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Friday, December 19, 2008

Invisible Cities

"At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume. And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again." ~ Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Tonight, my friend Chipmonkey (the lady of the long eyelashes) and The Boy and I will be attending a presentation called "Lost Landscapes of San Francisco."

This lecture will be part of the ongoing use of my Mental Stimulus Package that I came up with recently. For those of you who know my penchant for history, and especially the history of this particular city that has captured my imagination, I can't wait for the rare finds we'll get to see tonight. From the program description:

Rick Prelinger is a guerrilla archivist who collects the uncollected and makes it accessible. Prelinger will be presenting his third annual "Lost Landscapes of San Francisco" event, an eclectic montage of lost and rarely-seen film clips showing life, landscapes and labor in a vanished San Francisco as captured by amateurs, newsreel cameramen and industrial filmmakers.

How we remember and record the past reveals much about how we address the future. Prelinger will preface the film with a brief talk on how fragmentary, incomplete histories are being overtaken by pervasive real-time documentation, and how history, memory and property are combining into a new matrix of experience.


On my own, I'm always looking for remnants of San Francisco's past, juxtaposed against the constant construction I see on a daily basis. One of our favorite pastimes is to watch old movies set in San Francisco, and freeze frame scenes that show a location that we might try to place in the maps of our minds. And when we can, we make little pilgrammages, too.

I happen to love finding old brick buildings, because brick buildings of unreinforced masonry are a little more rare when you live in a town associated with earthquakes. But even more so, I love finding these old painted advertisements on the sides of buildings.

These painted signs are becoming an endangered species, whether due to the desecration by graffitists or destruction in the wake of "progress." I treasure my glimpses of them and rejoice when I find a new one in my wanderings. I am trying to take photos of as many of them as I can, my own little collection of San Francisco's city within a city.

I have a recent photograph of a building and that is all that remains. I found the yellow painted billboard advertising for an ancient brand of cigarettes on an early morning walk on my way to the office. And now that building is no more. Just my memory of it and the photograph. Places are always devouring themselves and becoming new, but how quickly a place can become unrecognizable to itself.

I was never able to finish Invisible Cities before. I really wanted to, but it always made me sleepy (I fault myself and not the author). I tried to read the book before I went to Venice, and also when I returned home. Perhaps after tonight I will try it again (I have two copies of it floating around the house), and see if I can't start to weave my own imagined stories of San Francisco, for me and to share with you.


ps.: First two photos taken downtown, on Kearny Street. Last photo taken in the Tenderloin.


Adam December 19, 2008 at 3:08 PM  

I find myself doing much the same in my own city. People find fascination with different things in life. I always applaud people who go out of their way to learn about the city around them.

I did much the same thing a few years ago in my City. (Cleveland). I have found out that in November/December people drive from all over to go see the Christmas Story house. The movie that runs for 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve on either TBS or TNT was filmed in Cleveland. For someone who lives in a city such as Sanfrancisco, this is nothing new, but to us Clevelanders its a subject of much pride.
Nice work! I look forward to reading what your finds are regarding your 'Mental Stimulus Package'

Adam December 19, 2008 at 3:10 PM  


Typing comments on my BlackBerry can be difficult and riddled with typos. I love my RSS feeder because I am alerted to new blogs that I write almost immediately!

I feel like such a creep!

Char December 19, 2008 at 3:13 PM  

I love those shots!!! gorgeousness

tangobaby December 19, 2008 at 4:06 PM  

Hi Adam,

I agree. There's so much to learn about where we are. Faraway and intriguing destinations might be merely a few miles from home, if we care to look.

I happen to know all about the house from The Christmas Story (I have the collector's DVD) and this year, The Boy read me an article about a tour you can go on to the house and I think the school, too. Believe me, if it was closer, I would LOVE to go. That movie is really one of my favorites and I watch it whether it's Christmas or not.

Plus, The Boy looks like the incarnation of Ralphie, from his cordoroys and sweaters to his horn-rimmed glasses. I'm convinced he's the grown up version!

ps. The "Mental Stimulus Package" is what I called the $600 "Economic Stimulus Package": that tax rebate we got that the Shrub thought would incentivize us to help the economy. I decided to spend it on interesting educational opportunities, of which this is the third or fourth already.

pss. Better watch that Blackberry so you don't mess up your thumbs! But thanks for writing!

@Char: Thank you...I mean to put more of my billboard photos up on Flickr soon so you can see more of them.

~K December 19, 2008 at 4:16 PM  

You really are a modern day Donna Di Pilazzo! :-)

tangobaby December 19, 2008 at 4:19 PM  

Hi ~K,

I don't know who that is. Will you enlighten me?

Bill Stankus December 19, 2008 at 4:31 PM  

The name remains the same but everything changes. Cities evolve so quickly, especially with the population explosion.

I think West Coast cities, from San Diego to Seattle have experienced volatile change overs, important landmarks disappear before most realize they're gone.

I think I mentioned this to you before but I want to move the SF as it was in Vertigo, DOA or The Man Who Cheated Himself.

tangobaby December 19, 2008 at 4:37 PM  

Me, too, Bill. I want the DOA, Thieves Highway and Dark Passage San Francisco. I don't even need it to be in color.

Did I tell you that The Boy and I met the son of the owner of the Argonaut Bookstore? He had some fun stories to share about his dad and Alfred Hitchcock. And I work right in the area where Scotty followed Madeline to the flower shop. And the time we found Scotty's apartment (Lombard at Green, I think it is), we were so excited! It looks exactly the same.

I wish city planners would realize that having roots and history is just as important as having "live-work" space and other modern manias. People need to feel connected to things with a sense of time and place, and modern architecture will never accomplish that, until it's a couple of centuries old.

Yoli December 19, 2008 at 4:42 PM  

Everything disappears so fast. I was in Beijing early this year and already places I had seen from two years before were gone. Same where I live in Key Largo and let me not get started on Key West. I love that you like to chronicle your city's past, preserve it in some way. The way you marry the images with your words always fascinates me. You are a true artist lady.

Bill Stankus December 19, 2008 at 10:05 PM  

Unbeknownst to most people, I've been building a time machine in my garage... when it's ready, I'll time-by and honk... SF circa 1952, next stop!

paris parfait December 20, 2008 at 5:36 AM  

Love the photos. And Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is one of my favourite books of all time. I discovered it when living in the Middle East and fell in love. It is always with me, wherever I travel for long. So many life lessons in that book. Every time I read it, I see something I didn't notice before...xo

jfrancis December 20, 2008 at 8:01 AM  

History are the ashes
worth keeping.

Ron December 20, 2008 at 8:05 AM  

I like your blog a lot. I have never been to SF but have always wanted to visit. I like your photography and the way you write.

Very nice and entertaining reading... its become part of my day


Christina December 22, 2008 at 9:22 AM  

I have a love for painted signs. You know I have fallen in love with these pics, right? : )