Before Now – Call it fog or invigorating sea mist, it’s all gray

Foggy Ocean Beach

Photo: Flickr user dbaron

My co-worker complains that he has to leave his sunny Bernal Heights home to work in the overcast and fog of the Sunset District.

“It’s sunny everywhere else,” he complains over lunch at Bashful Bull Too while watching giant billows of cold cotton roll down Taraval Street. He’s exaggerating, of course, because even the sun-blessed Castro, Mission and South of Market neighborhoods have recently suffered from the pallor of gunmetal skies.

I think of July and August as the city’s version of the Montana winter or the Alabama summer — the litmus test of newcomer resolve. Hey, Mr. Google Tech Worker, if you can’t handle 28 straight overcast July days, perhaps you should move down the Peninsula.

Even natives and long-timers can feel sorely tested. As my friend Jamie, lifelong Richmond District resident, posted on Facebook last summer: “If you don’t leave, fog, I’m going to punch you in the face!”

I had a couple of high-school friends who lived just blocks from Ocean Beach and whose first cars were old Volkswagens with weather-decayed bumpers and fenders. The Outer Sunset fog took a nasty bite out of my friend Eamon’s car in the form of a scary-big hole in the floor of the front passenger side. When he gave me a ride to school I had to keep my feet wide apart and hold tight to my history book as the street concrete blurred beneath me.

As my friends and family know, I love the fog, but I understand people’s exasperation. I am not so blinded by the fog’s charms that I can’t laugh at the exaggerations and outright lies that early real-estate men and neighborhood boosters employed to convince people that west-side sand dunes were paradise on earth. Here’s one of my favorite quotes, from an 1899 edition of the neighborhood newspaper, the Sunset Breeze:

“Whatever may be said about the climate of San Francisco, one thing is certain — that Sunset District enjoys the best there is in that direction on this peninsula. Now, there is a sort of pre-conceived idea among our downtown people that this section is a special rendezvous for that itinerant sea coast visitor, the king of fog. Nothing can be farther from the truth, and every close observer of climactic conditions in San Francisco will bear us out in the assertion.”

The author went on to explain that the occasional fogs the Sunset did get were the better kind: “fresh, sparkling fogs, impregnated with the life-giving salt of the ocean.”

In 1892, real-estate mogul Wendell Easton stood in a drizzle at Ocean Beach and tried to convince a pack of reporters that the foggy west side was five degrees warmer than the rest of the city. In 1901, a magazine writer visited Carville and asserted that “perpetual summer reigns in this California village, and the cool ocean breezes make it a most delightful resort during the entire twelve months of the year.”

Of course, there are the negative depictions as well. Mark Twain may not have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, but he did complain about the cold ocean breezes (“I think there are icebergs out there somewhere.”) and he compared the fog on an early morning ride to the Cliff House as a “six-mile ride in the clouds,” proposing it would be more salubrious to take a balloon the next time.

The San Francisco Call warned in 1897 that trekking through the dunes of the Sunset District on a foggy day was life-imperiling: “Select a fine, clear day, as it is possible for one to get lost and wander about for hours should a fog come up. […] People have been lost there and in more than one instance the experience has resulted fatally.”

To avoid death by fog, or at least a bad case of the blahs, take the advice of longtime San Franciscans: Head to the Russian River and come back in September. If you can’t, perhaps this 1934 clip from Movietone newsreel’s “City by the Golden Gate” will help.

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Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”

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2 Comments

  1. Hey, Before Now fans, Woody’s column has been nominated for an SF Weekly Web Award! You can vote for him in the Reader’s Choice section, Category 35: http://bit.ly/oUgqrU

    Please note that you must complete the entire survey, even if you don’t want to vote in every category. So after you make your mark for Before Now, click the “Next” button below Category 35, then click “Submit” at the bottom of the next page.

  2. So is it an urban myth that Twain did not make the quote about the coldest winter he ever endured was a summer in San Francisco? Interesting! I’d enjoy reading some of his authentic thoughts regarding San Francisco that he actually did say.

    About the fog: I could easily handle 28 straight days of fog in Sunset. As a distance runner, there are two times of the year of time I loathe: Late July into August and January into a good portion of February. I hate the latter of the two time frames mentioned, as being a resident of the Ocean State (Rhode Island), it’s usually bestowed with rotten conditions for any serious distance running: bitter cold, strong winds, and often times, heavy snow. The one thing that tempers running during this time is that the days are getting longer and springtime is just around the corner as such.

    As for the July/August time frame, usually I’m watching the weather forecast for San Francisco with envy. While it’s often times in the upper 90s and humid here then, making running tough (if not downright dangerous), I get jealous when I hear of San Francisco given 65 perfect degrees for running. I can say without any reservations, as a distance runner, that I could easily handle 55 degrees and fog for 28 straights days. Heck, I practically go without sun for two months here in the winter. And if I really had a hankering for sun, shoots, I just find a place to visit for a spell within the city that has it; I hear that Dolores Park is blessed with a micro-climate that is quite sunny.

    San Francisco might be a great running city, hills be damned. I imagine one could experience many weather conditions in the course of a 10 mile run. All told, I would find the cool and fog out the Outer Sunset to be a runner’s blessing. Hope one day to experience this.

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