Tag Archives: tour

“Ten Years” Tour: Using New Technology for History

Chris Carlsson installing a "Ten Years" plaque at 2937 - 24th Street. 2011 photo by LisaRuth Elliott/Shaping San Francisco.

In the recently published Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco, 1968-1978, editor Chris Carlsson and the contributing essayists argue that the years 1968-1978 saw important innovations in grassroots political mobilization in San Francisco. These innovations included new directions in environmental justice work; changes in student, labor and immigrant organizing; housing rights and anti-gentrification campaigns; and unprecedented interventions against racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Accompanying the publication of the book is the release of a self-guided walking tour. The tour covers twenty-four sites in the Mission District, and each site is related to an essay that appears in Ten Years (a map of the sites is available for free at City Lights,  The Green Arcade, and other local bookstores, galleries, and cafés;  and can be ordered online for $5). Visitors to each tour site can dial (877) 919-7464 to hear an audio recording by the essays’ authors about the sites  – similar to audio tours by phone offered at some museum exhibitions.

What is especially innovative about the Ten Years tour is the use of on-site QR (“quick response”) codes. Posted at each of the twenty-four sites is a plaque identifying the location as part of the Ten Years tour. Visitors can use their smartphones to scan the QR code featured on the plaque, automatically opening one of twenty-four webpages on their phone. For example, visitors to 3030B – 16th St.,  near the site of the former San Francisco American Indian Center, can find a Ten Years tour plaque that includes the following QR code:

QR code for "Reflections from Occupied Ohlone Territory"

When this QR code is scanned from the “Ten Years” plaque (or from this computer screen) with a smartphone, a webpage opens on the phone with an excerpt of Mary Jean Robertson’s essay, “Reflections from Occupied Ohlone Territory.” The webpage also features an audio file of Ms. Robertson reading from her essay. The audio file can be heard by clicking on the “play” button of the audio bar, or, if visitors are using an iPhone, an mp3 of the recording can be downloaded.

This is not the first time Chris Carlsson has used of emerging technology to deliver historical content. Carlsson is one of the founding members of Shaping San Francisco, a grassroots project dedicated to documenting underrepresented aspects of the history of labor, ecology, transportation, and political activism in San Francisco. Beginning in 1998, the Shaping San Francisco team had developed some of this historical content and made it available in the form of CD-ROMs. Perhaps more interestingly, Carlsson and his colleagues also installed 6 public kiosks around they city – including locations such as Rainbow Grocery, Modern Times Bookstore, and the Anarchist Book Fair. The kiosks featured desktop computers that were not connected to the Internet, but whose hard drives contained of the content from the CD-ROMs. Together, the CD-ROMs and the public kiosks were intended to make this historical content as accessible to as many potential users as possible. Furthermore, users were encouraged to submit original content themselves – such as oral histories and historic photographs – for future upgrades of Shaping San Francisco.

By 2009, however, the Shaping San Francisco team had phased the kiosks out. The  team migrated the historical content from the CD-ROMs and kiosks to a new format – an online wiki called FoundSF. By choosing to use a wiki, the Shaping San Francisco team was again implementing an emerging technology. The FoundSF wiki has been supported by both CounterPULSE and the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

Although stand-alone kiosks with no Internet connection became obsolete, at the time of their debut they were a groundbreaking use of new technology. Similarly, wikis and QR codes might eventually be superceded by other ways of delivering historical content. However the new trends develop, Carlsson and his colleagues may well continue to blaze trails by acting as early adopters of emerging technology to make historical content as widely available as possible.

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Locating “Tales of the City”

Macondray Lane, 2010 photo by D. Huw Richardson.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is a series of eight novels set primarily in San Francisco, spanning from 1976 to the present. The stories recount the lives of a broad cross-section of the city’s denizens, and the transformative impact that the characters and the city have on each other. The first five novels were originally published as serials in The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner; the first installment appeared in the Chronicle exactly thirty-five years ago today. Beginning in 1993, the first three novels were adapted as three television miniseries starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. This year, the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco is premiering a new musical based on the first two novels. When San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein installed a time capsule under the Benjamin Franklin statue in Washington Square Park in 1979, the small collection of items intended to represent San Francisco’s most recent past included a copy of the first Tales novel.

Larry Rhodes first moved to San Francisco in 1982 – when Maupin was still publishing Tales of the City as a serial in The San Francisco Chronicle. However, it wasn’t until three years later, when Rhodes was living in Atlanta, that he began to read Maupin’s work. Rhodes became so engrossed with Maupin’s writing that he subsequently developed a website featuring Tales-related self-guided walking tours, Tours of the Tales, which launched in July 2010.

Rhodes’ initial impulse to create the tours came around 2001, when he was again living in the Bay Area and wanted to take out-of-town friends to sites mentioned in Tales of the City. At that time, Maupin’s website included a walking tour of locations mentioned in Tales, but the tour focused almost exclusively on the Russian Hill and North Beach neighborhoods. Rhodes was interested in developing something more comprehensive.

