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San Francisco Dreamin'

Mark Twain famously wrote that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Based on my recent experience, Twain was only slightly exaggerating. Of course given the recent sweltering weather in New York City, I wasn’t complaining.

One reason New Yorkers feel at home in San Francisco is that you don’t need a car to get around. There are plenty of buses, commuter trains, and of course, those world famous cable cars to get you around. While the cable cars along Powell Street are fun to ride, they are very crowded and there are often long lines to board at either its downtown terminal or its northern endpoint at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fisherman’s Wharf
is the town’s most famous tourist destination for a multitude of reasons. You can choose between numerous boat rides around San Francisco Bay as well as take a ferry to legendary Alcatraz Island or to various locales in Marin or Alameda counties. Expect to find many sea lions as they have made their home at the Pier 39 outdoor shopping mall for the last 20 years.

One of the newer attractions at the Wharf is the Aquarium of the Bay which is home to over 20,000 species of aquatic life that are native to Northern California. You feel as if you are swimming with the leopard sharks and bat-rays as you walk through a tunnel that is below all of the marine life.

As you would expect from a place called Fisherman’s Wharf, there is no shortage of seafood restaurants, with the best known and oldest being Alioto’s which is celebrating its 85th anniversary. You can choose just about any Italian or seafood dish imaginable here. The dungeness crab soup is quite popular.

If you want brunch, stop by Knuckles Restaurant at the Hyatt and try the dungeness crab cake which is a lighter and tastier dish than its more famous Maryland blue crab cake cousin.
Two miles northwest of Fisherman’s Wharf, in the Presidio section of Golden Gate National Park, is San Francisco’s newest attraction, the Walt Disney Family Museum, which opened less than a year ago. The museum contains a treasure trove of memorabilia from the personal collections of the late Walt Disney such as his various Academy Awards as well as other honors that he was bestowed.
The Disney Museum is a must for baby boomers as it contains Walt’s original sketches for Mickey Mouse , Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy; behind the scenes info on beloved film classics as “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Peter Pan,” “Cinderella” and “Fantasia;” and Walt himself discussing his visions of Disneyland and television’s “The Mickey Mouse Club.” The Walt Disney Family Museum is not affiliated with the Disney Corporation.
The San Francisco Zoo located on the city’s Ocean Beach neighborhood (nestled right against the Pacific Ocean) has one of the best primate exhibits in the United States. Sadly, the SF Zoo made national headlines in December 2007 when Tatiana, a Siberian Tiger, was able to jump her enclosure and attack three teenagers who were taunting her. One was killed while two others suffered injuries that required hospitalization. Tatiana was fatally shot by San Francisco police officer. There are still tigers at the zoo but there is a very high and thick glass partition to ensure that this tragedy is never repeated.
The area south of Market Street(SoMA) has radically changed since my last visit here 16 years ago. What was once a rather desolate area full of warehouses and a few factories has now become a modern Mecca of sleek hotels, restaurants and boutiques.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has moved here a few years ago. You will find paintings by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Max Ernst as well as sculptures from Alexander Calder.
The biggest addition to the area has been AT&T Park which is home to the San Francisco Giants. Even if you are not a baseball fan you will enjoy watching a game here. The outfield is completely open (unlike Citi Field) and you can watch the boats line up behind the right field wall in the part of San Francisco Bay that has now been dubbed McCovey Cove in honor of the Giants’ former first baseman, and Hall of Famer, Willie McCovey. When the Giants win, Astoria native Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” is played over the public address system.

There is no shortage of fine hotels. The Grand Hyatt in Union Square has great long weekend deals and is located in the heart of downtown. It’s one block from the Powell Street cable car line.

