01 March 2011
Long after establishing itself as a centre of countercultural creativity, San Francisco retains a fiercely liberal heart. US author Armistead Maupin is its number-one fan.
Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City series helped cement San Francisco’s position on the literary map. The books, which started as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle, tell the story of naive Ohio native Mary Ann Singleton as she makes a new life for herself in the city. For many readers, the characters’ friends and neighbours formed an introduction to life in the magnetic bayside city during the swinging 1970s.
Maupin’s latest book, Mary Ann In Autumn, sees her returning from two decades in New York, to modern-day San Francisco, seeking comfort from old friends, as demons from her past collide with those of her present.
Maupin, speaking from his home office in a wooded area high above Golden Gate Park, on the eve of a visit to Australia, is excited about his latest offering and the opportunity to talk about his beloved metropolis. He, too, moved to the city from somewhere else – South Carolina, in 1971 – and never left. In his writing he made San Fran a character as integral as any other. He has been witness to the changes it has undergone, from being a drawcard for hippies, artists, gays and runaways, to the more gentrified environment of today. But the successful author is sanguine about the changes.
“It’s changed in the ways that most cities have changed,” he says. “There’s a faster pace, the traffic is worse, people are a little more harried than they used to be. But it has also improved a great deal in terms of its physical beauty.”
Along with his fellow San Franciscans, he’s been active in the city’s upkeep. “We’ve torn down freeways because we didn’t like the way they looked. We’ve renovated a number of wonderful old buildings. We’ve made the place more habitable for its residents and even more attractive for tourists.”
Now 66, Maupin says he doesn’t long for what others might see as the city’s heyday. “There’s nothing to miss. I’m sitting here in my office right now looking over the same city. If anything, I have to remind myself that time has passed because most of my adult experience has been here. I’ll sometimes ask myself who that old guy is in my reflection when I pass a shop window because, in many ways, I still feel like I’m 27 and I’ve just arrived in town.”
He concedes that the dot-com boom of the ’90s changed the urban demographic. “I’m very lucky I bought a house here 17 years ago when the market was low. I suspect if I sold my house and left town I’d never be able to afford to move back. It’s easier for people with money to live here now than young, struggling artists. I suppose that contributes somewhat to a loss of colour.”
But that doesn’t mean the city is no longer vibrant. Long after establishing itself as a bastion of countercultural creativity, it retains a fiercely liberal heart. Maupin points to the thriving and varied arts scenes. “There’s a poetry scene and we have a literary festival here called Litquake, where people travel around from bar to bar to recite poetry and drink. There’s always something interesting if you keep your eyes open. I still hear from young people who come here with a dream in their pocket and stay.”
What is it that makes San Francisco so universally loved? Other cities have equal amounts of fans and detractors; for every rapt visitor to New York or LA, another will complain about the noise or pollution. But San Francisco is a deeply comforting place.
“That character seems to be immutable,” agrees Maupin. “It’s physically beautiful, to begin with, and quite seductive. The fog rolling in from the sea and over these hills is quite magical and lends it a certain ethereal quality. It’s also a very small place. We have only about 750,000 inhabitants, so it manages to be a small town and cosmopolitan at the same time.”
Though he once had a summer home on New Zealand’s South Island – now a B&B run by his sister, Jane – Maupin and his husband, Christopher Turner, have never thought seriously about relocating. “We used to consider the suburbs because we were fantasising about a big green lawn and a place for our dog to run. But I’m not sure that would ever outweigh the beauty of living here in the heart of all this humanity.”
Thirsty: 440 Castro
440 Castro Street. +1 415 621 8732.
An easy-going neighbourhood bar with hot guys of all ages.
Grab a snack: Café de la Presse
352 Grant Avenue. +1 415 398 2680.
A charming spot near the Chinatown gate that also happens to be in the heart of our French Quarter. Yes, we have a French district! This place offers newspapers from all over the world.
Wine & dine: The Slanted Door
1 Ferry Building #3. +1 415 861 8032.
The Slanted Door specialises in cleverly updated Vietnamese food. The Shaking Beef is not to be missed. Elegant atmosphere and a great view of the harbour from the Ferry Building.
Pier 1½. +1 415 397 8880.
A Peruvian seafood restaurant in one of the old piers (just to the left of the Ferry Building). More great views and every imaginable kind of ceviche.
Koh Samui & The Monkey
415 Brannan Street. +1 415 369 0007.
Delicious Thai food in a stunning second-floor room with big casement windows overlooking the street.
Worthwhile tourist spot: Ferry Building
1 Ferry Building. +1 415 983 8030.
Pretty much the core of all that’s wonderful on the waterfront. It has a farmers’ market and a lot of artisanal foodstuffs. Don’t miss the Cowgirl Creamery and its many delectable cheesy treats. It’s all made an hour north of the city – by cowgirls, of course.
Locals only: The Ramp
855 Terry Francois Street. +1 415 621 2378.
A great burger joint on the waterfront in a semi-industrial neighbourhood. Tourists almost never find it.
Culture vulture: The de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. +1 415 750 3600.
Our new pride and joy, smack dab in the middle of Golden Gate Park. The building, resembling a giant, rusting aircraft carrier, is striking and beautiful in that green setting. The Sculpture Garden is worth exploring.
Go green: Crissy Field
1199 East Beach (Crissy Field Center). +1 415 561 7690.
Where we walk our dog on special occasions. It’s a reclaimed tidal marsh with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Kids and dogs and sailboats and kites – heaven on a sunny day.
Source Qantas The Australian Way March 2011