In 2003, Rhodes began in earnest to research the locations that appeared in the first six Tales novels and the first two television miniseries. Because some of the businesses mentioned in Tales had moved or closed by the time Rhodes began his investigation, he relied on telephone directories and Polk’s city directories going back to the 1970s at the San Francisco Public Library to establish their correct locations. He also sought information online, using sites such as Mister SF by journalist Hank Donat and Film in America by location scout Scott Trimble. Based on his findings, he made excursions to find and photograph the sites as they exist in San Francisco today (selected photographs can be found on a dedicated Flickr site). As Rhodes commented to me,

” I want to place the locales not only in the context of the books or movies, but in San Francisco itself. I want the people who take the walking tours to have a feel for San Francisco – somehow capture the essence of the City that captured me.”

So far, Rhodes has created four self-guided walking tours that are available as PDFs on his website. These cover Acquatic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, Russian Hill, North Beach, Jackson Square, Telegraph Hill, Chinatown, Nob Hill, the Tenderloin, and Union Square. He plans on extending the scope of his tours; additional areas for future tours might include the Castro, Noe Valley, Civic Center, South of Market, the Haight, and Golden Gate Park. He is also considering tours that cover sites outside San Francisco that are mentioned in Tales, including locations in Oakland, Marin County, Mendocino, Los Angeles, and Reno.

Because Rhodes provides these tours as PDFs, they can be printed out or read on e-book readers such as Kindle and Nook. Armistead Maupin’s webmaster, Rick Miller, had previously used Google Maps to develop  a map based on his own research, and Rhodes has subsequently created similar maps, links to which can be found on the PDFs of each walking tour. Rhodes plans to lead occasional free group walking tours, but the primary focus has been on developing a means by which fellow Tales enthusiasts could explore the sites mentioned in the series at their own pace and on their own schedule. Rhodes’ website also includes a guestbook, which provides an opportunity for those using the tours to respond not only to Rhodes’ work but also to connect with one another.

To learn more about Larry Rhodes’ project, and to download the tours, please visit his website, Tours of the Tales.


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Ghost Tours as a Way to Engage the Past

"Nob Hill Hotel at Night" 2008 photo by Marla Showfer

In honor of Halloween, I’d like to consider three ghost tours as examples of ways that San Francisco neighborhood history can be presented.

SF Chinatown Ghost Tours have been led since 1994 by Cynthia Yee, a community organizer and nationally-recognized dancer. Yee’s maternal great-grandfather, Fong Louie, immigrated from China in 1885. His Chinatown stories were passed d0wn to Yee’s mother, Mildred Fong, one of the pillars of the 光明佛道研究會 (Quong Ming Buddhist and Taoist Association) in Chinatown. Yee has told me that her idea for the tour came after going on tours in New Orleans. To develop her performance, she has drawn primarily on two sources: stories she learned from her mother; and coverage in local English-language newspapers (such as the San Francisco Chronicle) about Chinatown events such as the 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre. Yee tells me that she keeps track of  current news coverage rather than research older newspaper accounts or use archival repositories such as the Chinese Historical Society of America. At the same time, she has told me that Chinatown residents bring her news accounts, providing material to further develop her ghost tour presentation.

Similar to Cynthia Yee’s experience, Jim Fassbinder’s participation in a tour outside San Francisco prompted him to create the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, which he has led since 1998.  To develop his presentation, he did research at the San Francisco History Center, reviewed online content from the California Historical Society, enlisted college undergraduates to provide research assistance in academic libraries, and conducted oral history interviews. In his comments to me, he singled out the staff of the San Francisco History Center as being especially helpful in directing him to primary sources such as historic maps. Fassbinder chose Pacific Heights as the site of his tour partly for logistical reasons – the relative quiet, safety, and ease of walking – in addition to the stories he had learned about the neighborhood. Fassbinder has commented to me about his tour, “my main goal is this: I want everyone on a Ghost Hunt to have a real supernatural experience in a safe way.”

Playwright Kitty Burns has lead the Vampire Tour of San Francisco since 2001. Like Cynthia Yee, she was inspired to create the tour after participating in a tour in New Orleans.  To develop her presentation, Burns reviewed published histories – particularly Fire & Gold: the San Francisco Story by Charles Fracchia, founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. Burns also reviewed published articles and online content. She told me that her most valued resource, however, came in the form of oral history interviews she conducted with persons affiliated with commercial establishments and other institutions along her tour. Burns also indicated that the ongoing input she receives both from participants on her tours as well as persons affiliated with her tour stops continue to provide material for the further development of her presentation. Like Jim Fassbinder, Burns related to me that she selected the site of her tour – Nob Hill – partly out of logistical considerations such as safety. She added, “Nob Hill was a perfect area because all the stops on the tour are well known and very classy.  I thought that would add to the humor of a vampire tour.”

Part of what is striking to me about these three neighborhood-specific tours is that despite the differences in how the three guides conducted research for their presentations, all three of them turned to oral history interviews with neighborhood stakeholders as a significant source of content. What is also striking is that whereas many other contexts for engaging San Francisco history involve encounters with artifacts, or architectural features, or primary source materials such as historic documents and photographs, these tours intimate the possibility (with varying degrees of seriousness) of encounters with persons from the past  in the form of the ghosts or vampires of today.

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