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Matters of Faith – “If you ain’t happy, you ain’t listening to enough Coltrane!”

ImageSan Francisco is interested in spirituality rather than religion, observed Kate Cooper, visiting historian from Manchester, England.

She was speaking at the Forum discussions organized at Grace cathedral, one of the many centers of faith that reflect the tradition of tolerance towards different cultures and beliefs in the Bay Area. This wide range of influences and interests are seen in the architecture of the numerous faith based structures in San Francsico –  ranging from a Russian Orthodox church whose spires suggest the flame of a candle to the fascinating Vedanta temple with domes that echo the Taj Mahal.

ImageOver from the Pacific Heights, on Cathedral Hill, is the dominant shape of the huge Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Mary. The distinctive roof is composed of floating “hyperbolic paraboloids” (like the former Commonwealth Institute in London). It has affectionately been nicknamed “Our Lady of Maytag” as, to many, it resembles the central part of a rotating washing machine.

Here too, the changing attitudes to religion and spirituality can be seen. After St Mary’s inaugural Papal Mass with John Paul II, Nobel Prizewinner Czesław Miłosz discussed the difficulties in writing religious poetry, noting that we live in a largely postreligious world. Seeking a return to the roots in 2013, newly elected Pope Francis reminds us that the saints did not have bank accounts and, in his choice of name, emphasizes the importance of the Saint of Poverty (and also the patron saint of San Francisco!).

In North Beach, a building which started in 1948 as a gymnasium has been carefully converted to contain a loving reconstruction of the Porziuncola of St Francis in Assisi. On the entry steps of the chapel are the words “I want you ALL in Paradise”, the franciscan message to the world. It is said that no person who enters the Porziuncola will ever see hell.

San Francisco embraces the full spectrum of religion and spirituality though – not just the traditional – There is even a cult around one of the greatest Jazz musicians of the century.

ImageJohn Coltrane is celebrated as one of the 90 dancing saints in the rotunda of an Episcopal church on Potrero Hill, while at 1286 Fillmore, near the elegant new Jazz Center is the African Orthodox Church of St. John Coltrane. The liturgy is the uplifting 1964 album of the saxophonists “A Love Supreme”. There is a five-hour Jam session every Sunday and its motto is “If you ain’t happy, you ain’t listening to enough Coltrane!”

On a more contemporary note, Edward Mendelson, contributing editor to PC magazine writes with tongue-in-cheek that, as everyone knows, “the world religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with it’s Vatican in Cupertino and it’s cathedrals the light filled Apple stores”.  Cynics would counter that maybe Apple is more like Scientology than anything divine.

Certainly enlightenment and mindfulness are in fashion amongst the Silicon Valley elite. At nearby Twitter headquarters there are the popular meditation courses seen
as a tool to better oneself and improve productivity,while this years Wisdom 2.0 conference was attended by top executives from Linkedin and Cisco. Meanwhile Google employees are taking classes to improve their EI -emotional intelligence in an internally delivered course entitled “Search Inside Yourself“. This has been so successful that that there is apparently a waiting list of 400 and growing.

The California Street cable car rattles its way through the city up Nob Hill. There, surrounded by landmark hotels, the Pacific Union Club and the Masons Grand Lodge is the most visited church of all, Grace Cathedral.

ImageEstablished during the Gold Rush, destroyed by the 1906 earthquake fires, the present structure was started in 1928 on land donated from burnt homes. It was finally consecrated in 1964, a visual “Europe 101” reminding of the Notre Dame in Paris and maybe the last of the Gothic-style churches. Traditionally conservative it has transformed itself into a forward-looking institution with a dynamic Dean, the Rev. Canon Jane Shaw who came from Oxford via Harvard and Berkeley. She participates actively in the innovative Forum discussions in the Cathedral Hall, the recent ones also attended by Professor Kate Cooper (kateantiquity.com). A newly commissioned work for the San Francisco Opera caused controversy. ”The Gospel of Mary Magdalen” opens with a scene where Mary is in bed with “someone else’s husband” and a lively debate took place in the Forum. Themes such as “The Textual Magdalene – apostle or prostitute?“ were also discussed in the presence of the composer and the mezzo-soprano who came to speak on “the fully erotic but fully spiritual story of Mary and Yeshua “. Other themes for debate have included those on “God and technology” and “Gender Equality” while every Tuesday evening several hundred young people come for yoga on  the labyrinth by the nave.This helps to quieten the mind and balance the body.

628x471An exact replica of the Florence Baptistry doors at the main entrance to the church continues the links to the past. The Renaissance originals by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti impressed the young Michelangelo  so much that he referred to them as being like the Gates of Paradise. The  Florence originals are now in a museum and the molds used for the Grace cathedral doors, were later used to replace those in Florence and only then destroyed.

