My Ex-City

San Francisco is fantastically beautiful, charismatic, smart, and compelling; also insane, abusive, and cruel. Visiting SF is like visiting a psycho ex. I lived and loved there 1991-2002, and my feelings will forever be mixed.

Flying into SFO. Already the colors are being all beautiful and kinda crazy in that California way.
Taking BART from SFO to the City. That’s not smog; it’s layers of filth on the BART windows. BART is a shameful disgrace, like everything supposedly “public” in San Francisco.
Where once were Rainbow flags are now Trans flags.
Bright shiny City Hall amidst block after block of destitute homeless people.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s fancy Shabbat Dinner was in City Hall’s North Light Court, and it was great – many thoughtful, smart, interesting, and kind people. My first night in SF, and I was already glad I came!
I spent all Saturday sleeping, resting, and staring out my hosts’ amazing picture window, but Sunday I headed out on foot. I stayed in China Basin, which is mostly unrecognizable from my SF days.
This is still somewhat similar to how it looked in the 1990’s…
…but this stuff did not exist when I lived there.
Walkin’ through the Mission. This looks more or less the same – most of the businesses are different, and real estate has quintupled in price, and the people are largely different (so many techbros), but the buildings haven’t changed much, unlike China Basin, which is like a whole new city. I mostly took photos of familiar views, because nostalgia.
Whiz Burgers is still there! Although it appears to be shuttered. I never once ate there, but it’s a landmark.
The Women’s Building is still there, and its murals appear to be in great shape. The Mother-womb stuff always bugged me when I lived in SF, since I was (and am) adamantly childfree. I appreciate it more today. I wonder if activists now complain the murals are transphobic?
Dolores Park. The downtown skyline has more phallic symbols since my SF days, but the overall view is largely the same.
My old neighborhood, sometimes referred to as Noe Hill. Steep hills, great views, beautiful houses and flowers and trees. I got overwhelmed with feelings, old hopes and dreams and youthful delusions past. Time compressed. How did I get to be 51?
My old address, 572 Hill Street.
I lived in the tiny shack on the roof of 572 Hill from 1991 to 1996. It has ever since been occupied by my friend Mitch Altman. The Sunday I visited happened to be his last day at the Pentshack ever – the building is being sold, he was given some money to leave, and his remaining possessions were in suitcases to move to Berlin the following morning.
View from the Pentshack. I spent endless hours staring out this window.
Another view from the staircase landing of the Pentshack. I still have dreams about this place.
Walking down the hill to the Castro. Buffalo Whole Foods is still there! One of the few tenacious businesses to stick around.
Seder-Masochism at the CASTRO THEATER!!! This was personal indeed.
Inside the Castro. It was a lovely screening, people laughed and clapped and no one tried to beat me up with a baseball bat.
Back at the Pentshack after the screening. So many times I watched the fog roll over Twin Peaks like this. Sigh.
The next morning my friend the photographer Jezzka Chen took me to North Beach, including the fascinating art deco Maritime Museum, which was free, unlike almost everything else in the City. It had vintage phone booths but no phones.
I hardly even looked at the exhibits – I was too bowled over by the building itself, especially its mosaics and murals.
Murals by Hilaire Hiller.
I have so many dreams set in my subconscious’ version of San Francisco. Walking around there is like walking through a dream. When I dreamt about this spot, it was filled with water — but it was nonetheless this spot.

It was a quick trip, but filled with FEELINGS. I love my friends there (I LOVE YOU!!) and so much about the place is great, but believe me, it is also hellish and insane. I didn’t really take pictures of the hell though. Maybe next time. Much of the hell there is other people, and I didn’t want to violate their privacy, inasmuch as anyone has privacy in that shiny dystopia.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

7 thoughts on “My Ex-City”

  1. Wow. I visited SF in 1997, to see a friend who as it turns out lived exactly in the neighborhood you did, Noe Hill, by Delores Park. Went to the Castro too.

    Little did I know we’d be neighbors in a future other life…

  2. I used to eat regularly at Taqueria Cancun when I was on sabbatical in SoMa. Thanks for showing me it’s still going strong!

  3. I lived in Glen Park from 1986-1999, then moved to Sebastopol for 4 years, and came back to MN. I used to walk to Noe Valley. I visited last fall, and your comment, “I have so many dreams set in my subconscious’ version of San Francisco.” was exactly what I had for years(!!) And then I visited, after a 16 year absence. The emotions hit me when I walked through Glen Park Canyon, where I used to walk my dogs pretty much everyday. That park is AMAZING. SF will always be in my mind & heart – so many vivid memories of that time. And, interestly, I rarely have any more dreams of the city.

  4. ≈ I still remember the morning view of fog coming over Twin Peaks in the morning. Also, I went to Can-Cún this very evening.

  5. You can’t go home again, right? To me, the city has a whole different vibe, a different feel, than back in the ’80s and 90s when I was dying to live in CA. Most recent visit was in Jan 2018 and couldn’t wait to leave. It was so depressing…
    But I’m so relieved it went well for you! No degenderettes wielding bats or anything… <3

  6. ≈ Regarding the trans flag images on poles, that bit of the Tenderloin has been designated the Transgender Cultural District due to the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot nearby, which was in response to the SFPD persecuting cross-dressed men. One still sees the rainbow flag in other parts of the city. I think this riot is worthy of attention, and memorializing it is preferable to the recent efforts to revise the history of the Stonewall riots.

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