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Ferry through time

Nov 4, 2012,
Centre :The Ferry Building in San Francisco. Photo by author

Oldtimers in San Francisco chronicle their time in the city as ‘pre or post’ Ferry Building; the Ferry Building being one of the city’s famous landmarks, writes Janardhan Roye

A  leisurely walk along the famous San Francisco waterfront often turns into a relaxing, mood-lifting experience. Panoramic views, historical treasures and man-made points of interest unspool in quick succession — romantic catamaran sunset sails; windsurfers and kite-surfers toying with natural forces; charming heritage buildings alongside stunning high-rises; famous piers teeming with eateries, street performers and sea lions making funny sounds! Topping it all is the Port of San Francisco Ferry Building, with its white tower clock.

On a recent bright morning, the clock’s chimes beckoned me. To my surprise, the place was abuzz with people and activity and a holiday atmosphere. It was a day of the hugely popular weekly farmers’ market, a time when residents directly interact with growers “practicing sustainable agriculture,” in fields across the harbour.

In this initiative of the Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture, CUESA, organically grown farm produce is attractively displayed on the outside and inside the airy, well-ventilated ferry building. Chefs, housewives, foodies and such land up early and in droves, to have first pick of the veggies, fruit, wine, cheese, seafood and meats.

Past significance

It is a practice that started a long time ago. But from 1875, a humble, timbered structure served as the rendezvous point. A lone ferry boat did heavy duty transporting of the food, and people. This activity continued rain or shine, earthquake or fire.

In time, more ferries and a railway service were added. The ‘ferry point’ blossomed into the attractive two-storied building that we see today — complete with a clock tower modelled after the 12th century Seville Cathedral bell tower, mosaic flooring, repeating interior arches, overhead skylights, and a swath of gourmet, speciality food kiosks, and highly rated restaurants.

Right from the early days, the Ferry Building became the “famous city’s most famous landmark.” Oldtimers see San Francisco’s chronicles as either ‘pre or post’ Ferry Building days!

Some 250 years ago, a Spanish explorer, Gaspar de Portola I Rovira, came looking for the Monterey Port. Instead, he stood one rainy afternoon, facing a huge stretch of green territory, a labyrinth of bays and water channels, undulating to “a great inland ocean.” It wasn’t Monterey. Portola left, disappointed. It was left to another day, another countryman, Juan Manuel de Ayala, to ‘discover’ the inlet, and eventually the land that came to be known as San Francisco.

The discovery was a turning point in American history. The native Indian tribes, age-old hunters, fisher folk and commuters by tulle-reed rafts rushed for cover when the white men descended on their domain. From small numbers, the influx swelled to thousands from water and land, as the Gold Rush kicked in.

The new arrivals changed the land and the demographics completely, even as they made fortunes of unimagined enormity. Apart from the lucky pan-handlers, suppliers of ‘essential services’ — inns, bars, eateries, banks, real estate, and such, made it big.

A tailor, Jacob Davis, and businessman Levi Strauss struck gold fashioning loose-fitting riveted trousers from canvas that was used for tents and wagon covering. Another, Claus Spreckels, a grocer, diversified from retailing sugar to cultivating, refining and retailing the commodity. A street smart Sacramento foursome, all merchants, built railroads and gained control of enormous tracts of land, and the transportation business. In between these savvy movers and shakers came a London mechanic, Andrew Hallidie, who made wire ropes for hauling loads from mines and suspension bridges. He used the concept for making the cable car, with one-shot bells and brake engaging sounds.

These developments rebooted the economy. The Ferry Building became central to all the action. At that time, the atmosphere inside the building was electric — air thick with the smells and fragrances of farm produce, the unending cacophony of arriving and departing people. Outside, on the road, were horse-drawn carriages, young boys in knickerbockers shouting headlines and selling newspapers, cable cars clanging by, and the frequent splutter and smoke of cars. On the waterfront, the sound of fog horns was constant.

The colourful mélange fascinated the discerning observer to no end. Lucius Bebe dubbed it the “contrapuntal symphony of cosmopolis.” When the tower clock said five, it was sheer drama, wrote the author, “a great unfilmed Demille epic.”

Present experience

Today, the Golden Gate, Bay bridges and other transportation developments have reduced ferry commuting to a trickle. There are other changes in the area. Across the Ferry Building is SF’s famed Financial District with its architectural marvels — the First Interstate Center, Embarcadero Center, the Hyatt Regency building, and the Transamerica Pyramid. Around them are palm trees, lawns and gardens. “This makes the Embarcadero great for walking, getting a Vitamin D fix or for vegging out,” said one pretty young thing, “In the winter, there’s an ice-skating rink and an annual pillow fight contest!”

On my visit, a teacher was explaining the inscription on the Mahatma Gandhi statue in the Ferry Plaza to children. People were at book shops; young couples took pictures; kids with balloons and gelato were romping in the breezy sunshine; a sea gull picnicked on leftover popcorn; on a bench, an old-timer with a guitar was singing, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”

Such beautiful moments no doubt played out in the past too. But it’s hard to imagine them without the clock-tower chimes. As Herb Caen puts it, “the waterfront without the Ferry Building is like a birthday cake without candles!”


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