasses and plants that look like a Hobbit refuge.

“I’m sorry, but due to demand we can’t accommodate any more people in our earthquake exhibit.” The ticket taker is polite but firm. I head over to the de Young and decide to hit the observation tower first. It’s a spectacular 360-degree view on a par with that from Coit Tower. Form here the city radiates from the park’s emerald heart: the jumble of Victorians in the Haight and the Panhandle punctuated by the domes of St.Ignatius, the university of San Francisco’s great Jesuit baroque church, and the neo-Byzantine dome of the temple Emanu-el. To the west, the tidy pastel boxes of th Richmond and the Sunset dissolve into a watery gray cloud. The marine layer is pushing in from the Pacific Ocean, crossing the Great Highway and into the parts of those neighborhoods known locally as the Quter Avenues. “I love watching the fog up here move in from the Pacific,” a docent says with a sigh. “It’s never the same fog twice.”

To most visitors, the grid of compact homes that meets the Pacific Ocean Beach remains undiscovered. This neighborhood of surfers, families, and strivers from Manchuria to Madrid is San Francisco without the glitz. A place of Irish bars, surfer dives, Orthodox synagogues, indie bookstores, and menus from every province, republic, and kingdom in Asia.

I stop in at Outerlands, a rootsy restaurant dishing up comfort food like Dutch pancakes and “eggs in jail,” a popular brunch dish. The Pacific, just a few blocks away, makes itself felt. A gorgeous Russian-speaking woman keeps her fur-lined hoodie snug as she pulls the curst from her grilled cheese, while members of a bike club, warm under an outside heater, watch a Latino construction crew mold concrete forms for yet another San Francisco ‘parklet’-one of the city’s newest trends. These reclaimed parking spots, equipped with seating, extend the sidewalk for the footsore, doodlers, and dreamers. Since 2010 the city has built some two dozen parklets with many more under consideration. It’s a welcome change.

Change is also what’s coming to one of San Francisco’s most notorious spots-a part of the Tenderloin called Mid-Market, a stretch of Market Street in the shadow of City Hall’s black and gold dome. It’s known for homeless people and drug dealers, but now, also, a new hope as a wave of tech companies crests here. Last June Twitter begin moving the first of 900 employees into its new headquarters in the old art deco furniture Mart at Market and Ninth. How sociable is a social media company? I decide to drop in and  see.

“Hi, I’m AndrewNelson,” I introduce myself to the security guard stationed beneath a 1930s-style mural. ‘I want to visit Twitter. May I go up?” The security guard shakes her head. No. “I have more than 2,000 followers,” I add. “That’s got to count for something.” Silence, “I can’t go up?” she shakes her head again. “Tweet somebody,” she says.

If mid-market is just beginning to bud, the mission is already blooming. I meet my Airnbb hosts for the next two nights: Wyatt Starosta, his girlfriend, Kendra Shimmell, and their dog, Bumba. They inhabit a live-work loft on Florida Street. My digs aren’t as glamorous as at the Olcott home-I get an air mattress-but it’s cozy and private. After I unpack, Wyatt asks if I would like to join him on his daily walk with Bumba.

They lead me through the Mission’s streets, and I take a series of mental Instagrams: A riot of colorful murals and a rack of Mexican wrestler masks remind me of the neighborhood’s Latin heritage (through gentrification has caused a 22 percent drop in its Hispanic population). Hummingbirds dart around plantings of pink geraniums and purple Mexican sage, while open doors and curtains frame fashionable couples picking at small plates at Flour + Water, a hot new Italian restaurant, and a pair of swordsmen sparring like musketeers at a fencing club. Passing a loading dock, I catch a sweet whiff of bread and see a baker stacking fragrant whole-wheat loaves to cool on racks. We return to discover that Kendra has accepted an invitation to a dinner party in my name. “Come with,” she says. “It’s up on Potrero Hill,  the ‘hood with good views.”

She’s right. The flat on Carolina Street offers the guest dizzying vistas in all directions. Joshuah Vincent, our host, is a “user experience” designer-a metaphysical-sounding term but an important job to makers of tech ranging from video game to mobile phones. To a person, his other guests are all doing similar things. As the city’s lights wink on below, the guests dine on organic chicken and grilled vegetables. The talk is of gamming apps and lovers, novels and venture capital. No one thinks it unusual that the Web they’re so busy weaving has brought me to the table. Their technology turns travelers into party guests into  friends.

With the conversation at a pleasant  buzz, I watch the fog spilling over Twin Peaks. I’m grateful to be allowed this insider perspective, but, I think, the true party in San Francisco it self. And everyone’s invited. The Net may have speeded things up, but this shinning city has been San Francisco at least since the forty-niners arrived for the first flash in the pan and then stayed to build here. Today’s gold rush is no different. It’s about faces, not Facebook. It’s rubbing shoulders, not sliding fingers across your smartphone, that makes this city seductive. Stop “Liking,” I think, and look up from your devices and start meeting.

“More wine? Someone asks. “Sure,” I reply, feeling the familiar cool night air tickle my skin. I raise my glass to the glittering streets below. “Here’s to old friends. And new one.”

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