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In San Francisco, the best views are just a walk away

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:19 PM

From the pinnacle of a windy, chilly, foggy neighborhood that once was little more than shifting sand dunes, I think I can see all of San Francisco. More fog rolling in from the Pacific as if in a time-lapse photograph. The downtown skyline basking in the sunlight of an entirely different microclimate. Mount Sutro, framed by cypress trees. Golden Gate Park, a shadow of forest cutting between neighborhoods. Even the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

My perch lives up to the name Grand View Park, and there's just one way to the top. Here in the Sunset District, you can drive to the base - more easily if your car has a stick shift rather than an automatic transmission - but unless you're privy to a helicopter, you need your legs to take you up the final winding series of staircases and trails.

That suits me just fine.

I'm in San Francisco to eat and to walk, my favorite combination of travel activities, partly because doing enough of the latter allows me to do more of the former. But that's not the only reason. I walk to see. In Venice, Paris, New York and other pedestrians-rule places, my favorite learn-the-city strategy has been to stuff a map (or, these days, an iPhone) into my pocket, wander off without an agenda, then use the map to find my way back to home base only after I've exhausted all curiosity, not to mention my calves.

I can't think of a city better experienced by walking - or hiking, depending on how you look at it - than San Francisco. The 42 hills on which the city was built can make for gear-grinding treachery in a car, and only the fittest of the fit dare attack them by running or, God forbid, biking. Sure, you can hop in a cab or onto a cable car to traverse neighborhoods quickly, but nothing brings you into closer contact with the city's ever-changing vistas and textures than your own two feet.

Here, I don't need much help with the eating part of my mission. I work my sources the way I do on every other such trip. For the walking part, I've zeroed in on one expert: guidebook author Adah Bakalinsky, who at 87 is the reigning queen of walkers in a city that's full of them. Bakalinsky specializes in sightseeing strolls that are punctuated by the city's 600-plus stairways.

In the 24 years since she first wrote "Stairway Walks in San Francisco," Bakalinsky has become something of a stairway evangelist. Ask her about the defining features of the city she loves, and of course she'll go on about the light, the architecture, the hills, the neighbors and the neighborhoods. But it's the stairways that provide the connective tissue running through just about everything. They tie together streets that follow the contours of hills, they let residents get to public transportation and otherwise ambulate without fear of cars, they act as gathering places, sometimes impromptu ones.

"Stairways connect neighborhoods," she writes in her book's introduction. "Freeways disconnect neighborhoods."

Before I head up to Grand View Park, Bakalinsky escorts me to one of the city's most famous stairways, a mosaic-tiled beauty on Moraga Street that isfeatured on the cover of "Stairway Walks in San Francisco," which will see its seventh edition in November.

Walking up the mosaic stairway is pure meditation, as waves of fish and flowers, squirrels and snakes (many of them memorials by donors: "Mom, We Love & Miss You") seem to swirl in motion as you climb, and culminate at the top in a crescent moon, stars and a sun.

Bakalinsky's prescribed route doesn't immediately head for Grand View Park, but we're a little short on time, so rather than follow her ambling loop, I leave her behind with a photographer for a series of portraits and scramble up to marvel at the 360-degree vista. When I meet her on the way back down, Bakalinsky, a former social worker, is doing what she does best: chatting up neighbors, including one woman who's on her eighth lap of the mosaic stairway.

Bakalinsky is cheerful and polite ("Is this your neighborhood?"), but she later confesses to a bias against those who appear too interested in the calorie-burning aspects of walking. "I believe more in sauntering," she says, "and not to exercise. You get the exercise anyway, so you don't really need to think about it. To me, walking is about being alert to what's around you. The whole idea, really, is to discover."

Once, she recalls, the popularity of her book prompted the president of a local running club to contact her. "He said, 'We're running the stairways,' " she said, and he asked for guidance on which would be best for such a thing. She passed. "I was secretly horrified," she said.

***

When I ask Bakalinsky for ideas of other walks in the city, she immediately points me to San Francisco City Guides, a program run by the public library that uses volunteer docents to lead some 60 neighborhood walking tours every week, more than a dozen every Saturday. (It was as a newly trained docent herself that Bakalinsky got her start on the stairway project.)

