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In celebration of San Francisco

A first visit to San Francisco re-evoked that characteristic noise of American cities in which the deep dinosaur roar of fire department engines counterpoints the almost continuous ululations of police and ambulance sirens.

In San Francisco (at least in much of the centre) the repeated frenetic ‘ting, ting, ting, clang’ of the cable cars adds to the general hubbub. Almost obscured by the louder surface noises is the continuing susurration of the cables down in their steel-lipped slots in the middle of the road.

San Francisco’s topography could not be more different from the dull amorphous mess of central Los Angeles. As we have all know from films like Bullitt, the northern city is hilly but, until you’re there, you don’t realise just how steep the inclines are – at least equal to anything in a Mediterranean hill town. Cable cars were a much more reliable form of transport than horse-drawn trams, and they finally allowed the hills to be developed.

Nowadays, the city has one of the most elaborate public transport systems in the US, including trolley buses, as well as ordinary ones, the Muni (municipal electric tram system) and the Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit). Hence probably the relative lack of private cars on the streets. Perhaps the cable cars are redundant, but they are preserved as a monument, and though many passengers speak with British accents, or in Italian or German, in good weather cars are still popular with locals for short journeys, when they often stand outside on the running boards, clinging to steel poles.

The looped cables run incessantly in their slots and are driven at a constant speed of 10 mph by a central power house. Each car is manned by a crew of two (very big but amiable men): the conductor takes the fares and manipulates the back brake, while the gripman at the front needs all his strength to manipulate the long levers that control the main brakes and the device that clamps on to the cable. Once, the cable stopped, and the conductor made us jump up and down to loosen the car enough to allow it to coast downhill by gravity to the terminus, where the crew rotate cars on a turntable by putting their backs against them and pushing with their legs.

Cable cars offer the most powerful understanding of the city’s dramatic form that emerges from the hilly topography overlaid with a rigid grid. Grids have been the mark of colonial planning since Roman times. When the US seized California from the Mexicans in the 1840s, one of the first things the Americans did was to lay down a grid. In fact, the authorities of the little Mexican town of Yerba Buena had already set up a grid and the US one on the flat land beyond Market Street to the south was set up at 45 degrees to it.

In both cases, landowners demanded retention of grid geometry after the great earthquake of 1906 and the subsequent fire. The owners defeated proposals to make gentler accommodation between grid and contours – mostly, though there is Lombard Street, where the natural 27 degree gradient is modified by eight hairpin bends, celebrated in Laurel and Hardy’s famous piano sequence.

In nineteenth century residential areas, streets are lined with two- and three-storey terrace houses, often of wood, stalking down the inclines; in the business district, dizzying chasms lined with offices plunge towards the Transamerica Pyramid, William Pereira’s 1972 needle, which at 256m is still the tallest building in the city and is rather less kitsch when seen in situ than it seems in pictures.

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