San Francisco: The magical city where it's normal to be different

Richard Quest and Stacey Lastoe, CNNPublished 6th February 2019
Up next
(CNN) — The Summer of Love may be one for the history books, but you can't get far in San Francisco without being reminded of what it once was.
With its steep hills, colorful Victorian homes and remnants of the hopeful hippie life, San Francisco is like an unforgettable character from your favorite book.
Eclectic and evolving, clever and friendly, it will challenge your travel expectations and leave you breathless in more ways than one.
San Francisco has a magnetic pull — it's what keeps visitors returning again and again and what keeps creatives alive, in spite of an ever-changing industry landscape.
San Francisco has a magnetic pull — it's what keeps visitors returning again and again and what keeps creatives alive, in spite of an ever-changing industry landscape.
Soraya Matos
A walk through the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, more commonly just referred to as the Haight, you may get the sense that not much has changed.
A clock on the corner of the famous intersection is permanently set to 4:20, which is a well-worn reference to smoking marijuana, a substance legal in California and available for purchase in dispensaries throughout the city.
But the Haight isn't a haven for drugs, though experimentation continues to be a defining characteristic as seen through the art and surviving -- and thriving -- local businesses.
To wit: Distractions, a shop that's been around since 1976. It is one of the longest-standing merchants in the former "psychedelic" neighborhood, and it caters to a new generation of locals and visitors. Flapper dresses and other Victorian-era attire, which Distractions' owner Jimmy Siegel says was worn by the original hippies, is now most often sold to people with capital, an inevitable part of San Francisco's growth.
Colorful Victorian houses are what many have come to associate with San Francisco architecture.
Colorful Victorian houses are what many have come to associate with San Francisco architecture.
Soraya Matos
Siegel, who came to San Francisco as a street kid from Pennsylvania in 1972, embodies the Victorian era and hippie culture today in 2019. His passion is on display at his eclectic shop as well as in his five-story, meticulously restored Victorian home.
"We were trying to create an alternate society where money wasn't very important," Siegel explains. And although Siegel admits that his idea of him and his fellow hippies dropping out and creating their own society seems naive now, he has no desire to embrace the slick side of San Francisco.
He has an email address but prefers the phone.
08 magical San Francisco travel
Jimmy Siegel's Westerfeld House includes a psychedlic room that feels like stepping into a time machine.
Courtesy of Beau Molloy
A long-time participant in and proponent of Burning Man, an annual event typically associated with drug experimentation, live music and community-building, Siegel's house contains a bright psychedelic room. Wall-to-wall posters, a covered ceiling and lava lamps depicting the creative artists and musicians of the 1960s is an immersive experience, bordering on sensory overload.
What seems far out elsewhere finds a home in San Francisco.

A city of rebellion and defiance

But in San Francisco, and particularly in its neighboring Silicon Valley, about 40 miles from the city's center, money is important. It's a driving force behind the venture capitalist boom.
In fact, small-business owners like Siegel and other aspiring artists find dissonance in the burgeoning tech scene and a desire to be creative and form communities. And yet they stay in an act of defiance or perhaps simply because San Francisco, regardless of its changing industry landscape and recent sophistication, nonetheless encourages and embraces individuality.
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge provides glorious views from all over the city on clear days.
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge provides glorious views from all over the city on clear days.
Soraya Matos
Fred Turner, professor of communication at Stanford University, says that San Francisco got started as an alternative space as early as the 19th century. People migrated to the West for freedom back then, but according to Turner, moving West for freedom and to be seen, is a modern phenomenon too.
In an office with a seemingly infinite number of books, Turner pulls one title in particular: "The Last Whole Earth Catalog," a book was originally seen as a catalog for people starting out in communes. Steve Jobs, Turner points out, who lived on a commune for a year, talked about the book as a "proto-internet."
And when Mark Zuckerberg says he wants to build a Facebook system to connect people, "he's using the language of the communes," Turner explains.

