Archive for the why san francisco is awesome Category

SF Oddities: The Roman Columbarium: House of the Living Dead

Posted in digital journalism, SF Oddities, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome with tags , , on May 1, 2008 by lenzbreakr

The Roman-style Columbarium, located smack dab in the middle of San Francisco, is perhaps the oddity of all SF oddities. 

Built in 1897, the Columbarium-meaning “dove cove”, as the structures were originally used by the Romans to house domesticated doves-opened its’ doors to the public to provide an alternate option when passing into the afterlife. Cremation was popular at the time-after all, who wants to be stuck underground in a wooden box forever?

The Columbarium gives each member of the departed their won physical, tangible space (essentially a small box) in which they can display personal items, photographs or just about anything they or their loved ones would like to represent their lives. 

Some choose to display only their names and the dates of birth and death. 

Others include pictures of loved ones, toy figurines, and miscellaneous trinkets and objects that represent personal tastes.








In 1910 the city of San Francisco outlawed cremations, meaning the Columbarium, and its on-site crematory were now without use. In 1923, the city passed another ordinance requiring all bodies to be moved from cemetaries within the city, such as the cemetary that previously stood on the grounds of Lone Mountain at USF.

While the Columbarium was saved from demolition, it succumbed to racoons, pigeons, water, and even growing mushrooms and other fungi from 1934 to 1979. Fortunately, just a few years later they hired a man named Emmitt to clean and paint the deteriorating Columbarium. 

Emmitt turned what could have been an unfulfilling task into his life’s work. He took an immediate curiosity to the odd structure and over the course of the past 21 years has physically invested all his strength and effort into restoring the now beautiful Columbarium, painting, cleaning, restoring, giving tours and just about anything you could imagine on the grounds. Here is what it looks like on the meticulously kept inside.

















In the pictures above, each small box is a person’s resting place.

Emmitt explained to me that having such a place makes dealing with the death of a loved one much easier to cope with. Rather than deal with funerals and cemeteries, things that conjure dark and negative images, the Columbarium brings life and air to something that is normally stagnant and dead. When I told Emmitt that I thought the Columbarium looked liked someone’s big house, he replied,

“It is a house, a house of the dead”.

This is a truly unique place, as the San Francisco Columbarium is the only remaining Roman-style Columbarium in the world. It’s a place in which people can think outside the box, while at the same time being dead, and inside a box. 


SF Oddities: The Palace of Fine Arts

Posted in digital journalism, SF Oddities, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome with tags , , on April 28, 2008 by lenzbreakr

I have discovered, in the Christopher Columbus sense of discovering, yet another SF oddity; the Palace of Fine Arts.

The Greek and Roman inspired “palace” is made up of a central standing domed structure (currently under renovation) that is surrounded by a series of colonnades.

Adjacent to the large looming structures is a small man made lake filled with seagulls, ducks, geese and turtles.

Below is a slideshow of how it looked when I was there on a magnificent day with my magnificent girlfriend Alicia (plus some added effects thanks to

The history behind the creation of this misfit structure is amazing.

The Palace was built to be part of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, essentially a world’s fair, which was aimed at celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean, and San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire. (

The architecture is stunning.

Walking underneath the structures feels just like being in Manhattan; your neck is craned upwards at the sky and you feel like you have been warped into the world of Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

A few years after the world-renowned fair, the beautiful structures were abandoned; once America entered the Depression and WWII, they succumbed to neglect, abuse, and they served as military posts among other odd things-much different than what was their original intention (i.e. Dutch Windmill).

Luckily, restoration efforts in the 1960’s led to the palace being completely rebuilt to its original condition.

There is no doubt that the palace is an oddity; its out of a completely different time period and a completely different side of the world. I’m not sure if it looks more out of place in pictures taken during modern contemporary culture, or in pictures from the early 20th century, when San Francisco was still developing.

All in all, the Palace of Fine Arts might not offer a great amount of in-your-face excitement, but it will without a doubt provide a great place to relax, have a picnic, or just simply walk around outdoors on a nice San Francisco day. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet someone interesting….I sure did…..


