A is for Alamo Square


San Francisco is a city of views and neighborhoods and Alamo Square reinforces that idea. In fact, Alamo Square maybe epitomizes the extraordinary beauty of San Francisco as a cityscape par excellence —it is a city known not for its museums, theater, stores or history but for its aesthetics as a whole: a city to look at, photograph and take in as the light from the water plays off the buildings or the fog obscures as well as reveals.

I never was a fan of the American soap Full House, but if you were, then you have seen San Francisco’s famous Alamo Square, with in the foreground a row of Victorian houses of which San Francisco had many more prior to the 1906 earthquake and fire. These Queen Anne houses are called the “Painted Ladies” and are located at one of the highest (and windiest?) points in the city. Because of its height and panoramic view over the city many San Franciscans gathered here to see their city burn after the 1906 earthquake… a little sinister perhaps, bringing to mind Emperor Nero’s witnessing of the great fire of Rome which he may well have instigated himself.

In the 1850s, Alamo Square did not exist yet. It was a minor forest in which a supposed criminal by the name of Dutch Charlie Duane made the neighborhood unsafe. This man was eventually banned, and after he left, the Victorian homes mushroomed as the city expanded and grew. It was a neighborhood for the elite, and the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin grew up here.

In the 1950s, the neighborhood went into decline and in the 1960s the big homes were turned into flats and apartments. Hippies, who had tired of the Haight, would smoke their weed in the park or moved into the homes, where soon, rehab clinics were established, too. Because of the further decline of the neighborhood, the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association was founded to clean up the neighborhood and this led to the overall gentrification of the 1980s and 1990s. American novelist Alice Walker lived in one of the Painted Ladies in the nineties, but you don’t go there to see Alice Walker’s house or the Full House street; you go there to enjoy the view, preferably on a warm summer evening, at sunset, when the pastel colors of the homes fuse and blend with the sunset colors of San Francisco’s sky.

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