The breadth of the program is marvelous, and choosing which neighborhood to explore was difficult. Ultimately, I couldn't help being drawn to Chinatown, where on one Saturday retired engineer Leif Isaksen takes a group of about two dozen of us down alleyways and into a worship space, a fortune cookie shop and a market. Along the way, he gives us some off-the-cuff lessons in reading Chinese characters - an ox plus a rack means beef, for instance - that I'll mostly forget (but enjoy as they happen).

Isaksen's passion for the neighborhood is infectious. He's a myth-buster by nature, and he enjoys telling how the reputation of the city's Chinese restaurants for serving "dogs, cats and rats" stems from a 200-year-old lie perpetrated by a group of American trade diplomats who were afraid to admit that they didn't know what they were being served. "That has stuck, and whenever there are periods of racism against the Chinese in San Francisco, people bring up that story," he says. "Don't believe it. Enjoy the food here."

Chinatown's reputation was also unfairly sullied by its proximity to the vice-filled Barbary Coast, Isaksen says. We see groups of men playing cards on the sidewalk, and he says that talk about the Chinese "addiction" to gambling is baseless.

"That's not what's going on," he assures us. "If you get a group of four women around a table, what happens? They talk! Put four men around a table, and nothing happens. They need something to lubricate the conversation, so they play cards. There's no drinking. Sure, there's some money exchanging hands, but if a man has a bad day at cards, he'll lose less money than he would've spent if he had stayed in the bar all day. It is a social activity."

He promises to talk about three Chinatowns: the living, thriving one ("There are far more Chinese here today than tourists"); the old Chinatown, whose bare remnants exist in some of the old alleyways; and what he calls a "Disneyland" Chinatown, built after the 1906 earthquake with stereotypical design features and aimed at attracting tourists.

If the latter looks familiar to anyone who has traveled to China, he says, it's because after President Richard Nixon opened relations with that country, "China realized that the world had come to know China through San Francisco. So the Chinese sent delegations here to learn what a Chinatown should look like."

He's a font of information, and the 90-minute tour is fascinating, but I start to wish I had him all to myself, so we could take on a pace and a direction unencumbered by the other tourists. And so we'd have an excuse to chat up the locals the way Adah Bakalinsky does.

***

Bakalinsky designs her walks carefully, letting serendipity and instinct guide her until she achieves what she calls a walk's rhythm. She's something of a walking savant who seems to think that her job is to discover what a particular walk wants to be. "I have this pain in my shoulder sometimes when I'm first walking a new walk," she says. "I have it right up until I've gotten the walk right, and then it goes away. It's the most wonderful shoulder."

When we follow her route in Bernal Heights East, I see just what she means. Not only do the sometimes unmarked stairways lead to little nooks and crannies of the neighborhood that I would never have stumbled upon otherwise, but there's an unmistakable ebb and flow to the collection of turns, climbs and descents. We head up a winding wooden staircase connecting the front porches of a series of homes going up a hill; cross through a terraced community garden, where neighbors are plucking lemons from trees; and stop to admire spiderwebs, sun-dappled ginkgo trees and the otherworldly blooms of angel trumpet plants.

And, of course, we take in the breathtaking views, such as the one of downtown from Peralta Point, where we see that fog again, creeping across the sky like some kind of alien force field. As we gape in awe, she quizzes a nearby resident who is working on a small construction project outside his house: Is he building a basement? (No, just replacing the garden wall.) Are those apples on that tree ripe? (No, not quite yet.)

When he finds out who she is, his face lights up with a smile. "We see a lot of people come through here who love your book," he says. "Three just on Sunday!"

We have taken a Zipcar here from downtown, and as soon as we start to drive again, the gears grind and the brakes squeal as we try to navigate the downward curves of a hill. Too bad we're so pressed for time. If we weren't, I'm sure that Bakalinsky would be just fine if we hoofed it home to the relatively flat Van Ness neighborhood. It might take most of the day, but who knows what we might see?

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