Like walking on a terrible Tilt-a-Whirl: Loma Prieta at age 8

A friend, then a KCBS Radio reporter, recently shared how “life in the Bay Area stood still for days” in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which shook Northern California 28 years ago today.

On Oct. 17, 2017, fires ravage our northern neighbors and ash dusts our windowsills and sneaks into our lungs. Thousands are impacted by the literal loss of life and property as a sense of loss and anxiety hovers over the region—just as it did nearly three decades ago. But as one disaster seems to follow another in 2017, I’m thinking today of our ability to come together when shit gets really, really bad.

I turned eight two days before Oct. 17, 1989, in time for my first and, so far, only experience in a massive quake. At 5:04 p.m., I was sitting on my couch in South San Francisco, flipping between reruns of Silver Spoons and the Giants-A’s World Series pregame. Everyone at my elementary school wanted the Giants to win, so, of course, I did, too.

My dad had just come home from work and the little girl my mom babysat was eating a snack. The metal windows in our ’70s condo started rattling slightly, and the sounds of vibrating porcelain knick knacks quickly followed suit.

Instead of a shudder that rippled through the house and then stopped, the rattling sounds combined audibly and sickeningly with a rumble I imagined was like thunder—I hadn’t really experienced that, either.

It was like walking on a terrible Tilt-a-Whirl, being unable to get myself in a straight line from the couch to where my dad was losing balance in a doorway.

After everything stopped moving, we spilled into my street in the Westborough neighborhood of town, along with all of our neighbors. Every single person backed into the middle of the street, facing our houses, expecting them to fall down right in front of us.

I was terrified to cross the eastbound span of the Bay Bridge for months, which we did pretty regularly—kid logic concluded that being on the upper deck meant we had a greater chance of living if we fell into the lower one vs. into the Bay. Oddly enough, I was driving on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge during the next-largest earthquake to hit the Bay Area nearly two decades later.

I and many others I knew were lucky. As Diana’s story reminded me, 42 people lost their lives in the Cypress Structure alone. Had I been a digital-era adult when this happened, I wonder if I’d have had a heightened capacity to understand and collectively grieve those losses, while also feeling the impact of communities coming together in the time of need. My world was much smaller then; I think it was smaller for all of us, whether we were one or 100 in 1989. As I scroll through my news sources and friend feeds on the tiny computer in my pocket, I am glad to see plenty of evidence that the Bay Area is still in it together.

Pic by sanbeiji on Flickr.

Animal magnetism: The undeniable pull of underground SF

Sometimes opportunity knocks. Other times, you inadvertently stumble through its door. That’s what storyteller Steve Pepple discovered, when an unmarked door at a SoMa diner turned out to be a portal to a mysterious underground scene.

A designer at OpenGov, Steve works toward making cities (including our favorite one) more livable, whether he’s working on a budget or a bus. Podcast listeners, here’s Steve’s story:

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Since we expanded our storytelling lens in August, you’ve submitted amazing stories like a day in the life of a Nob Hill employee, the secret history behind the Transamerica building, and how a Bernal shopkeeper survived losing her lease. Remember to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss an episode!

You can also catch Steve telling a new story live at Muni Diaries Live on Nov. 4; tickets are on sale now.

For your reading pleasure, here’s a transcript of Steve’s story: Read more

Making friends on the late-night Metro

What happens on the last train doesn’t always stay on the last train.

In this episode of our podcast, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun shares what happened no one fateful blurry night he jumped on a Metro, and about the importance of good friends who will stand up for one another no matter what.

Na’amen is a writer whose craft spans multiple genres. The followup to his 2016 novel, The Root, is The Tree, which is coming out later this year. Learn more about him at naamentilahun.com.

If you haven’t subscribed to our podcast, we’d love if you lent us your ears! Here’s Na’amen:

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P.S. Bonus late-night train story that might tickle your fancy: an impromptu disco dance party on the last BART train. Join us on Instagram for more only-in-SF goodness.

Photo credit: Right Angle Images

Heart-eyes for my hood: Upper Maltese Falcon


Photo from Tara’s IG profile @roopisonfire

Some thought my move from La Mision to downtown amounted to trading an interesting neighborhood for not a neighborhood at all.

Not quite.