I highly recommend purchasing a San Francisco City Pass booklet which saves you a lot on a variety of attractions and allows you to ride free for a week on the city’s mass transit system.
Getting to San Francisco is easy and inexpensive from JFK as Forest Hills’ own JetBlue has two daily flights here.
For more information call (415) 974-6900 or log on to:

Fisherman’s Wharf

the Aquarium of the Bay

The Walt Disney Family Museum

The San Francisco Zoo

The Grand Hyatt

Knuckles Restaurant

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

A Dash Through Manhattan's National Parks

Well, fellow Manhattanites, August is about halfway over, and being broke due to that pesky recession, your "staycation" is getting kind of stale. Right.The Statue of Liberty

So now would be a good time to do some of that local tourist stuff you've been meaning to do but never actually have. The stuff all those tourists do in a day, but you've been putting it off for years and years -- now's a good time to get it all over with.

Being a tourist in your own home town sounds kind of cheesy, but it's actually rather fun, and one thing millions do is drag their families or friends to see National Parks. They drive or fly for hours and hours to see a bunch of national wonders, such as Yellowstone in Wyoming, or famous tourist traps such as Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. But since you can't go to those places because you're stuck in Manhattan or Brooklyn, and you don't have a car or the money to pay for such a trip, here's an alternative.

You can visit a bunch of National Parks without ever leaving Manhattan, seven of them, in fact. And there are a few more that you can get to on the subway.

So what we're going to do is a mad dash through all of them in a day.

I first thought of this when I got slammed in the comments section for another article because there are a bunch of people out there who refused to believe that there are any National Parks east of the Mississippi River, much less New York City.

Fortunately, a ranger confirmed that there are. None of these are actually called National Parks, but under federal law, all national sites are the same, whether they're larger than the state of Rhode Island (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska -- 13,175,901 acres) or the statue of Ben Franklin in Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, which is less than 20 square feet. If rangers wearing funny wide brimmed hats man it, it counts.

Since, we're mostly broke, this jaunt has to be a cheap as possible, so our investment is a one-day unlimited MetroCard, ($8.25), and an official National Park Passport ($9) to get stamps in (we have to prove we've been there, and not all these places are worth photographing). Plus one of the sites charges to get in, but we'll get to that later.

The place to start is Battery Park, at the bottom of the island. The Battery is not a national park, it's a city park, but it's here people buy tickets for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, the cost of getting TO these places is a bit high, $12, and the lines around the ticket office are usually humongous. But don't fret -- we're not going there this time. The ticket office itself is actually our first stop!

Castle Clinton National Monument, or as it used to be called, "the Old Aquarium" has been occupied since the days of the Dutch, and before the processing center at Ellis Island was built, this is where most of the immigrants to the country got off the boat. There's a small exhibit on the history of the place (it was an aquarium for most of the first half of the late century, up until the 1960s, in fact), and you can get the above mentioned passport.

Once we've seen that, and some of the street performers outside, we head east past the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to the Governor's Island Ferry. Governor's Island has been open to the public only a few years, and unless you make an advance appointment for a Wednesday or Thursday tour, you get over there except on Fridays and Weekends. However, the ferry terminal is part of the Park and you can get your passport stamped. It's a bit of a cheat, I know, but it counts.

Next we walk along the East River up to Wall Street and head west were we encounter the Federal Hall National Memorial, which is where George Washington was inaugurated and the First Congress met in 1789-90. However, this is not actually the genuine building. It was torn down in the early 19th century (preservationists are a relatively new phenomenon), and replaced with what was called a Sub Treasury, and was later used as a customs house.

There are exhibits and tours, showing where stuff would have been in the original building, and the history of the Treasury department. You can get your passport stamped in the gift shop.

Going to the end of the block we take the #4 or #5 train to City Hall, and walk a block or two north to the African Burial Ground National Monument, which in my humble opinion is the smallest National Park in the country. There's a tiny little park with a ranger standing there handing out brochures and telling you how to get to the museum, where after going through security, you get to see a short film about all the brouhaha when the cemetery was discovered around a decade or so ago. The gift shop is closed half the time, but the rangers will let you get a stamp.