ImageThe labyrinths in the nave and just outside the church doors, another link with early Christianity, were inspired by the one in the famous Chartres cathedral in France. They are much used by contemporary pilgrims who follow the path of the labyrinths from start to finish in contemplation and meditation much like the pilgrims in the old world.  The labyrinth has been so popular at Grace Cathedral, that even Google created one at their headquarters for “walking meditation”.

Nearby the interfaith chapel commemorating the 20,000 San Franciscans who died of AIDS, has as its centrepiece the famous triptych that local artist Keith Haring completed just weeks before succumbing to the disease himself.

Many outstanding figures have accepted invitations to speak from the pulpit in the past ,among them the Dalai Lama,Martin Luther King and Lech Wałesa.  ImageContemporary stained glass windows celebrate  the achievements of astronaut John Glenn and the ground-breaking E=mc2 formula of the greatest brain of the 20th century, Albert Einstein.

Some have worried that science basically undermines religion. Einstein concluded that “What humanity owes  to personalities like Buddha, Moses and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind”. Embracing this, Grace Cathedral maintains its relevance and a central part in the public life of the city. No visit to San Francisco is quite complete without it.

There is even a Peets Coffee House in the basement.

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Billionaires, Bodhisattvas and Sailors

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Cities are said to be repositories of memories, but it is people that make cities. The exchange of ideas and life styles that give urban life texture, stories and scurrilous gossip.

At the western side of Pacific heights, near the home of Senator Diane Feinstein by the Lyon steps so popular with outdoor exercise enthusiasts, are the houses of the new, high-tech business leaders. Jonathan Ive, one of Apple’s masterminds lives on Broadway. Nearby is one of the many trophy homes of “Bazillionaire” Larry Ellison who is credited with changing the world of database software.

Ellison himself has a flamboyant lifestyle and, according to the press, a public image as a brash business tycoon that he has been trying to counter of late with the recent public display of his well chosen Japanese collection – oozing the quiet elegance he’d like to be known for. Of course the press has a different idea, announcing “Larry Ellison, Bodhisattva in Waiting, Brings Enlightenment to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.”

ImageThe Ellison house , at 2850 Broadway, has a grandstand position from which to oversee the America’s Cup races on the Bay below. His sleek black Oracle-sponsored catamarans, defending cup-holders , virtually flying across the water below the panoramic terrace. Ellison himself will, of course, most likely be found at the Golden Gate Yacht Club he bought or maybe even more likely, as a former crew member of the victorious 2010 boat, on the water himself.

Another commanding house, this time at 2080 Washington Street, was once the residence that sugar millionaire Adolph Spreckles built for his young bride Alma de Brettville. She was formerly a nude model for local artists and prominent as the Goddess of Victory on the Dewey Monument on Union Square. The house has fifty five rooms including a Louis XVI ballroom. It attracted a lot of gossip as Alma was half his age ,to which she would shrug her shoulders and say “I would rather be a rich man’s darling than a poor man’s slave”.

ImageMore recently the Spreckles mansion has been home to Danielle Steel, the best selling author alive. With over 100 novels to her name, her “formula” clearly captures the popular pulse, attracting sneers about her being the Queen Mother of Trash. But with books said to bring in over $800 million a year, she feels no need to comment.

At 64, the ever outspoken Steele complains that there is no style in San Francisco, “it’s all shorts and camping boots”. As for California healthy living she adds “ I would rather die than exercise . San Francisco is a great city to raise children, but I was happy to leave it”. She now seems to spend much of her time in Paris indulging in haute-couture and red-soled Louboutin shoes, of which she can boast a collection of more than 4000 pairs, worth over $4 million

These are just some of the innumerable stories that give a feel for a city and make it fascinating. As San Francisco’s self-taught thinker Kenneth Rexroth emphasised “The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies”.

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Gold Rush, Blue Jeans and Earthquakes

Golden-Gate-from-San-FranciscoIn my recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed that this town, having been subject to multiple booms and busts over the years, is on the move again. Headlines in the San Francisco’s  Chronicle explained that yet another technology bonanza is the culprit for the current housing boom – an effect being especially felt in the “City by the Bay” more than anywhere else.

An explosion in technology jobs, IPO’s by cutting edge start-ups and big money buy-outs by larger companies have created yet another generation of instant millionaire buyers thrown onto the city’s housing market. Even run-down old buildings and warehouses in the SOMA (South of Market Area) and away from the Bay Bridge are being renovated with a renewed vigour – becoming outposts for new social technology darlings like Twitter and Yammer.

googlecarLuxury busses with wi-fi and tinted windows zoom through the city to provide a free regular service for Google employees to Mountain View in Silicon Valley – a practice followed by numerous others like Genentech and Yahoo!, while the driverless (yes, driverless) Google car passes by to demonstrate innovation in action.