This is “Dog”.

Dog was born and raised in the Mission district of San Francisco.

He is 44 years old. 28 years of his life have been spent in prison.

When I spotted Dog he was bent over on his hands and knees at the edge of the lake seen above.

At first I couldn’t make out what he was doing. However, as I got closer I realized that he was reaching into the lake to pick up trash.

While this act in itself is not out of the ordinary, I was somewhat perplexed and immediately curious about this crouched figure and his eco-friendly deed.

As he stood up I approached him and said “excuse me”. He didn’t hear me at first I soon noticed because he had headphones on, so I repeated myself only this time louder, “EXCUSE ME, SIR”.

After a semester of David Silver’s zen, the word “shy” no longer exists.

Dog turned around and i greeted him with a friendly handshake. “Hi, I’m Miles”.

He seemed a little hesitant and somewhat weary but he shook my hand and we immediately jumped into conversation. I asked him, “what were you just doing? why were you picking up that trash was it yours?”

He explained to me that the trash was not his, but he felt that since he had been in prison for so much of his life, picking up trash was something that he could now offer to give back to the community that he once took from.

Dog went on to tell me that he used to be involved with gangs, and was addicted to PCP and crack cocaine. However, through being in and out of prison for most of his life, he has gained an intense new spirituality that he follows to guide him down the right path. Today he is in an everyday battle to steer clear of the negative demons all around him, and somehow figure out the human formula for happiness.

For Dog that path has been trying. He talked about how in and out of prison over the course of many years, people have constantly provoked him and tried to bring him down to a lower level.

The worst example he gave was of a time when a group of men attacked him on the street in the Mission, stabbing him eight times with a phillips screwdriver.

Picking up trash is just one way for Dog to maintain his higher ground, something he seems to now have a very strong grasp of.

He preached to me about learning compassion and love and knowledge and how those things can enable each and every one of us to achieve limitless possibilities. These ideals, along with his spirituality and faith have kept Dog out of prison for two years now.

His goals are simply to be happy, and to re-establish contact with his 9 year old daughter, who he put into foster care when he began his most recent prison sentence.


While I was walking and picking Dog’s brain, we ran into a woman who offered us free tickets to the Exploratorium that lies on the palace grounds.

We graciously accepted the tickets and proceeded indoors to the short line leading into the exploratorium.

Dog got to the ticket window first and when he tried to enter, the staff member questioned him about whether or not he had a receipt for his ticket. When Dog admitted that he did not, the power-tripping peon proceeded to tell Dog that he could not enter.

I immediately interjected, eagerly lending a hand to my new friend.

“Well I have one of those tickets too. A lady outside gave them to us and she paid for them, why can’t we go in?”

The peon looked at me dumbfounded. He assumed that I didn’t know Dog, and that he was probably doing the rest of the museum-goers and myself a favor by kicking him out, seeing as he looks like and indeed is an ex-con.

“Is that policy in writing?”, I blurted. “WHY DO WE NEED A RECEIPT?”.

At that moment Dog turned and began to head for the door. Simultaneously the staff members’ supervisor emerged from a back room. I didn’t even wait for her to ask what was going on.

“Excuse me we have these tickets but we don’t have a receipt, are we NOT allowed to go in?” I questioned.

“No,” she responded. “You can go in”.

By this time Dog was already out the door and I was fuming over the blatant discrimination I had just witnessed. I walked away from the ticket window, pondering my next move, trying to calm myself and keep from saying something inappropriate.

After all, I do have a bit of a temper.

After composing myself, I again approached the ticket window, interrupting a conversation between the same staff member and another paying customer. I looked him right in the eyes and told him that the man he just turned away, unjustly and for no reason other than his own stereotypes, had only moments earlier been picking up trash on the exploratorium grounds under his own free will.

I said that just because perhaps someone doesn’t look sophisticated does not mean they don’t have every right to be in such a place as the exploratorium. I told him that he should think about this in the future, and then I walked away.