Next we head south along Broadway to get on the 2 or 3 trains, where we head up all the way to 96th street, change to the One, and go further north to 125th where we head west one block to the park and the General Grant National Memorial (also known as Grant's Tomb). For most of the 20th century, our 18th President and his wife Julia laid in state in humongous marble sarcophagi as the neighborhood rotted away and the edifice was covered with graffiti and other shit. The Grant family threatened to move the General and his lady to Ohio, but the federal government stepped in. there's not much there inside anymore.

Also in Harlem is the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, where Alexander Hamilton had his digs. Unfortunately it's currently closed to the public because it was moved from another site, but sometimes the rangers will take visitors from Grants Tomb to see it. You can cheat and get a stamp for it at The Tomb.

Heading south to 116th Street, head east a block or two and get the  1 train south, changing to the express, if convenient, at 96th Street and down to Times Square, where we change to the R train, getting off at 23rd Street.

From here we head south to 20th Street, turn east and arrive at Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, which while in the right place and shape, is a replica built in the 1920s, as a precursor to the Presidential Library System. The bottom two floors are a museum, but above that, all the furniture is authentic.

Finally, we head down to Union Square to pick up 6-train, which we take down to Houston Street, where we transfer to the F-train, which we take to Essex, and two blocks west of that is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which to see you have to pay $20, more expensive than the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island, but that's because it's partly private, and because they wanted to be totally authentic, they're in violation of several building codes. You can get your stamp at the bookshop (as well as the ticket) across the street.

If you want, you can go back and see Lady Liberty, Ellis Island, and Governor's Island, the next day, but remember to go in the morning, because the ferry company doesn't do both Liberty and Ellis in the afternoon.

The Magnificent Maps Exhibit at London's British Library

Britain hasn’t been successfully invaded since 1688, and then, nobody tried to burn the files. That means that the pack-rats at the archives have almost 1000 years' worth of stuff lying around. Among these are various forms of political propaganda, both for and against the governments of their day.

Some of this stuff is considered art, and this summer, two museums, the British Library and the Tate Gallery, both in London, are mounting exhibitions of some of the best.

The first of these is the Library’s monumental Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art, which primarily focuses on the use of cartography as propaganda and tool of intimidation.

The British government, (what had been the English government before the Act of Union in 1707) would use maps as wall decoration, with humongous prints or watercolors showing the world as it was known, or at least should have been known at the time.

These monumental maps, which are mostly the only kind that were shown, were sent by kings and princes to each other to show the domains they were masters of -- a form of preening that could be sent through the post. A large map of one’s kingdom (or duke-dom or whatever) will show the hereditary leader of the next country over that you are wealthy and should be feared.

One of the more interesting pieces is a 8-by-10 foot map of Pomerania, showing the kingdom in great detail, with portraits of the King and his close relations at the corners. Unfortunately, there were problems with the printing process and it didn’t come out until their neighbors had already conquered and dismembered the place, leaving nothing but the map.

Sometimes, cartographers, or their patrons, would use their works to make a plea or suggestion. There was a globe produced in the 1580s, which showed North America as entirely British…

The first Queen Elizabeth didn’t quite take the hint, but her successor, James I most certainly did. There is also, an extremely beautiful (and scary) German map produced by Rudolph Koch for Adolf Hitler in 1933, which showed what Koch and his Führer thought what Germany should look like at the time.

Dr Peter Barber -- who curated the exhibit -- said that, had Neville Chamberlain seen the map, he wouldn’t have given Hitler the Sudetenland in 1938 and World War II never wouldn’t have happened. The British Library

Some of the “cheaper” maps, made for schools town halls and the like, were even more propagandistic. The second oldest map there was for schools and was totally inaccurate, but the message was clear, the king of England was ruler of all the good parts of the world, and most of the rest didn’t matter.

Aside from “I’m master of my domain” angle (there’s a number of ornate maps of individual properties, suitable for one’s living room), the political commentary angle is also played up. Posters from all over Europe, using cartography as part of the iconography, because since at least since the 19th century, most people know what their own country looks like, and the enemy chomping on a silhouette of Britain or Russia is a powerful or clichéd image that works every time.