Some say this is due to a West Coast hippy mentality of the 1960’s which left a legacy of radical thinking, others because of the concentrated brain-power of Stanford, Berkeley and another 20 or so universities. Although much research has been traditionally sponsored by the military defense companies in the past, today there is a far broader spectrum of investment and speculation, with companies such as Apple, Facebook, Oracle, and other emerging tech leaders dominating from their positions in the famed Silicon Valley. The list goes on but, whatever the impulse, one third of all the venture capital in the United States is concentrated in the “magic triangle” between San Jose, Marin County and Pleasanton/Livermore in an area with a total population of around 7 million. Thanks to all this, the iconic city of San Francisco, situated in the middle of it all, is booming once again.

Historically of course, the Bay Area was not always so active. Protected by fog, mist and unstable weather, the Bay offered shelter but only to ships that could find it. The Camino Real of New Spain, its governors and the Dominican/Franciscan missions only reached out to claim possession. The Yerba Buena settlement which became San Francisco originally had a population of only 469 and very few trees.

The defining moments for this city were really the great Gold Rush of 1849 and the earthquake of 1906. Early discoveries of gold and the staking of claims caused a frenzy of landgrabbers and easy money.The 10,000 newcomers of 1848 became by 1849 a throng of 25,000 from all over the world. Among them only some 300 women, many of them prostitutes.

Sailors rushed inland, leaving a graveyard of 800 abandoned ships on what became known as the Barbary Coast, named after the infamous dens of North African pirates. Highwaymen averaged 500 killings a year on the Camino Real. Desperate ships captains resorted to kidnapping to raise their crews. Ex-convict elements from the Antipodies attempted a takeover which was only crushed by crowds of self appointed vigilantes. There were imprisonments, hangings and deportations back to Australia.

Interestingly, the gold seekers were only able to extract a small portion of the gold in the foothills, more 70% of the gold is estimated to still be there. However, very real fortunes were made during this time – mostly by enterprising suppliers to miners or by those involved in the construction of the rapidly growing city that was springing up as a result of this growing activity.

user2425_1172627992The classic case is the legend of Levi Strauss who originally attempted to sell brown sail cloth material for tents to gold miners but found greater demand for sturdy work clothing. The predominant material used at the time chafed so a hard wearing but smoother cotton was sent for.

This had been a major export from Nîmes in France (hence from/de Nîmes or denim) to the dockworkers and sailors of the dominant Mediterranean port of Genoa (known as Gênes to the French , hence “jeans”).On sea voyages this denim clothing could be laundered by being dragged behind the ship in a net.

For the miners however, it was not strong enough at the seams and the final commercial breakthrough came only when Jacob Davis applied copper rivets at strategic points. He became a partner and patent holder. It then became the single best selling item of clothing in the world and today is virtually a uniform in Silicon Valley. Corporate headquarters are located on Levi Strauss Plaza in San Francisco, the company is still privately owned by Levi Strauss descendants and a “blue jeans” museum has been opened in Buttenheim, Germany, from where the founder had migrated.

As much as California and the Bay Area is famous for, it also has its share of infamy – not least of which for the perceived prevalence of Earthquakes in the region. A fracture, the notorious San Andreas fault was the cause of some 400 quakes recorded after 1848. Early in the morning of April 18th 1906, however, the ground moved along the fault and suddenly shifted 16’ to 20’ north. By today’s measurements it would have registered around 8 on the Richter scale. 28,000 buildings were destroyed and half the population made homeless. However, the major damage was done not just by the force of the quake, but rather by the 50-some fires that raged for days and weeks after the quake, The prevalent rumor of course, is that a healthy percentage of those fires started, not as the result of ruptured gas lines as commonly thought, but by distraught residents who torched their own homes to claim on fire damage in the absence of any available earthquake insurance. It took 9 years to rebuild the city to a state resembling its prior glory.

6787638359_e031d7b26a_zSeismic activity is a primary concern on the famous bridges. When the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937 it was thought capable of resisting any conceivable earthquake. It is still considered a technical masterpiece, but recent research suggested the possibility of a collapse at the city side, Fort Point supporting arch, leading to a 392 million strengthening retrofit.

On the other side of the city, the 8.5 mile Oakland Bay Bridge is having problems too, ominously with bolts breaking. During the 1989 earthquake a 50’ section collapsed. Now a whole section between Treasure Island and Oakland is being replaced.

There is , of course,  constant research on how to minimize earthquake damage, particularly in Japan. New buildings now consist of an exoskeleton fitted with hydraulic dampers that absorb energy and convert it into heat which it dissipates. Architects in Tokyo believe indestructability is now a given. “You could keep working at your desk at Rippongi Hills if there were a big earthquake beneath Tokyo”, say specialists. 
San Francisco is taking note , thinking of “The Big One” to come.

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