SAN FRANCISCO -- All furriners, as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen likes to call "anybody who lives elsewhere," carry away from this city their own mental baggage. Mine consisted of ever-changing light and windy fogs playing along tight rows of bay-fronted houses with ground-floor laundromats and bars. And always the views, out to the water, the islands, the hills or, coming in across the Oakland Bay Bridge, of the fabulous place as a whole, more like a town than a city, climbing hill after hill.

San Francisco stood in memory as an image of the way things ought to be. When you build a city, you don't obliterate nature -- you build with it.

Whether or not this remains one of the most beautiful and lively cities on earth, then, was a question much on my mind as I disembarked a transcontinental plane -- my first steps on the local turf in nearly a quarter century.

The taxi ride from the airport was not reassuring. The cabbie couldn't say if the Giants were in town at Candlestick and, as we came off the bend of Potrero Hill, the new downtown filled the windshield like a wide-screen movie -- big, boastful, impressive, but unreal. Not the San Francisco I remembered.

It didn't take too long, though, on the streets here and in Berkeley across the bay, for me to see that I had been blinded by a set of bleak expectations, a past-tense sort of Murphy's law: Everything that could have gone wrong must have gone wrong. I began to suspect that, cherishing misty memories, I'd been taken in by San Francisco's bad press.

Shortly after the Bay Area's epochal celebration of its pent-up love affair with the 50-year-old Golden Gate Bridge, Caen, the self-anointed keeper of the city's world-class reputation for smugness, complained in print that "San Francisco-bashing is very much in vogue." Indeed it has been, although Caen, aiming the gibe at his stock-figure snooty easterner, didn't point out that most of the damage has been home grown.

The city's periodic, widely reported antigrowth campaigns have, ironically, been given added credence by San Francisco's Convention and Tourist Bureau, with its ceaseless parroting of the "America's Favorite City" theme along with views of the new it-could-be-almost-anywhere high-rise downtown. The Transamerica Corp. also has contributed its bit with television promotions and those irritating pop-up magazine ads that make its pyramidal skyscraper seem at least as big as the Sears Tower, if not the Tower of Babel. The net result has been a pervasive impression of a city hellbent to obliterate the source of its uniqueness -- the nonpareil topography.

So it was with a great deal of exhilarated relief that I realized ... it's almost all still here -- the variegated neighborhoods, the restaurants, bars, cafe's, tawdry joints, the bookstores (City Lights Lives!), fancy stores and crummy ones, high style and low style, the texture of the streets, the thousand variations on San Francisco row house themes that temper the city's monotonous grid, flowers in clustered bloom on the long climb up Telegraph Hill, Army bases as pretty as parks, the stupendous bridges, the cold magnificent ocean and permanently windswept trees, and above all the indelible sense of place.

This excited recitation -- obviously it could go on -- is not meant to play down the unremediable mistakes that have been made in the past couple of decades, starting with the freeway belting past the Ferry Building, with its landmark campanile at the foot of downtown, and continuing with the disfiguration of hills by isolated apartment towers and the proliferation of downtown skyscrapers -- most of them, unlike the slender Transamerica tower, boxy, bulky and dull.

The image of the city has changed dramatically -- post cards, those not touting the Golden Gate Bridge on its anniversary, almost all now celebrate the twilight glitter of the downtown skyline. And the view from the Oakland Bay Bridge has been forever altered -- downtown buildings having doubled in height and size, one no longer sees the townlike city of rolling hills. These are significant losses, of course, but behind the new image, or perhaps underneath it, the old reality persists.

The hills are hard on the legs, sure, but there is scarcely a street from which one is not made aware of the setting, and from far away, from the Berkeley hills or from panoramas in Marin County, the new downtown seems just another jewel in the crown. What is often not recorded, in the near continuous uproar over the high buildings, is that the overall form and the interdependent ecologies of the Bay Area remain in good shape. Other cities, other regions, should be so lucky.

Or maybe lucky isn't the word. A lot of human foresight and hard work has been involved. The still ongoing but basically successful struggle to stop filling in San Francisco Bay -- a horrible habit, shared by practically every company and community on its shores -- is a genuine triumph that, in the long-long run, is more important than any mere downtown. Another long-term victory has been the preservation of the vast natural habitat north of the city as the Point Reyes National Shoreline -- a preserve that has much to do with the city's sense of itself.

And even the new downtown, as bad as it is in some respects, isn't quite the disaster one is led to expect. One is hard put to say whether the majority of the new high-rises are worse at their sawed-off tops, which hide the hills, or at their brute-force bottoms, which are affronts to the fine older buildings they abut and which offer few enticements to ordinary street life. And of course, as they proliferate, they defeat one of the main purposes -- exemplary views -- for which they were built.

But if they represent, as critics say, the Manhattanization of San Francisco, this is a compact little Manhattan. A 10-minute walk from its center in almost any direction will bring a visitor or an office worker to someplace pleasant -- to a superb retail core, to the water's edge, to Chinatown, to the fringes of Telegraph Hill. San Franciscans have done a lot of things right of late, although for one reason or another they don't tout them much. But to an outsider such changes as the pedestrianization of Market Street, the new esplanade along the bayfront, the Lawrence Halprin parks under the freeway ramps, and the 1,400 close-in housing units of the upscale Golden Gateway project are impressive achievements.

Then, too, last fall San Francisco voters approved Proposition M, which drastically curtailed the amount of new office construction permitted in the city. This was on top of an already stringent downtown plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors in October 1985. The effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen. For one thing, so much space was approved before they were taken that it will be years before construction begins to wind down in earnest. For another, one suspects that the rules of the building game in San Francisco, as written in the downtown plan, are so absurdly complex as to be, inherently, the subject of political manipulation.

Even so, the new rules -- mandating historic preservation, complementary architectural styles, detailed sunlight and wind studies, and developer contributions to citywide housing and other social programs -- are worth study and emulation. And the symbolic import of last year's vote is something to ponder. As they said no to massive development, San Francisco voters were saying yes to all the characteristics that make their city beautiful.

San Francisco has its big problems, to be sure -- among them skyrocketing land prices and their corollaries, gentrification and the loss of light industry (where are the fisherman around tacky Fisherman's Wharf?) -- but it's a city with its values on straight. San Francisco, despite all, remains San Francisco, and that's the best news of all.