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A Letter from San Francisco 0

Marta Mannenbach

San Francisco has long been a place I could imagine myself living in. If I could choose I would love to time-travel to 1960s when this city was a hotspot for psychedelic rock, body art, hippy movement, civil unrest, and fight for human rights. So bubbly and hopping it was then. Most of those fun things are gone now. But it is one of the top places any European wants to see in America. I was no exception. It’s hard to explain what pulled me here but it’s certainly something more than cable-cars, sourdough bread, and sophisticated forms of culture. My way to San Francisco was long and uneven. Since 2007 I can’t call myself a resident of Latvia anymore as I’ve been living in Nottingham, UK and states of Oregon and California in the U.S. I moved from UK to USA, and later from Oregon to California, because my husband had more job opportunities there. Being a post-graduate in Film Studies, I saw a spot in the industry for myself too. It has paid off in a way – among other things, I coordinate screenings of the largest pop-up short film festival FUTURE SHORTS in San Francisco. The quarterly programmes of international shorts come from headquarters in London but reaches every corner of the planet. Undeniably, the presence of a great Latvian community and cultural life contributes to this multi-cultural city, and it also served as one of the reasons for moving here. But in the nutshell, I consider my attraction to San Francisco and the way I see things here to be based on my experience living in other places in the United States, not Europe. Living here, I feel that my main job is savouring the city.

Arts and Culture Landscape of San Francisco

I don't think I'd be far off the mark saying that San Francisco is one of the most culture-filled cities in the United States. This place is not a smelly layered onion, but an artichoke bud – with multiple petals that reveal the vast diversity of its dynamic social life.

This city has it all: the fine arts – opera, symphony halls, theaters, museums; as well as popular entertainment – cinemas, concert arenas, show and music venues, and more…

Music of all styles

Unlike in many other American cities, old-school, classical high culture is still present here. But from a critical view, it is not as if it just pours over everyone who happens to pass through. Going to the opera is pricey entertainment, to say the least (the cheapest ticket is $100), and it offers only up to eight shows a year. The San Francisco Symphony has a variety of concerts, and it tends to target various tastes by offering both regular chamber music alongside movie soundtrack-concerts (i.e., from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, or from the “Star Wars” franchise). If you follow the schedules closely, you have a good chance of experiencing the best of the best, like a unique concert with world-class tenor Placido Domingo.

Sometimes an exclusive concert event comes up, i.e., “Per Gint”, in which one or two soloists perform on the stage as they conjure-up a musical theater play. Unfortunately, special events like these are available only for a very short time.

The music scene, in general, is very diverse and comes in all possible shapes and degrees of accessibility. You're more likely to snatch a ticket to a rock concert in one of the large sports arenas than to listen to the San Francisco Symphonic Orchestra play; that's because for popular culture events, there is a much wider choice, more advertising and a more diverse range of pricing. I recently saw “Pearl Jam” in Oakland, on the other side of the Bay. It was a thrilling, high-quality gig that went on for almost 3.5 hours. It seemed like good old Eddie Vedder had nothing better to do than entertain his guests until the place ran out of wine.   

When in San Francisco, it's most likely that the music will find you – on a street corner, in both small and large clubs, at festivals and fairs, at church choir concerts, etc. In the summer, there are many concerts (some for free) held at Golden Gate Park – the largest urban park in America. The other day, I heard someone playing drums amongst the shrubbery there. There's always a way to listen to some music around here. Sound waves travel faster than anything.

Theaters and shows

While we observe the groups of well-dressed, more sophisticated (and mostly middle-aged) people going to the Opera House or the Symphony, just a block away, hordes of tipsy young people search for the next dive-bar. Although this city celebrates the fine arts, entertainment for the masses – which is so popular in every corner of America, especially rural areas – holds strong ground here as well. Sports bars, night clubs, baseball and American football games still hold audiences in a strong grip. Sports games and comedy shows will always outgun a theater play, mainly because the latter is viewed as a special-interest thing and is not viewed as a “must-do” activity. A theater will either be associated with a cinema or with Broadway shows – which actually do make up quite a large share of the theater programmes in San Francisco. But if you dig deeper, you can find something absolutely exciting, like a production of Pakistan's most controversial play – “Burqavaganza”, performed by a company actually from Pakistan.   

