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Bay City

USA | Saturday, 4 July 2009 | Views [444]

In San Francisco you reach finally the Pacific, that vast unquiet ocean whose waves hammer also on my next and then final destinations, New Zealand and Australia. The water is cold, and wreaths the land in layers of fog and mist that separate the mainland from the north pointing isthmus. On Tuesday from Oakland nothing is visible, on Friday the top of the Golden Gate is lost in cloud.

The city itself sits mostly away from open water, on a bay linked to the mainland by the graceful sweep of two bridges and the subterranean plunge of the metro system. The Embarcadero, the road that winds along the coast, hosts numerous piers, relics from the days of the city's role as an entrepot and trading nexus. So it is possible, even so close to the urban centre, to step out over the blankness of water and look back at the a downtown that builds in a central mound and descends to single stories at both left and right extremities.

Everywhere visible is the high needle of the TransAmerica pyramid, a building whose symbol is its own silhouette. No modernist box, it tapers from massively triangulated base to sharp tip in singular, clean lines. There is no flat roof and then the final jut of radio masts, just this upward sweep. In defiance, perhaps, of the fault lines that cross the city and threaten always to bring it down.

It is this fear of quakes that will soon undo the less famous of the bridges, the grey triple span of the Bay Bridge. What will replace it is unclear. Rumours circulate of partial recycles, temporary bridges built at impossible cost, the despair of city finances. It is of course the other bridge that tourists cross, high and orange and linking Marin County in the north with parklands and the converted bulk of a former military base and airfield. You brace against the wind and traffic noise and look out across the bay and over Alcatraz, the former prison, the shining gold dome of the Palace of Fine Arts, the city skyline in the distance.

Up close life in the city is more prosaic. Unlike most American cities, who have over the last decade chased their homeless away, SF not only allows their presence but hosts extensive missions and outreach programs. So the city, during the day, is full of clusters of beggars and the urine soaked rags of sleepers sprawled across the pavement, a pink jut of ankle the only sign of the flesh within. At night, safe behind the walls of your hotel, you hear only cries and yelps and the distant wail of sirens.

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