Finally, there’s Stephen Walter’s The Island (2008), drawn with what appears to be a ballpoint pen, is huge, and purports to show that London is a world all it’s own and not actually part of England (somewhat like saying New York isn’t really part of the United States). The work has been digitized, and the “Where’s Waldo?” like details can be seen with a remarkable digital “magnifying glass.”

In Part 2, we go to the Tate’s delightful Rude Britannia exhibition, which shows the history of political cartooning.

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art
April 30 to September 19, 2010
the British Library
Euston Road, NW1
London, England

Thoughts on a Gibraltar Street Fair

There are thousands of them around the world, with different names, of different sizes and scale, these local street fairs. Some of them are primarily for tourists, but usually, they're for the locals, a chance to get together and hang out for an afternoon or evening while giving one's diet a short break.Northwest View of the Rock of Gibraltar

Some major cities have several every weekend during the summertime like in New York City -- though Mayor Michael Bloomberg is threatening to cut them down or eliminate them all together. In other places, they're an annual affair. In Gibraltar, it's the latter and is called Calentita; this year they had fireworks. It took place a few weekends ago.

For some reason, Calentita only goes back four years. Why the Ministry of Culture didn't come up with it earlier is something I forgot to ask. But this is Gibraltar, a teensy-weensy British sore on the skin of Spain, a mountain on a peninsula surrounded by a small town and a bunker-like border.

Except for a small glass factory and banks designed for tax avoidance, (and the navy) there's nothing really here except tourism, which is why one of Calentita's highlights is the introduction of the Miss Gibraltar contestants (Miss World). Pretty women are always fun to look at, and while doing so; it's interesting to ponder how this pinprick on the Mediterranean, and it's Spanish counterpart in Africa, Ceuta, fit into the bigger picture of international politics, especially the Middle East.

On the face of it, Gibraltar and Ceuta should be totally inoffensive. They are extremely tiny, and filled with friendly people who wish no one any harm and provide tourist dollars for people living on the other side of the border. But actually they're extremely offensive to their neighbors. The main reason is that they're There. It hurts the dignity of Spain and Morocco to have these tiny enclaves just sitting there figuratively thumbing their noses at two major countries.

Spain blockaded Gibraltar for most of the last third of the 20th century (they gave up in 1984) and when the Blair government in Britain negotiated a co- dominium with Spain in 2002, but the locals had to be consulted, and the referendum rejected the proposal by 17,900 to 187.

Ceuta is a slightly different matter. The Portuguese "stole" the city in 1415 and Spain took it over a century and a half later. In the only known referendum to take place prior to the 18th century, the people decided to stay with Spain when Portugal got its independence back in 17th century.

When Spain gave Morocco back most of the "occupied territory" in 1956, it kept Ceuta on the grounds that it had the city before it grabbed the rest. The Moroccan government is still fuming...

Like Gibraltar, Ceuta's border with Spain is a bunker-like affair, and there's a major illegal alien problem there. Morocco is to Europe what Mexico is to the United States, and this enclave and its sister Melilla -- a few hundred miles to the east -- are the equivalent of Tijuana or Nuevo Laredo, easy gateways to the riches of Europe. Everyone in Africa wants to pass through. The Spaniards down there feel Arizona's pain.

But getting back to Calentita... Casemates Square, right off Main Street, was filled to capacity as everyone waited for the fireworks display. I was amazed how much Spanish was being spoken. One shouldn't be though; since the border was opened, lots of Spaniards came to get work. Then it happened. I was amazed on how low to the ground they were. That plus the music and the freaky lasers made it quite an experience.

Fortunately, Spain has pretty much given up getting the Rock back, but they will never fully accept it and always resent it being British. It's been that way for over 300 years, longer than the Spanish have held it after they took it from the Moors in the 1430s.

This should be a lesson for the Middle East. Nobody is going anywhere so get used with it.

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