There is more to this story, but it will have to wait for now. The moral is that sometimes the best gifts come in the most unsuspecting packages.

Take a risk. Wherever you are, there could be something amazing. It’s just up to you to find it……

Riding the N-Judah

Posted in digital journalism, public transportation, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome on April 21, 2008 by lenzbreakr

This past weekend, after sitting down with my friend Nick for some tasty BBQ wings and a pint at Gordon Biersch restaurant, I decided to spend the day riding a mode of public transportation I rarely use.

I first thought of taking the BART around town, but the ride is expensive compared to the free ride I get on the MUNI with my USF bus pass. It also has a limited amount of stops within San Francisco compared to the MUNI.

The cable cars are dominated by tourists, and there is no real sensible route to take for me personally to get to work, school, or home.

As I weighed my options, I looked to my left at the breezy bay and remembered that the N-Judah train runs along the Embarcadero. I’ve only taken a MUNI rail car once before, but I knew that the N cut across a major section of the city and wound up at Ocean Beach, not too far from where I live.

Riding on the N is a different experience than the noisy BART or the smelly, slow buses. The train was relatively clean and smell-free, traveled at a decent pace-part of the route runs underground where there are no traffic lights or intersections-and it cuts through certain parts of the city that you might not visit every day.

A trip on the N can take you anywhere from the Embarcadero, to Civic Center, Van Ness St., Portola, the Sunset, and Ocean Beach, just to name a few. Check out the entire route I took below.

CommunityWalk Map – journey on the N-Judah

After doing some research, I found out that the N is the busiest line in the MUNI system. In the early 20th century, it was a heavy rail car vein through the city, and it maintained its immense ridership through the 1970’s when the MUNI rail system was created. According to the Transit Effectiveness Project, currently over 45,000 people ride the N-line each day.

Below is a video of our journey. You should take your own. It’s guaranteed to be different and fun in its own way. Make sure you have some free time to relax and go wherever the tracks take you…

SF Oddities: Hippy Hill

Posted in digital journalism, golden gate park, SF Oddities, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2008 by lenzbreakr

San Francisco is home to many strange little quirks and nooks and crannies. One of the most interesting I’ve discovered in my time here is the tiny little area of Golden Gate Park known as “Hippy Hill”.

Here is a map showing you the hill’s location in the city.

Hippy hill is much more than its name implies. It is not just a hill. Hippies are only the beginning.

There is a certain amount of legend and mysticism surrounding the hill. There is not much of a documented history of the hill, at least in USF’s Gleeson Library. A book search with librarian Joe turned up plenty of info about the summer of love and counterculture in San Francisco, but the story of hippy hill seems to be passed along more by word of mouth than by print.

Nestled in the trees between the Conservatory of Flowers and legendary Haight street, hippy hill has been both a home and haven to what I can only describe as San Francisco’s “alternative” lifestyles. Nearly any lifestyle is acceptable on the hill; you can be homeless, a drug addict, a hippy, a musician, gay, straight, transgender, you can be a rocker, you can be a roller, you can be a rapper, you can be a stoner. It’s ultra liberal San Francisco at its’ finest. Literally, anything goes.

Early in the morning, the hill is unsuspecting, and by the looks of things, you would never imagine what has transpired on the same ground over the course of the past 40 years.

According to Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, in the late 1960’s, the hill and nearby haight-ashbury was “…a ghetto of bohemians who wanted to do anything—and we did, but I don’t think it has happened since. Yes, there was LSD. But Haight Ashbury was not about drugs. It was about exploration, finding new ways of expression, being aware of one’s existence”.

While today the counterculture movement in the city might not be as strong as it was in the sixties, there is still a definite and noticeable difference in the culture of the park, even when compared to the rest of the city. While San Francisco is progressive in nature, and while many Americans might find SF residents to be down right scary compared to their more conservative way of living, the limits and boundaries of what is socially acceptable is pushed even further at hippy hill.

Drug use on the hill is common and frequent.

Improvisational drum circles form on the weekends where various vagrants, bums, and many times the average bongo geek can come together and fill the park with energy and a constant beat for hours on end.

