Book Review: Secret San Francisco by Ruth Carlson

Secret San Francisco: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure by Ruth Carlson

Post contributed by Lisa Crovo Dion

The peaceful Columbarium holds the remains of some prominent SF citizens.

Secret San Francisco by Ruth Carlson is one of the latest titles about this beautiful, ever-changing, and richly historic city.

I’ve written about San Francisco for more than two decades, and I consider myself a bit of an expert. I’m deeply familiar with the city’s neighborhoods, history, architecture, and tucked away gems.

Pulling Back the Curtain on San Francisco

That being said, while most of the material in Secret San Francisco I was aware of, I was pleasantly surprised to learn even more juicy details from Ruth Carlson’s book.

At just over 200 pages, this slim edition, while not pocket sized, is handy enough to carry around while exploring.

I found the arrangement and order of chapters somewhat curious. The book isn’t organized and laid out geographically or alphabetically as one might expect. For that reason it lacks flow you might find in other guides that take the reader from one logical place to the next.

But flow aside, Secret San Francisco is chock-full of tidbits and information you will probably not read in any conventional guidebook. And for that it’s worth diving into.

Ruth Carlson’s book has similar appeal to Jack Boulware’s, San Francisco Bizarro: A Guide to Notorious Sites, Lusty Pursuits, and Downright Freakiness in the City by the Bay, published nearly 20 years ago. Years before that, Dr. Weirde’s, A Guide to Mysterious San Francisco, was another “alt” guide that dug deep below the surface — beyond directing readers and visitors to check out the sea lions at Pier 39, the Alcatraz audio tour, or to imbibe at Beat Era bars and cafés.

Both Boulware and Dr. Weirde’s compendiums tread into darker, edgier terrain on the whole. Ruth Carlson delivers a more cheerful, lighthearted, very accessible read.

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Staircases abound in San Francisco and remain the best way to explore the city
Carlson writes about the many staircases, the best way to explore San Francisco

Tantalizing Tidbits and Forgotten Facts

Tucked away inside the pages of Secret San Francisco, Carlson digs up some tantalizing material and little known or forgotten facts.

For example, I wonder how many people are aware of the Peephole Cinema deep in the Mission? A dangling eyeball and a tiny sign dangling from a red wall on Orange Alley (behind Valencia and 26th Sts) indicate you’re in the correct spot. Duck down and peek in. Here you can see continuous silent film shorts 24/7 curated by creator, Laurie O’Brien.

Also, I personally have wondered aloud many times about those red brick circles embedded in the streets of San Francisco. And voila, Carlson’s book provides the answer! They mark the locations of underground cisterns. In a city that has endured her share of devastating fires, this is a well-planned relief system.

Eccentric Characters

Ruth Carlson also introduces some ‘only in San Francisco’-type characters in the book. She goes deeper than an essay on Emperor Norton (although he is represented). One such eccentric is artist Gregangelo Herrera, who takes the reader into his Circus House Museum on page 34. The “Whirling Dervish” guides tour of his home/studio/museum, a portal into his mind —artistic, colorful and cluttered (in a good way).

Comic/magician Jay Alexander welcomes us to the Marrakech Magic Theater, a former speakeasy where he practices mind reading and magic.

Secret San Francisco is a fun and enjoyable guide with lots to impart. It would be great to get more detailed location information and websites included about each entry, but Carlson’s love for her adopted city is evident and shines through.

Murphy's Windmill, Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park is home to two Windmills, Dutch and Murphy’s (pictured).

Secret San Francisco: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure was published by Reedy Press. It retails for $20.95.

Photos by Lisa Crovo Dion