An area I christened “Chinunionob” upon arrival, I found blocks of apartment buildings teeming with character. I became a regular at the oldest dim sum house in the city, and I learned just how happy the Tunnel Top bar makes people when I mention that it’s my local.

Dashiell Hammett’s universe from The Maltese Falcon is inextricably connected to this part of the world, exciting for history buffs, noir fanatics, or anyone, which is a lot of us, who is drawn to art that imitates life in San Francisco.

Burritt Street borders a store that sells “Shit, I need a tomato” tomatoes, last-minute runs for Haagen-Dazs Rocky Road, and bestickered bottles of wine, from which I’ve peeled many stubborn price tags en route to dinner. This same alley is where Hammett’s Miles Archer was “done in” by fictional femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

My trusty sedan occasionally sleeps on Dashiell Hammett Street, so named after a successful effort by City Lights Booksellers & Publishers owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti to honor San Francisco writers.

Considered through this historical Viewfinder, my life in Chinunionob sparkles a little brighter knowing that it moved one of the most celebrated noir storytellers of our time. More than an intersection of Chinatown, Union Square, and Nob Hill, it’s become a personal crossroads of inspiration, motivation, civic pride, and love.

Add Don Herron’s Maltese Falcon Tour, in its 40th year, to your to-do list. I certainly am.

Tara Ramroop is Hamster 1 of 2 keeping the San Francisco Diaries wheel in motion. She has hella heart-eyes emoji for SF, even when she’s walking up those pee-pee stairs on Stockton and Bush Streets. Tag us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter with your tale.

Unearthing hidden history underneath the Transamerica Pyramid

You’ve likely passed this spot a thousand times and probably never realized that, in its heyday, it was a one hell of a bohemian hot spot. In today’s San Francisco Diaries podcast episode, writer Hiya Swanhuyser shares how she found this piece of history and why she’s been obsessed with it ever since.

Hiya is working on a book about a lost piece of San Francisco history, the Montgomery Block building, which stood where the Transamerica Pyramid stands today. It was there for 107 years, and was a crucial gathering place for artists and writers, including Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and thinkers and political types such as Emma Goldman and Sun Yat-Sen, among many many others.

Listen to the episode:

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Here’s what the Montgomery Block building looked like in its glory days:
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Lessons from my first year in SF

If you’re not a San Francisco native, you’re, well, like a lot of people who currently call the city home. Though one of your Diaries editors entered this brave new world at the old Mount Zion Hospital on Divisadero, and the other has been here for two decades and counting, we are both constantly discovering gems — hidden, reimagined, or in plain view — of neighborhoods old and new. People and communities build a city, and we’re lucky to learn from each other, whether we’re standing shoulder to shoulder on Muni, in the protest line, or at the bar.

One thing is certain: we all learned tons during our first year in San Francisco. Take it from reader Andy W. and his wife, Katie, who moved here a year ago.

Being a new transplant these days can be controversial, but we think there’s no better time to explore what we want out of life in San Francisco, as well as what we can all bring back to it.

Today marks Katie and my one-year San Franciscoversary, and I like to think I’ve learned a few things about this complex but amazing city, beyond your basic “DON’T CALL IT SAN FRAN” citywide mandate.

1. People who live here mark the passage of time by commenting on all the restaurants that have closed, and the inferiority of what has replaced it.
2. Some parts of the city smell like pee. Some parts smell like flowers. Sometimes at the same time.
3. It only took me a year to compulsively carry a light jacket or hoodie with me where ever I go. No matter how hot it is. BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW.
4. If you wear a bright blue article of clothing, people assume you’re a huge Warriors fan and are suuuuper nice to you.
5. There are incredible breathtaking views at the end of so many streets.
6. Even for someone with as much privilege as I have, it takes an enormous amount of intention to live here. It takes a lot of energy to move around this tiny, 49 square-mile city among 850,000 of your neighbors.
7. It’s worth it. And I still have so much to learn.

Andy also runs a blog about pencils! You can find him at @woodclinched on Twitter.

So, what did you learn in your first years here? You too can add an entry to our collective journal. San Francisco Diaries is looking for your personal stories about what it means to live here, and what makes our city “so San Francisco.” Tag us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Our email inbox is always open!

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