Many homeless live in Golden Gate Park. Some are mentally insanse-I have personally witnessed a loud and almost violent display made by a homeless man that seemed to be in the midst of some epic battle with an imaginary villain. While at times they may offer some entertainment, many homeless people live permanently in the areas surrounding hippy hill, and that is no joke.

Despite some controversial activities, hippy hill is not a hostile place. In fact, I like to think of it as a peaceful place where diversity and tolerance goes unspoken, a place where boundaries and borders do not exist. Although illegal activity does occur, the police rarely intervene or arrest anyone at the hill, and on many occasions I have seen parents with their small children, playing and having a great time amidst the wacko’s and acid-trippers. There is something about the hill that is so inviting, some special aura that was created during the summer of love, with the words of Janis Joplin and the jams of the Grateful Dead. Millions must have flocked to this one grassy hill over the years. Revolutionaries. Poets. Beats. Musicians. Hippies. Mothers. Fathers. Children. Daughters. Druggies. Scholars.

But why?

Maybe you should take a trip and find out for yourself.

Here’s a little bit of my journey….

SF Oddities: The Dutch Windmill

Posted in digital journalism, golden gate park, san francisco dutch windmill, san francisco landmarks, SF Oddities, Uncategorized, web 2.0, why san francisco is awesome, windmills with tags , , , , , on March 31, 2008 by lenzbreakr

Since I moved to San Francisco over three years ago, I’ve always had a deep and genuine love for Golden Gate Park. From the first few weeks at USF as a freshman in 2004, I have always made it a point to enjoy the pleasantries the park has to offer-sun tanning and frisbee on the conservatory lawn, long-board cruises to Ocean Beach, the drum circle at hippie hill, a walk along Stow Lake-the list goes on and on.

I often made my way through the park, usually on skateboard, and would eventually wind up at Ocean Beach. I have always wondered about the huge windmill that sits about 100 yards from the beach, but never bothered to follow my curiosity until now.


I once heard a story that the windmill was a gift from the Dutch and was either shipped or assembled here around the early 1900’s. I heard another story that the windmill is now the site of some kind of anonymous male homosexual activity.

Many others seem to have heard rumors as well. I went to the library and first spoke with Elyse, a student staff member who recently moved to San Francisco from Seattle. Since arriving here, she has not seen nor heard anything about the dutch windmill.

Another staff member (not a student, but she wanted to remain anonymous) has been living in SF for 9 years, and first visited the windmill soon after arriving in the city. She remembered hearing a rumor having something to do with Queen Elizabeth, and thought that there was some connection to the tulip garden that is located just southeast of the windmill.

After doing a bit of research, I found that there is an amazing history behind the windmill. What I found is quite different than the rumors that are circulating around town.

First of all, the windmill has nothing to do whatsoever with the Dutch except that its design is resemblant of a Dutch windmill. The structure was not a gift from the Dutch; rather, it was erected in 1902 as a solution to the lack of fresh water irrigation in the just-forming Golden Gate Park. At the time, the park and surrounding areas were nothing more than an endless series of sand dunes, hardly making the area ideal for vegetation.

However John McLaren, the superintendent of the park at the time, decided that the land needed to be developed and pushed forward with the project by ordering the drilling of wells near the coast to tap the fresh water source believed to be nearby. After much initial skepticism regarding the extent of the fresh water source and the amount of power the windmill would provide for irrigation, the windmill was finally completed around June 1902 at the cost of $20,000. Below is an original blueprint I found online.


The original irrigation plan was this: strong ocean winds powered the sails, which were connected to a pump. The pump ran into the seaside wells and pressure within them forced water out at thousands of gallons per hour. The water then traveled into a main which ran through the park. The water main emptied into reservoirs at Strawberry Hill and Spreckles Lake, and these were the main arteries that were used to irrigate the entire park. Below is a link to a map showing the location of the Dutch and Murphy (see Murphy windmill info later) windmills, and the reservoirs they emptied into in relation to the entire park.

Here is a link to the map.

