San Francisco on Steroid

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When I was living in San Fran, I could really feel I was living in a city of hills and valleys. I was quite amazed that people decided to build a city on these hills. The longer I thought about that, I started to realise that I grew up in the North District in Hong Kong which is an area of hills too. But somehow I never really noticed the hills, why is that?

Well, in San Fran, I actually “see” the hills every day, but in Hong Kong, the hills are blocked by the super tall buildings. These buildings form layers of walls and totally block the view to the hills. You can totally understand that what I mean from the photo above taken from my window. I live on the 18th floor already and still I don’t see much of the hills! I guess there should be a height limit set for the buildings and the buildings should be placed on a grid so people can have a view when they look in between the buildings.

sheung shui, hong kong – jun 30, 2013

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Berkley’s Main Street, Block Party and Parade

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Last summer I went to this really cool main street parade in Berkley, a suburb of Detroit. They basically closed off the whole downtown portion of the main street for the Berkley Parade. Although it wasn’t my first time going to a main street festival, when I was watching how these old cars moving from one end to the other, I started to think about how amazing these main streets are for these gridded cities like Berkley.

Unlike cities with piazza or squares, most gridded cities in Michigan have no one single point of focus. Instead they have a long line of main street that joins things together. When compared with a public square, the disadvantage of a main street is that you cannot quite have a big event or festival easily because the main street accommodates both foot and car traffic. I kind of believe that that’s how Americans invented this thing called “block party”. A block party is basically a street getting closed off on its two opposite ends so no car traffic can go through. As a result you can occupy the whole street and use it as a linear piazza temporarily. This is actually very smart because the grid system of the American cities allows you to block off as long a street as you want, depending on your party’s size and need.

If a square or a circular piazza is prefect for a center-focused event like a circus or a music show, a main street would be more suited for a linear type of event that can incorporate the notions of time and movement like a music score. What’s better than a parade for that purpose? Using buildings on main street as a backdrop, parade proudly showcases the community’s achievement all the way from one end of the street to the other other end. Maybe that;s why parades have become so popular in Michigan at least.

I especially liked the Berkley Parade because I was with my best friend, but also I enjoyed seeing the few blocks of Berkley’s Main Street through the sun set. It was an amazing experience particularly at the end when people along the blocks gathered outside the Berkley Theatre for a little music time. The “line” becomes a “dot”.
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berkley parade along twelve mile road by robina ave., berkley, michigan – 7:10pm, aug 18, 2012

Buchanan and Eddy – The “Most Dangerous” Neighborhood in San Francisco

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This one day on my way to see the Saint Mary’s Cathedral, I walked into this supposingly low-income housing project at Buahanan and Eddy streets. The streets were clean and it was a sunny day. The “architecture” there was a little dry, solely residential, un-san francisco, but it seemed okay. However I was overwhelmed by the tons of surveillance cameras and warning signs in the neighborhood. It was as if something really bad had happened many times there before. There are many things I can write about these housing projects. But what I found very interesting was that signages and installations alone can psychologically affect how people feel about a space.

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corner of buchanan st. and eddy street, san francisco

Sunset at Ocean Beach in San Fran – A City Defined by Its Stunning Outdoor Spaces

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view to pacific ocean

Before the first time I moved to San Francisco, my friend told me: “Kam, things especially housing are very expensive there. But the weather is really nice and you get to do a lot of free outdoor stuff there. They have great outdoor space in San Fran.” Well, the old me paid way much more attention to buildings than outdoor space. To me, cities were defined by their buildings in the downtown – NYC and Empire State Building; Chicago and Sears Tower; Seattle and Space Needle. And of course, San Francisco was defined by the downtown’s skyline featuring the Transamerica Pyramid.

The more time I spend in SF, the more I feel that the city is all about its open spaces – the hills, the parks and the oceans. Downtown does not really pay a big part in the locals’ life at all. In everyday conservation, people like to tell you what they have done in the parks over the weekends and what nice walk or hike they have taken. I slowly have become one of them too. Taking the dog to the Buena Vista Park which is indeed a hill and chilling out at Dolores Park have become a daily ritual to me. In the city of seven hills, it is amazing how many different vistas you get from up and down the hills.

