Sunday, January 8, 2012

San Francisco For The New Year

We went down to San Francisco over the holidays and spent New Year’s Eve – and way too much of New Year’s morning – at the last performance there for a time of Teatro ZinZanni, the mash up of dinner theater, European circus arts, musical comedy and all of it gender optional.  It’s a performance where you never sit in the front row, lest some androgenal performer makes you a part of the show like reaching into your shirt, stroking your nipple and narrating the physiological consequences. 
Norm Langill, founder of One Reel Vaudeville, started ZinZanni in Seattle back in 1998 as a short term, holiday event.  It stayed sold out for more than a year and he opened a San Francisco venue after two years.  The 19th century tent in which the performance occurs is located near what will become the finish line of the America’s Cup sailboat race which San Francisco hosts in 2013, so he has to move the production. 

We also spent some time closely observing the traffic and development on the Embarcadero.  It has some similarities to the Seattle waterfront that will evolve once the tunnel is finished and the big ugly viaduct gets torn down and recycled.  The Embarcadero once was home to an ugly fifties style viaduct of its own that was damaged by the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 and removed.  We also spent quite a bit of time in the San Francisco Ferry Terminal, the new first citizen of the Embarcadero, that is now recast as a kind of Pike Place Market and beautifully done.

Finally, we drove out to Healdsburg in the Sonoma Valley about sixty miles North of San Francisco, a place we’ve been going for thirty years, just to see how the little square was holding up to all the cool foodies and high end hotels and artists.  Okay, maybe the other reason was to drink some wine in the Alexander and Dry Creek wine appellations and drive through the vines along the country lanes that break your heart when you turn around and head for home. 

Norm Langill
Teatro ZinZanni
Langill started One Reel Vaudeville in 1972, performing sketches, music and satire on a stage that folded out of the back of an old truck.  I once hired One Reel for a campaign event and spent the afternoon wondering what it would be like if I hid under the stage and rode off with these clever people.  Of course, I chickened out.

One Reel developed into Seattle’s special events manager and created the events we all grew up with and took our kids to – Bumbershoot, Family Fourth at Lake Union, Summer Nights at the Pier.  Langill has had a much larger effect on our community culture than most people understand.  His events have defined the lives of many thousands of people across several generations.  Last year, Langill left One Reel to focus on ZinZanni and other event ventures across the world.  He has found a new place to put his tent in San Francisco, but developing it will take most of 2012.  They plan on opening sometime in the Fall to be ready for the monster event the America’s Cup will be in San Francisco Bay.

Viaduct in 1960
Port of San Francisco
During the ferry terminal’s centennial year, 1998, the Port of San Francisco put out a request for proposals to redevelop it.  The San Francisco Ferry Terminal sits in the middle of the waterfront and it had deteriorated, along with its other finger pier neighbors, during the viaduct days.  The Embarcadero Freeway was part of a 1951 master freeway plan for San Francisco that envisioned a ring road around the commercial core and elevated connections between the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. 

As the plan took concrete form, however, neighborhoods and preservationists organized, culminating in a full revolt in 1959 that stopped several projects, including the Embarcadero Freeway, where it lurked, mutely, awaiting its date with Loma Prieta. 
By 2003, a public/private partnership had renovated and reopened the ferry terminal, investing $140 million to create a space that looked, the day we visited, very much like our Pike Place Market.  It brings 6,000,000 people a year to visit – 75% of whom live in and around San Francisco.  It is also in the pathway of another 1,000,000 foot ferry passengers who come through. Friends we visited say they buy their dinners many nights on their way home across the bay. It has also become one of San Francisco’s top five tourist destinations. Every other day, the front of the terminal is home to a classic farmer’s market which complements the more permanent markets inside the hall. 

In addition to the market, there are 175,000 square feet of office space in the terminal (think 12% of the Columbia Tower) and the office spaces are equally wonderful.
The accomplishment in San Francisco is even more impressive when you consider how many markets just don’t get off the ground. Other communities in California like Oakland, Napa, Santa Rosa in the Bay Area are all struggling with their efforts to mimic the ferry terminal.  The public market in Los Angeles remains second class at best. 

It’s hard not to wonder, standing in the middle of such a lovely space, how Seattle’s Colman Dock Ferry Terminal will likely evolve on the new waterfront that takes place once our viaduct is finally gone.  One certain lesson from San Francisco is that our waterfront will evolve slowly, likely more slowly than we would prefer.  The Embarcadero Freeway was damaged in 1989, torn down in 1992 and the RFP for ferry terminal development was issued in 1998.  Five years later, it opened – fourteen years total. 

Because of the volumes of money involved and the sensitivity of the areas involved, slow and steady is not a bad rule for our waterfront development.  Twenty years from now Pioneer Square, for example, will house many more people and be a different place with different possibilities for the waterfront's south end.  Similarly, development just south of Colman Dock -- Pier 48, owned by the State Department of Transportation and Pier 46, still owned by the Port of Seattle, will have a lot to do with what happens at the ferry terminal.  The reverse is also true, putting a little urgency into coming up with a big idea for the terminal, even if we can't afford all of it just now.
City of Seattle, Colman Dock in the foreground

There is no proposal yet for Colman Dock in the evolving waterfront plan, just a set of ideas and concepts put together by the design consultant.  One of those concepts has Seattle’s terminal as a platform for a large, outdoor space constructed on the ferry terminal’s roof. 

The Seattle terminal brings some impressive pluses to any development.  It gathers lots of people.  About 200,000 ferry customers walk through the terminal each week, more than 8.5 million people annually.  The ferry system thinks 25% of those are tourists.  

