San Francisco: Places to Explore


The Marina and the Presidio

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Yachts bob at their moorings, satisfied-looking folks jog along the Marina Green, and multimillion-dollar homes overlook the bay in this picturesque, if somewhat sterile, neighborhood. Does it all seem a bit too perfect? Well, it got this way after the hard knock of Loma Prieta—the current pretty face was put on after hundreds of homes collapsed in the 1989 earthquake. Just west of this waterfront area is a more natural beauty: the Presidio. Once a military base, this beautiful, sprawling park is mostly green space, with hills, woods, and the marshlands of Crissy Field.

It's often said that the Marina's 1989 disaster was literally built on the legacy of the Great Quake. Local legend has it that rubble from the 1906 catastrophe was used to fill in the area—unstable landfill that then liquefied when the Loma Prieta temblor struck. That story was disproved in 2004, but regardless of the origin of Marina land, its shaky character stays the same. The district suffered the worst damage in the city from the 1989 quake, and many residents fled in search of more-solid ground. Others stayed put. "I realize that we're sitting on Jell-O," said one local. "[But] how many areas are as beautiful as the Marina? At some point, you just have to pick your poison...."

Well-funded postcollegiates and the nouveau riche quickly replaced those who left, changing the tenor of this formerly low-key neighborhood. The number of yuppie coffee emporiums skyrocketed, a bank became a Williams-Sonoma, and the local grocer gave way to a Pottery Barn. On weekends a young, fairly homogeneous, well-to-do crowd floods the cafés and bars. (Some things don't change—even before the quake, the Marina Safeway was a famed pickup place for straight singles, hence the nickname "Dateway.") One unquestionable improvement has been the influx of contemporary cuisine into this former bastion of outdated Italian fare. South of Lombard Street is the Marina's affluent neighbor, Cow Hollow, whose main drag, Union Street, has some of the city's best boutique shopping and a good selection of fun, fine restaurants and cafés. Joggers and kite-flyers head to the Marina Green, the strip of lawn between the yacht club and the mansions of Marina Boulevard.

The Presidio, meanwhile, is going through some shake-ups, too. Back in 1996 President Clinton signed a bill placing the Presidio in the hands of a trust corporation as part of a novel money-generating experiment. The trust manages most of the Presidio land, leasing buildings and allowing limited development with the goal of making enough money to cover the Presidio's operating costs. The National Park Service oversees the coastal sections. Whether this arrangement is a worthy model for national parks of the future, or the first step in the crass commercialization of a public resource, is the subject of debate and due to be officially evaluated in 2013. Whatever the outcome, the Presidio will still have superb views and the best hiking and biking areas in San Francisco; a drive through the lush area is also a treat.


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Fodor's Northern California 2014

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