The story of San Francisco

In spite of tech's strong presence and associated greed as many perceive it, if there's one thing that San Francisco still stands for, it's happiness.
12 magical San Francisco travel
Victorian homes still dominate San Francisco's streets, but now there are also a lot of new buildings — tall and shiny, they exemplify the growing tech scene.
Courtesy of Beau Molloy
For Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists, maybe money equals happiness, though Turner argues that this is simply the story of San Francisco: "Silicon Valley absorbs the creative energy, the self-centeredness, the consciousness orientation that is the San Francisco counterculture."
Each new tide brings change to the city and fortifies its spirit.
While at the outset, the entrepreneur lifestyle may seem to reside on the opposite end of the spectrum from the artist's way of life, the question is: Are they really all that disparate?

Like a moth to a flame

In 1974, artist Steve Silver and a group of his friends donned outlandish costumes and performed a theater of sorts on a San Francisco street corner. Enraptured viewers dropped bills in a jar, and Silver and his amateur entourage walked away that first night with $200.
While $200 was worth a lot more 45 years ago than it is today, according to the late artist's wife, Jo Schuman Silver, it wasn't the performers' driving force.
Now the show's producer, Schuman Silver carries on her late husband's legacy with back-to-back performances of "Beach Blanket Babylon" night after night. Housed in a theater in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, not far from the city's Little Italy district, the outlandish, hilarious and confident musical revue is known for its creative costumes.
10 magical San Francisco travel
Tammy Nelson has been a "Beach Blanket Babylon" cast member for 25 years. Her San Francisco skyline hat is impressive in both size and scope.
Courtesy of Beau Molloy
Huge and heavy headpieces, including one of San Francisco's skyline, are one of the show's defining, if frivolous, characteristics. That and the fact that the performance can change on a dime — or, rather, on the quick turn of a breaking news cycle.
"If there's something in the news, and I think the audience will care about it, and it's relevant," Schuman Silver says she will add it to the show immediately — that night.
"Beach Blanket Babylon" responds to pop culture phenomenon and trends and the Trump Administration's latest headlines, but it's not "too techy, or too slick," and, says Schuman Silver when pressed about what makes it so dynamic and enduring, "It's just San Francisco. It pulls you in."
In a city where anything goes, zany, over-the-top hats are the trademark of Beach Blanket Babylon, one of the longest-running musical revues in the world.

The city with secrets

If New York is the city that never sleeps, then San Francisco is the city where anything goes. No major city is quite so extreme, as evidenced by not only the landscape, which can be unforgiving depending on which direction you're walking, biking or driving, but also by the diverse array of neighborhoods and the locals and tourists that fill them.
Walk a couple of blocks in any direction, and things will look markedly different from neighborhood to neighborhood, though you'll still be in the same liberal city.
It was once the epicenter of the gay movement. It was once the place where people went to have their minds blown -- to turn on, tune in and drop out, as Siegel describes tripping on acid. San Francisco isn't devoid of these elements. They just aren't quite as prevalent.
North America's oldest Chinatown is still thriving in San Francisco.
North America's oldest Chinatown is still thriving in San Francisco.
Soraya Matos
Fortunately, drug-free visitors can have their minds blown with a visit to North America's oldest Chinatown, where hole-in-the-wall dim sum shops and Chinese bakeries line the orderly streets.
A stop at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, often helmed by third-generation Vivian Chan, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the eponymous Chinese cookie. Each cookie, fresh off the hot iron presses and formed into its moon shape by hand, contains a fortune.
"When in doubt, see the future."
"The near future holds a gift of contentment."
Writer and San Francisco chronicler Armistead Maupin, who calls San Francisco's values the best in the world, would likely be OK with these fortunes.
San Francisco, he says, is about "finding yourself and being yourself and accepting others who are doing the same thing."
One family-run shop is turning out 10,000 sweet prophecies a day. But, it's not as easy as it looks. Richard Quest tries his hand at making the cookie that San Francisco claims it invented.

Love and peace and progress

It may be that this is easier to do in a city such as San Francisco where love and peace were once the weapons of the revolution.
Maupin recognizes potential challenges with the current administration, however, but isn't worried about his city, which he calls a place of safety.
"Freedom once tasted, especially on the part of gay people, is not going to be given up without a fight," Maupin explains, shedding some light on the magnetic draw of the ever-magical city that is San Francisco.