Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Week 23 : Belmont To Lake San Andreas

"Lost in San Francisco", I said to Amy. "What?", I thought she replied, although it might have been "wuff" : there was a lot of noisy traffic trailing along El Camino Real. "It's like we are lost in San Francisco", I repeated, "and before you say anything, I know we have still not officially arrived in San Francisco". Amy, my five-year-old Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier wisely kept her council. We were passing through Belmont, heading for Foster City. If you are not familiar with them, Belmont and Foster City are just two of the cities that make up the gigantic urban sprawl that is San Francisco. To the north is the City of San Francisco proper (where Amy and I were heading). To the south-east Silicon Valley stretches out like a digital banana skin, with its apex at San Jose (where Amy and I have just come from).

Week 23 of our epic virtual journey from Los Angeles to New York had started at Belmont ("a small-town ambiance which sets it apart as a tranquil, safe, and desirable place to live") and we were now heading for the neighbouring Foster City ("a small-but-sophisticated community for big city excitement without big city stresses"). Whilst most of these small, Bay area, commuter cities are almost indistinguishable, Foster City is a bit different : it used to be a salt marsh. Just 50 years ago, what is now a thriving city of 30,000 residents was then a salt marsh called Brewer's Island. It was bought for $200,000 by the retired real-estate developer T. Jack Foster and his business partner Richard Grant. The city they would build - Foster City - would be something new, something different : it would be a planned city. It would have a pre-determined population ceiling, it would have carefully-crafted waterways, it would have tree-lined streets, it would have manicured parks, it would have beautiful houses, it would have lagoons, jogging trails .... and it would have debt. My, my, how it would have debt.

Within a few years of the project starting, it had absorbed nearly $5 million of T Jack Foster's own money. It was then designated a California "municipal improvement district" which as a "public corporation" could raise money by issuing bonds. By the end of the 1960s it had managed to run-up over $80 million in debt and was still little more than a large building site. Just maintaining the debt put enormous pressures on the local budget and new residents quickly found that their ideal planned community came at a price. After years of litigation, the budget situation now seems to have stabilised, and life in Foster City appears pleasant, safe, peaceful, sunny ..... and just a tad boring.

As we walked along the streets and paths of Foster City, Amy remarked on the relatively few dogs she had seen. I had to point out to her that there were strict local ordinances on the maximum number of dogs or cats that could be kept per household. She said something like "fascist state", but it could have been "lick-slurp" : there were a lot of noisy speedboats chugging along the waterways.

Leaving Foster City behind we made our way to Coyote Point which sticks out into San Francisco Bay like a septic pimple. Here we found Coyote Point Museum, a splendid educational facility dedicated to providing "engaging, educational experiences for our diverse, multi-generational Bay Area community through wildlife, gardens, exhibitions, and programs that relate to the global environment". Amy was particularly attracted by the posters encouraging visitors to adopt an animal. She seemed very keen to adopt a domestic rabbit and I became somewhat suspicious of her motives. Eventually, I offered to fund the adoption of a Banana Slug, but she seemed to have lost interest by then.

Like Brewer's Island/Foster City, Coyote Point was originally a salt marsh. In the early 1900s, the land was drained and the Pacific City Amusement Park was built on the site. The main features of the park, which opened in 1922, were a boardwalk, children's playground, and concessions consisting of scenic railway, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, dancing pavilion and several food concessions. It was reputed to have had one million visitors during the first season. During its second season the amusement park experienced a fire, which destroyed about a quarter of the development. It never opened for another season. The reasons given for its closing were the strong afternoon winds and sewer contamination in the bay. Today, Coyote Point is the site of a park, a golf-course and a marina.

If you sit on the breakwater that forms the northern edge of the marina you get a spectacular view of San Francisco International Airport, the main runway of which is about a couple of miles away. San Francisco International Airport (SFO to its friends and baggage tags) is the major international airport of northern California. It is the fourteenth largest airport in the USA and the twenty-third largest in the world. Until 1927, what is now a major international air terminal was a cow pasture. During the latter half of the twentieth century the airport experienced rapid growth and it is currently attempting to win support for a major runway extension. The problem is, that the only place to extend the runway to is further out into the Bay. One of the most spectacular building is the new International Terminal which was opened in 2000. As I told Amy as we walked by, it is the largest international terminal in North America and the largest building in the world built on base isolators (special thingies used in the construction process to protect against earthquake damage). Amy yawned. We said goodbye to SFO for the time being, but we would be back here again in a couple of weeks on our virtual way home for a short holiday.

Later we passed through the City of Burlingame, which is getting ready to celebrate its centenary. And what a delightful little eccentric city it is. The city website has a section entitled "Extraordinary Burlingamers". These include Steven Backman who recently built a 13 foot replica of the Golden Gate Bridge using nothing other than 30,000 toothpicks. Also included is inventor, Robert Barrows, who recently filed a patent application for “Talking Tombstone,” a hollow headstone that allows the deceased to speak via a recorded message that is seen and heard when a touchscreen is activated. And let us not forget Steve Hurwitz who currently holds the world record for swimming from Alcatraz Island to the mainland (just a few weeks ago he swam back and forth to the island for the 500th time in order to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the infamous last escape from the prison island). As I said to Amy and we walked by the Steelhead Brewing Company, this is the kind of place I feel at home in, the kind of place I could settle down in. Amy was not impressed. She pulled on the lead and we headed out of town.

We finished the week at Lake San Andreas which is a few miles due west of SFO and right in the middle of the peninsular. The lake is not particularly large, nor is it outstandingly beautiful. It was originally a small, natural sag pond which was expanded in the in 1870s with the construction of an earthen dam to form a 550-acre reservoir for the City of San Francisco. Its fame comes from the fact that below its surface runs the geological fault line which has already destroyed the city of San Francisco once and constantly threatens to do the same again. When the fault was first identified in 1895 by Professor Andrew Cowper Lawson, he named it after this small insignificant lake. Eleven years later in 1906, the fault line gave its most famous demonstration of its power. And it has held sway over the hopes and fears of many Californians ever since.

As Amy and I looked along the lake, late one evening, it appeared calm, peaceful, even docile. But beneath those still waters were forces of destruction the power of which we would see soon for ourselves as we headed towards the City of San Francisco.

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