Indeed every city has outdoor space, but not many of them are able to preserve the rustic quality of these spaces. Take Ocean Beach as an example, there is no McDonald’s, giant parking lots, tourists’ center, surf shops, hotels or any other commercial components. A beach is pretty much what you get there. The natural beauty of the beach simply touches your heart and makes you come back for more. That is what makes most San Francisco’s outdoor spaces so successful

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view to land’s end, with people watching sunset

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view to pacific ocean, with people chilling out

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surfer

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heineken

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final sunset

ocean beach, san francisco – 5:35pm, jan 25, 2013

The Mysterious Twin Gymnasiums by Golden Gate Park

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looking west at the two gymnasiums on federick st. with kezar stadium on the right

When you walk down Frederick St. by the Kezar Stadium near the Golden Gate Park, you will see a row of Victorian houses and in between them there are two enormous masonry buildings topped with an arch. These two almost identical art deco-styled buildings that seem so un-related to the current streetscape are indeed the remains of the former San Francisco Polytechnic High School. The narrower one on the east was the Girls’ Gymnasium and the one of the west was the Boys’ Gymnasium. When the city tore down the school to build residential housing, the neighborhood managed to rescue the two gyms which have become the current homes for the Circus Center and the ArcoSports Center.

I really admire the effort put into saving the gyms by the people of San Francisco. Most of time whether these buildings would be saved has nothing to do with the physical context such as the buildings themselves or the design of the new projects. The buildings are only saved when the people who care about them do something about it. And of course, the concerned authority would only have respond to its voters’ want in a democratic society. If it were in mainland China or even in Hong Kong, protests would mean nothing to the government and every bit of the old buildings and infrastructure including streets and landscape would be demolished in no time.

Keeping these old monuments have contributed positively to the diversity of built environment of San Francisco. The grand scale of these monuments, the engravings on buildings and the lavish ornaments simply cannot be done in the modern day budget-oriented buildings. These artifacts of the past really make the city more charming, rich in history and memory. And they give you something to discover during each walk or ride. Isn’t that what we like about taking walks in San Francisco?

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looking eastat the two gymnasiums with buena vista park at the end of federick st.

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new housing development in between the two gymnasiums

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current look of the west gymnasium (home of the circus center)

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circus center trains student to perform circus arts

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the lavishly ornate entrance to the circus center

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the large practice hall inside the circus center

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classes and events at the circuit center

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wall painting at the circus center

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the relationship of the two gymnasiums to the kezar stadium, too bad the trees have over grownn to block the view of the west gymnasium

federick st. by kezar stadium, san francisco – 11:30am, feb 5, 2013

A Library as an Individual Building – Instead of being “Stir-fried” into a Complex

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Every time I walk by a library in San Francisco, I can’t help but stop and look at them for a long second. Perhaps I was admiring some of the classical facades, coffered huge ceiling and other design features. But the more I think about it, I realize I am actually fascinated by the fact the each library is an individual “library building” sitting on the street.

As a person growing up in Hong Kong, it is not common seeing a single “library building”. Most libraries are put inside a city hall complex or some of the so-called municipal buildings. These complexes also house offices for city workers, a wet market for fresh food, a dry goods market and a food court. The library is usually placed on the top floor of the building. I always have to take the elevator to get to it. As a result, I was not used to seeing a library building on the street and of course most Hong Kong people don’t have an idea of how a library building looks like.

Personally, I prefer having libraries as individual buildings. It is very strange that you need to go through a wet market and food court to get a “house of knowledge”. That is why I used associate libraries with the smell of dried seafood. The Confucius has this old saying that “halls for study should be placed as far away from the kitchens and slaughter houses where killing of animals take place”. I totally agree with that.

As a strong advocate for great and inspiring civic works, I believe that these nicely done libraries in San Francisco beautify and define each neighborhood. They create dignified and memorable places both inside and outside the libraries for every neighbor. It is a simpler world when you don’t stir-fry buildings together.

1833 page st., san francisco – 3:25pm, jan 10, 2013

Castro Theatre – Where the Big Show is Always Happening on the Outside

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Any person who has seen the Castro neighborhood knows about the Castro Theatre. It is probably not because they have been to a show or a movie inside. But they have seen what happened on the outside – the numerous civil right protests, gay parades, street fairs, celebrations and memorials. The façade of the Castro Theatre building has always been a backdrop for the important events and dramas happening in Castro. In a way, it is like the city hall of Castro. Things just seem to matter more if they are photographed happening in front of the theatre. And of course, the theatre was featured in the movie Milk many times. I wonder if the architect Timothy Pflueger had foreseen the significance of the theatre when he was drawing the magical art deco façade.

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celebration for obama’s winning in re-election – nov 6, 2012

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castro street fair – oct 7, 2012

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castro street on a regular day

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castro street on a regular night

429 castro street, san francisco