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It’s no secret we do what we do out of one of the greatest and most unique cities ever built. And one of our favorite San Francisco photographers is Fred Lyon: he’s on the high side of the nineties now, but he still shooting and we’re working up the nerve to ask him to work with us on a project.

Another seemingly disparate topic we love is the experience of driving in San Francisco. Hard to explain it, but as we were looking at Lyon’s work, it suddenly all came together for us: his images do a great visual job of exactly that! So, we thought we’d take you for a drive through our beloved hometown through the beautiful, mid-century work of Fred Lyon…

Let’s start with the image above. The fog in San Francisco has much to do with what we locals like to call ‘microclimates.’ For whatever topographic and oceanic reasons, the fog here can be localized to the point that it’s foggy in one neighborhood and sunny in the next – sometimes mere blocks from each other. The fog can be as fast as it is thick, too. It moves with the wind and one usually begat the other, making it a real challenge to drive in, but have no fear: when you reach the edge of the Sunset District (one of the foggiest neighborhoods…go figure) and drive into, say the Inner Richmond, you can actually watch as the front half of your car is shining in the sun and the back half is still shrouded in the dark fog. It’s like driving through a waterfall – it’s that dramatic. So cool…

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Most cities have some sort of light rail or street car system that puts steel tracks in the road surface. But we’ve also got the cable cars, on top of street cars. What does that mean? Well, it adds a whole ‘nuther element of craziness to driving. When the streets are wet, combined with the hills, those thin ribbons of steel and the big, flat service plates at intersections and random spots along them turn into small, skinny ice skating rinks for drivers. And riders – bikers say that San Francisco is one of the hairiest cities to ride in and if you do on any regular basis, you’ve earned some sort of stripe. We’ve seen loaded tour busses try to make a left up a hill, get the rears over those tracks on a wet day and get hung up for hours till one of those rig wreckers shows up to pull it. And that’s a show worth stopping your day for.

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The cable cars, ah the cable cars. There aren’t nearly as many as there used to be and the lines are pretty much restricted to one section of town anymore, but they’re slow and really popular with tourists. Both of which are to be avoided at all costs if you’re driving. Get stuck behind one of these and you’re going to see exactly what it means to ‘yield to cable car.’ It’s 19th Century technology on a 19th Century schedule in the middle of a very 21st Century city. Good times.

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Combine everything above with our hills. If you’ve never driven these streets, you’ll never forget your first time. When out-of-towners come to visit, we like to drive them around a certain route we figured out will do ‘em up just like a rollercoaster: when we pull up to the edge of California St. on Jones St. and pause so they can see nothing but the neighborhood hilltop a quarter mile away with nothing but air under the front bumper, then dip over the edge and instantly change our aspect about 60º, well, there are few things funnier than the face in the passenger seat.

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Remember what we were saying above? Well, an interesting result of the steep streets is what has to happen to the sidewalks on either side of them: steps. You know you’re on a steep hill when the sidewalk turns into a series of cement steps because the laws of gravity make the street impossible to climb or descend without notching it like this.

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Not to belabor the point, but we couldn’t talk about this stuff without showing you Lyons’ version of the famous view of California Street down on the flat section of the Financial District, looking up the hill in the background. Fucking glorious. And for the right money, the city will shut down this street so you can bomb it to your heart’s desire. We don’t have that kind of money.

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Our Chinatown is the best Chinatown in any U.S. city. Believe that. And as wonderful and mysterious and other-worldly as it is, it’s just as insane to drive in. The laws of western civilization’s driving culture are to be found in practice absolutely nowhere near Chinatown. There’s some sort of cultural disconnect between Chinatown’s residents and the mechanical limits of a car and we can’t figure out what it is. Now, we’ll also say that for every rule, there’s an exception and we’re working on an amazing story right now of some hidden gearheaddom under the surface streets of this fabled land within San Francisco. But, for the most part, the driving habits that have their roots in Chinatown and have spread out to other neighborhoods (you’re taking your life in your hands when you get behind the wheel anywhere on Clement St., for instance) will make your insurance company question every word that comes out of your mouth when you submit a claim…in Chinatown.

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Know what happens when you combine tight lanes of opposing traffic with no shoulders, made up of roughly 50% tourists and some of the most spectacular scenery in the world on either side of said traffic? You get the Golden Gate Bridge. At least once a year, there’s some sort of horrific tragedy on the bridge made up of distracted tourists driving into oncoming traffic on a street surface with only flimsy orange plastic rods sticking up out of it to separate opposing forces meeting at 45mph. Which is also why a speeding ticket is double on the GGB. Believe that.

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Don’t get us wrong – we’d live and work nowhere else. San Francisco is the best combination of car culture, food, music, art, architecture, landscape, weather and a nervous tectonic plate that’ll keep you on your toes. It ain’t for everyone and that suits us just fine, too. But when you come to visit, give us a hauler and we’ll take you for a little drive. Promise.


  1. FriscoDave says:

    Love my City!

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