Noe Valley Voice April 2005

Family Adventures Close to Home:
Telegraph Hill Thrills

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

"Where are we?" asks Miles. "North Beach," I say.

The winter rains have finally given way to sunshine, and the whole city seems to have turned out for a cappuccino at the café tables lining Columbus Avenue. It does feel like another place.

"Are we in Sausalito?" asks Miles' buddy Nick.

At 9, these boys have lived most of their lives a stone's throw from 24th Street, so their world view is Noe-centric. They're skeptical when I tell them we're still in San Francisco. I point to Coit Tower rising above North Beach from its perch on Telegraph Hill.

"You'll be able to see the whole city when we get to the top," I say. "We're going to climb up Coit Tower."

"Do we get to eat first?" asks Miles.

We take a table at Café Divine on Washington Square, a place so charmingly European that it only enhances the boys' suspicion that Muni has mysteriously swept them to a faraway land. Prada-clad 20-somethings chatter in Italian at the table next to us, as a French couple share the front section of Le Monde. The coffee is heavenly.

The boys, fortified by sticky cinnamon rolls and apple juice, announce that they're ready to go to the top of the tower.

We turn up Filbert Street, and after only a modest amount of huffing and puffing, we find ourselves in the pocket-sized Pioneer Park, overlooking the bay.

The area was already a city park when the city chose it as the site to honor Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a flamboyant San Franciscan who moved to the city in 1851 at age 7. Rescued from a burning building at age 8, she became an ardent supporter of the city's Fire Department. She was known for wearing a diamond-studded honorary SFFD badge throughout her life. When she died in 1929, she bequeathed a third of her modest fortune to the city, for the purpose of "adding beauty."

Since the monument's completion in 1933, many people have assumed that the ungainly concrete tower, which resembles a fire hose nozzle, was an homage to Coit's beloved firefighters. The tower's architect always denied this, however. Regardless of its intent, Coit Tower has become a city icon, visible from most areas east of Twin Peaks.

As we scan the downtown skyline while stopping for a short rest at the foot of the tower, Miles points and shouts, "There's the Ferry Building! This is San Francisco."

"Isn't that the place with the good ice cream?" Nick asks.

Both boys turn to me with expectant looks.

"We can go there after we climb up the tower," I say.

"This isn't the top?" Miles says.

I point to the arched windows that ring the top of the tower.

"That's the top," I tell the boys.

Their moaning and groaning ceases when they spot the frescoes covering the walls of Coit Tower's entry-level lobby.

"Cool!" Miles says. "They look like comics!"

The frescoes were created by 26 master artists who went to work in 1934 under the auspices of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, an organization designed to give artists, writers, and laborers jobs during the Great Depression.

The murals reflect the Social Realist style of the time, and were inspired by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, whose controversial Rockefeller Center mural featuring a prominent portrait of Vladimir Lenin had recently been destroyed.

The boys, both avid comic book readers and creators, move among the murals whispering about the techniques and colors. I tell them that the themes of agriculture, education, and urban life reflect the artists' support for labor movements and the nobility of the worker. The boys ignore me.

"Look at those guns," Miles says.

He and Nick pause to admire George Harris' "Banking and Law" fresco, depicting a group of lawyers reading on one side and guards with rifles protecting money bags on the other.

"What do you think it means?" I ask.

Nick considers the mural. "The police are actually thieves in disguise, and they're helping those other guys steal the money. The lawyers should be watching, but they're just sitting around reading instead."

A middle-aged hippie behind us chuckles and says, "I'm sure the artist would approve of that interpretation."

The boys are delighted to discover the "Stairs Closed" sign taped to the door of the stairway. As we wait for the elevator, its bronze floor indicator rotates around the compass-point fresco that decorates the arch above the entrance.

"It's like in Charlie Chaplin movies," Miles says.

The illusion of the past disappears when we enter the elevator. The operator is wearing baggy pants and sports several piercings; Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" blasts from tinny speakers, an incongruity that makes me laugh out loud.

At the top of the tower, the entire city rolls out before us, looking picture-postcard-perfect on this sunny spring afternoon. The boys watch a regatta in the bay and then track the slow progress of a barge transporting a pair of cranes to the port of Oakland.

The wide concrete window ledges are lined with coins left by earlier visitors. Among the pennies, nickels, and dimes, we spot rupees, yen, euros, pesos, lira, real, and dinar, but locked windows with brass mullions and thick-paned glass prevent the boys from sweeping up the loot like the alleged thieves in the mural below.

Nevertheless, they devise a tool from a piece of paper that they use to dislodge a few coins. By the time we make our descent in the clunky elevator, Nick is 9 cents richer and Miles is up by 7 cents.

We bypass the long line of grumpy drivers waiting for a spot in Coit Tower's tiny parking lot and find the Filbert Steps, which lead down the lush north side of Telegraph Hill. As we scamper down the stairs, we pass tiny Depression-era cottages, grand Art Deco apartment buildings, and a few contemporary Mediterranean-style homes. Magical little gardens line the wooden steps, and the sounds of the city retreat. The boys dawdle at each landing, pointing out garden sculptures, cats, and colorful mosses.

At Napier Lane, we follow a distinctive squawking noise down a wooden walkway. There, we spot the flock of wild parrots that call Telegraph Hill their home, perched in a tall evergreen. We watch them, their red crowns dotting the greenery until a cat darts past, causing the parrots to light in unison, filling the air with squawks and clucks. The cat slinks back past us, looking a little more than satisfied with its efforts.

"We should move here," Miles says when he spots the garbage tubes built into the hillside. "We could jump in these and slide down to the street."

"Where are we again?" Nick asks.

"San Francisco still," I say, laughing.

"I've never seen this neighborhood before," Miles says. "But I want to come back."

We exit the stairs and cross into Levi's Plaza, where the boys play in the concrete fountain, leaping from one square stepping stone to another and pretending they're about to fall in every time they spot me coming close.

We cross the Embarcadero and make our way through the throngs to the Ferry Building, where we enjoy delicious gelatos from Ciao Bella.

As we walk down Market Street to Muni, Nick and Miles stop and drop the coins they got in the tower into a homeless man's cup.

I like to believe that the work of the Social Realists had some impact.


Avoid driving if you can. There is limited parking at Coit Tower and usually a long wait for a space. We took Muni to Washington Square. Then we walked up Filbert Street from Columbus, an easy walk for older kids, but probably a little challenging for the under-7 set.

The #39 Muni bus goes to Coit Tower every 20 minutes from Washington Square. Or for the scenic route, hike up the Filbert or Greenwich Steps from Montgomery Street (east side of Telegraph Hill).

Hours: Coit Tower is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no charge for viewing the murals on the first floor. The elevator ride to the top of the tower costs $3 for adults and $1.50 for kids. Murals on the second floor are available only on tour at 11 a.m. on Saturday, or by special arrangement (phone: 415-362-0808).