At the time, this method of irrigation was highly effective. The first windmill was so effective that a second windmill was built just south of the Dutch windmill, the Murphy windmill, named after Sam Murphy, a banker who invested $20,000 in the project. This second windmill was even larger than the first, making it at the time the largest windmill of its kind in the world.
By 1905, the two windmills were providing enough water to irrigate over 2 million trees that had been introduced to the park.

There was one man, one magical man that I would love to find, that lived in a cottage adjacent to the windmill and was available for ’round the clock repairs. During storms, he would manually have to apply emergency brakes to the windmills’ sails to keep them from spinning out of control and eventually ripping off. Could you even imagine….



Then, it all came to a screeching halt, in one simple, yet bright word…

…Electricity…it has a certain buzz doesn’t it?

In 1913, electric pumps replaced the windmill-driven pumps in the wells in order to circulate water at a much faster rate. The windmills, only 10-12 years old, became immediately obsolete. They were abandoned, and soon succumbed to vandalism. In the early 1930’s, a huge storm destroyed much of the windmill’s interior. During World War 2, many of the windmill’s parts were gutted fr use in the war effort. And to put the icing on the cake, one of the sails was ripped off during a 1949 storm; the other two were soon removed by the city because they presented a safety hazard.

50 years went by and nothing happened. The windmills were neglected and abused. All of the sails and the observation deck on Murphy’s windmill eventually fell off, and today only the base remains. Below is Murphy’s windmill in original form, and then how it looks today.



These amazing structures would prevail however, mostly due to the efforts of individual citizens such as Eleanor Rossi Crabtree, daughter of former SF mayor Angelo Rossi (1931-1943). Her efforts, along with the help of the John McLaren society and the Centennial Windmill Restoration Society, helped secure a $10,000 federal grant for the restoration of the windmills. Red tape kept the process from beginning until 1976, but it was successfully completed by a U.S. Navy unit stationed out of Treasure Island in 1981.

Currently the windmill’s seem to be fairly unnoticed, despite the fact that they seem quite odd compared to the architecture of the rest of San Francisco. One possibile reason for this is that the canopy of the park conceals the view of the windmill, even from just around the bend.


Even from the Safeway parking lot across the street.


Even standing about 50 feet directly in front of the windmill, the heavy shrubbery and thick tree canopy overshadow the much taller windmill.


If you are anywhere near USF, the windmill is not visible at all. I have a pretty decent view near my apartment, which sits on top of a huge hill around where Anza st. hits a cliff directly above Ocean Beach.


I couldn’t find any information online (which doesn’t surprise me much), but I’ve heard several rumors about the area around the windmill being some sort of hub for male homosexual activity. While spending time at the windmill I didn’t see anything that looked out of the ordinary, nor have I met anyone that has actually seen any activity of the sort, so I can’t confirm or deny the rumors.

If you haven’t seen the dutch windmill in person, I highly recommend packing a lunch and taking a trip through the park, working your way down the paths along JFK Dr. until you hit the windmill, which is situated at the very edge of the park nearest the ocean, between Fulton and JFK.

On a clear day, it doesn’t matter what time of day you make the trip. As you have seen, the views are amazing during peak hours of the day. The sunset is amazing as well. Even if you miss it, the minutes after dusk offer great views as well. If you walk along JFK Dr. to the corner where the park ends, you can look left and view the sunset, then look right and view the windmill in the dwindling light.



Just a little further to the east (towards the middle of the park) you will find the Queen Wilhelmina tulip garden.


The garden was given its’ name in 1962 after the death of the Netherlands’ ruler of 58 years. It fitting overlooks the dutch windmill, and offers some stunning views, along with benches that offer a nice place to sit, relax, and enjoy that lunch you packed.




There is currently an effort to continue the restoration of the windmills, and to turn the area into a community recreation space. For more information and to learn how you can help, visit the Campaign to Save the Golden Gate Windmills.

Click here for the extended Flickr set with many more pictures AND…

…Below is a slideshow of some pictures I took from various angles near and around the windmill.