It also has some negative numbers.  There are a lot of cars – nearly 700 cars an hour at peak -- so that whatever happens there has to rise above the cars.  In San Francisco, all the ferries at the terminal are passenger-only.  Colman Dock is not at the center of the waterfront as is the San Francisco terminal, but rather at its southern end.  It could use some permanent people productive activity to its south so that it is not the last stop on the waterfront.   With Seattle already having the Pike Market and with its connection to the waterfront considerably enhanced in the future waterfront design, it is unlikely a market would be a part of a revised use of the terminal.  But you can feel how cool it would be to have something that is equally as dynamic on the south side of the waterfront.  Thinking big is my thought for Colman Dock.

Healdsburg Museum
About the same time the San Francisco Ferry terminal opened, the little square at Healdsburg had a spare kind of look, geometric. But it was a prospering community, soon to lose its naked look to something more lush.  The founder, Harmon Heald, had plated the town right after statehood, in 1850, and had sold his lots at a brisk pace. 

The Russians, back in the early 1800s, planted grapes and made wine and noted that wine grapes were a good fit for the area.  However, when Agostin Haraszthy, the Hungarian immigrant, established the Buena Visita Winery in Sonoma in the 1850s, the idea of growing wine grapes started on its track to became an industry.

By 1920, at the cusp of Prohibition, Sonoma had 256 wineries and was farming 22,000 acres of grapes.  While tough on wineries – when repeal finally came along, just 50 wineries were left in Sonoma – the household individual exemption of 200 gallons a year of home made wine meant that farmers did well and their acreage had increased to 30,000 acres by 1933.

By the sixties, Sonoma wines were taking off, led by the Gallos, Sebastianis, Foppianos, Seghesio and other farming/producing immigrant families in the valley and followed by younger people who craved the food-centered lifestyle.  By the eighties, wine was pushing away dairy and the county’s considerable plum industry – the fruit of which the locals still call prunes – becoming the leading economic activity in the county.

Today, 49,000 acres are dedicated to grapes and 170 wineries are operating.
When I first started going to Healdsburg, in the late seventies, the little square wasn’t as prosperous and was home to a highly popular biker bar where no one really cared what the temperature was when the grapes were picked.  They were a hop crowd.  The tourism and lifestyle parts of the wine boom had not yet caught up to its production or quality.

By the 90s, you could get lovely food on the square and the Wine Country Inn, a Best Western in disguise, had a corkscrew everywhere you turned and rented us the top floor at a rate you'd die for today. This time, after an absence of ten years, the square is dominated by two large hotels, the Hotel Healdsburg, a Four star place sporting a Michelin star at its Dry Creek Kitchen and H2, a Euro-cool outfit next door.  The only bikes on the square today are little white Schwinns with front handlebar baskets at the H2.

There are 13 different wine appellations in Sonoma and we headed first for the Alexander Valley with a plan to cross over to Dry Creek after that.  However, just after we crossed the river, the alarm bells started going off as the Alexander Valley Store and Bar came into view, now disguised as a winery.  This better be good, I thought to myself as we circled the building.  The building is an historic part of the valley culture, plus it has a cool bar out back.  It is one of three historic country stores around Healdsburg and all of them look and feel like they belong right where they are just the way they are.

We walked in to the Medlock Ames tasting room and settled into a conversation with Victoria, a lovely and articulate woman who was a physics major from the University of California.  After trying to balance her paid job and her job of being a mother to four children, she dropped the balancing program and focused on the kids.  She now works a day a week at the tasting room.  Her father was a Bracero, the World War Two and post-war guest worker program the US started in the late thirties with Mexico.  Designed to bring workers from Mexico to places where they were needed in the US, Bracero means “strong arm.” Her Dad proved a strong arm and ultimately became an engineer and gave this country four children who found their way into the sciences and technology and also to the little tasting room near Healdsburg.

Victoria’s pours were sturdy and we were soon warming to the wine, the owners' story, the Bracero narrative and the wonderful job these young men had done with the Alexander Valley Store and Bar and with the organic grapes they grew, crushed and poured into bottles, apparently using little but gravity! The Bar doesn’t open until 5 PM, after the tasting room closes, but Victoria assured us that it was an equally good job and it remained a popular hangout for the locals.

We crossed over to Dry Creek, a tiny valley just a couple of miles wide and 11 miles long and home to Preston Vineyards, a time capsule of a place, pretty much unchanged from the time I first visited, seven years after Tom and Lori Preston first started taking out the prune orchard and putting in their grapes in 1972.  They would say it has changed a lot since they went organic, cut their grape production from 25,000 to 8,000 cases and started farming other products – vegetables, fruit, chickens, pigs, olives.

They are probably right about the changes in their business, but the physical venue is the same.  The old farm house tasting room is down a half mile long road, making a separation from the rest of the world and providing a bumpy journey back in time.  Cats are everywhere and require vigilance at the picnic table.

They still sell the jug wine, three liters for $36 dollars, made from odd lots of grapes tossed into bins during the crush, a bouillabaisse of a wine,
sold only on Sundays. 

Plenty has changed in Healdsburg, but it still keeps its authentic vibe.  The place carries its earnest demeanor even if many of the rooms now start at $400 bucks a night and the menus can come with a double-take.   It is still farm country.  There is still a barbershop and a tavern with a TV on the square.  And when the time comes to pull the rental car onto Highway 101, I'm still reaching for the Kleenex. 


  1. I really enjoyed reading San Francisco for the New Year. I think a trip to San Francisco and Healdsburg is in order for me now. I enjoyed the term hop crowd.

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