Cinema and films

Films are a beloved art form for San Franciscans. The city, with its alluring red bridge and rolling hills, has attracted many filmmakers since the very beginning. Alfred Hitchcock loved this city and shot his celebrated film “Vertigo” here (as well as a couple of other titles). The picturesque city has served as the location for a large number of celebrated films: “Mrs. Doubtfire”, “Bullitt”, “Point Blank”, “X-Men: The Last Stand”, “Dirt Harry”, etc.

Good news for Hollywood haters or avoiders. This is the place to find indie gems. The local cinema-scape offers many large and small film festivals, such as the Disposable Film Festival – a festival specifically for films made by modern technology devices, like iPhones, photo cameras, etc. – as well as short film-, foreign-, Jewish-, Asian- and a myriad of other types of film festivals. For total cineastes and post-modern cinema-goers, there are places like Oddball Films, Cinemateque and Vortex – places that offer specially-selected film screenings for small audiences as they roll-out 16mm film-reels from the 1970s, 60s and earlier decades.

Quite a few retro film theaters have been shut down, now left to haunt the street-corners they once occupied.   


Museums are a great asset of San Francisco, and they cater to a wide variety of tastes. Exhibitions and museums are high quality, per se, and of great interest to the locals. If you're really lucky, you can manage to hit the monthly free-of-charge day at the museum. 

With its myriad of ancient foreign and European arts and artefacts, The California Palace of the Legion of Honor is the city's treasure chest. Currently, paintings by Sweden's master painter, Anders Zorn, and the French classic, Henri Matisse, can be viewed there. Located on a beautiful green spot, right where the Pacific Ocean spills into San Francisco Bay, this replica of Paris' Palais de la Légion d’Honneur materialized in San Francisco in 1921, thanks to the endeavors of Alma Spreckels, wife of sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels.

Another notable museum is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts, which, unfortunately, will be closed until 2016. Meanwhile, one can visit the many museums within Golden Gate Park and the city center – the Cartoon Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Asian Art Museum and the Exploratorium, among others. By special appointment, you can also get into secret, avant-garde spots, like the LSD Museum and the Gregangelo Museum, which is located in the home of the artistic director of the “Velocity Circus”, and features experimentally-themed rooms and a labyrinth that symbolizes “the path of life”.

Museums and many other cultural establishments are primarily founded and supported by private sponsors and do not depend on government funds.Largest income percentage of organizations like San Francisco Symphony consists of endowments and contributions. Much of San Francisco arts is supported only by the community.

The Visual Fine Arts

Art shows and art vendor fairs selling art and fashion items are another thriving trend. Like anywhere, artists try to display their stuff in any way they can. The easiest way to do it is on the streets or in venue spaces. Not much originality can be observed in most street art; it keeps on the safe side, producing sellable, generic images. It's consumable art. Some present an Asian influence – who wouldn't like a minimalist Japanese cherry blossom print on their wall? The same can be said about the student- and new artist-shows at colleges, or the social art events taking place in clubs and other hip venues. Here, your eye will meet much more contemporary and individualized artwork, but it's still missing something. The prices are even more puzzling. Seeing three- or four-digit numbers next to some start-up artist's doodle makes one wonder about the true value of art nowadays. And about the logic behind its pricing. Some of the smaller art boutiques may offer more personal and appealing art objects at a more reasonable price.

The forms of art may vary in each neighbourhood, and they may depend on the cultural discourse in question. San Francisco is not a large city, but it is very heterogeneous and it incorporates the traits of many cultures. Historical hippy streets hold on to their acid-induced and eclectic style, while the Castro district displays LGBT-themed artwork. Meanwhile, in the famous Mission district, a muralist collective founded in 1977 offers arts classes and mural tours. Their focus is mainly social-themed graffiti, as they try to reflect the characteristics and issues in each particular area. I must note that graffiti of all sorts can be found all over the city, and it seems to be an important form of self-expression. San Francisco artists are always seeking new ways to express their talent. In one of the installation- and interactive modern art exhibitions – in which one could observe how a drop of water from a plastic bottle disappears on its way to a sand pile – attendees could pick up special write-in forms encouraging them to draft a plan on how to engage their communities. Multimedia art forms make up a large part of the contemporary art scene in SF. Some artists use video to show how, for instance, they are in communication with a lobster they bought at a fish market, or, use it for symbolically illustrating women's issues by, for example, showing a couple of women vigorously tearing apart a mound of clay and throwing the lumps of clay against the wall. 

The vibrant arts and multicultural environment is what makes San Francisco so exciting. The cultural life of San Francisco is truly as colorful and multiform as its iconic Victorian houses.