Sunday, January 26, 2014

San Francisco: Hedging on housing as the beat goes on

Those of you who read my many San Francisco stories in The Austin American-Statesman know it's my favorite American city. I'd live there if I could afford to. I can't, so my husband and I go there as often as we can. And we're guilty of doing a lot of the same things every time we go: Walking up and down hills endlessly; eating at the Tadich Grill, L'Osteria del Forno, Swan Oyster Depot, Original Joe's and Cafe Claude; sharing stories with locals at Tony Nik's (more on that in a minute) and watching a whole lot of limited-release movies that are harder to find in Austin. In other words, we act like we live there. We really need to borrow a dog.

We do mix it up a little each time, though. This trip, we visited the Beat Museum in North Beach on Broadway near Columbus. Super little museum that tells the stories of the various beat writers. You can buy books and posters, too. I guarantee you'll learn something you didn't know. And, yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive and still living in North Beach. Folks run into him in the restaurants.

On another day, we took one of the many great CityGuides tours of San Francisco. OK, this isn't something a local would do. But each of these tours -- they're usually about two hours and free, though you really should pony up a donation -- is fascinating. We've taken five. This one involved Pacific Heights mansions, and I now know a ton about stick houses and Queen Annes and why all the wealthy people moved to this part of town in the early 1900s. (It's solid granite, and the earthquake took just a few chimneys.) Across the street from the Spreckles Mansion, we saw the mega-hedge around it that Danielle Steel has installed for privacy. She's lived there for about 25 years. The hedge is a mofo, and the San Francisco Chronicle said so. Steel wrote an op-ed piece in response, saying leave the hedge alone; she deserves her privacy, and besides, she's won a whole lot of awards. I say, if you live in one of the city's major historic homes and make a ton of money writing books, your privacy just might be compromised. In any event, the op-ed just made me want to see the hedge, and now I have. Our guide said she wasn't allowed to take us across the street to stand next to the hedge, and that buses -- even mini-vans -- are called out if they drive past the mansion on Washington Street.

So, what's new in San Francisco? Right now, the locals have a sort of crowded feeling. We talked about this a lot at Tony Nik's. Downtown, Facebook and Twitter employees are buying up all the places to live, and it looks like the Tenderloin might be gobbled up by more condos for them.  Their work buses crowd the streets, and bicyclists are unhappy about that. All over town, rents are astronomical. We were told that the only way to afford to live in North Beach is to have been living there for decades and, hence, rent-controlled. Another factor is that some landlords are kicking people out to convert the properties to high-priced stays on Air BNB, Homeaway and the like. Here's where I feel guilty: We want to rent one of these for a month next year if we can afford it. So we'll be the bad guys, coming in as tourists and displacing locals -- which is what we'd really love to be. Maybe somebody needs to erect a big hedge to keep us out.

Anyway, we left our hearts and will be back in August to get them. Our stays this time: We split between down at Galleria Park Hotel and North Beach at Hotel Boheme. Loved both.