I think cities are the most beautiful places in the world. As a kid, I used to walk through airports with my parents and just marvel at the churn of lives in motion. In my short years, I had the privilege of living in a handful of major cities around the world, a fact that I find astounding and deeply humbling.
Here, I thought my first time living on my own in a big city, is where so many stories converge. Where each path I could take is less predictable than the last. Everyone and Joan Didion tell me that I’ll outgrow the fascination. New York, Didion writes, is “a city for only the very young.” But at dusk, when the sun hasn’t quite set and the urban light-scape flickers to life, all I see is promise.
Last week, I explored Golden Gate park with my mom and discovered even more reasons to be enchanted – figuratively and literally.
Japanese Tea Garden
Cities, I think, are made all the more beautiful by the contrasts within them. Golden Gate Park is tucked above and away from the clamor of downtown. The park is flanked by the California Academy of Sciences on one side and the de Young Museum on the other.
A little further along is the Japanese Tea Garden. Originally built for the 1894 World’s Fair, it’s now a beautifully landscaped place for respite.
Garden of Enchantment
The Garden of Enchantment at the de Young Museum shares a border with a corner of the park. Its curation conveys minimalistic harmony between nature and modern sculpture.
You can’t miss the aluminum pirate statue – called, ironically, “Untitled (Pirate)” – who towers proudly above park-goers. (What kind of titular non-title is that??) “Untitled (Pirate)” was cast in 2009 and obtained by the museum in 2017. One San Franciscan described him to the SF Chronicle as “a pirate on steroids.”
The Door to the Fairy World
According to local lore, a door to the fairy world is hidden in Golden Gate Park. My mom and I found it by cobbling together cryptic clues from the Internet, then sleuthing around in the park.
In a hole in a log, there is a tiny hobbit-door. (I can’t help it: “Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”)
Outside the tiny hobbit-door, people had left offerings of coins and a single golden gummy bear. Inside the door were tiny crumpled notes to the fairies. Most made polite requests of magical favors; others posed questions. (“Do you see me when I’m sleeping?” asked one memorably, if creepily.)
The door itself is called “Faery Hall,” or the Faery Sanctuary. It was built by San Francisco resident Tony Powell and his six-year-old son Rio. They have a website devoted to their adventures at the enchanted threshold.
A few moments after my mom and I found it, with squeals of delight, the fairy door attracted the attention of passing cyclists. Together, the bikers, my mom, and I marveled at this tiny gesture of fancy.
The fairy door epitomizes why I am so enamored of cities, and why I fall in love with each for a different reason. The fairy door, perhaps, is my first reason for loving San Francisco. It’s a part of a whimsical fantasy that is embedded into this city’s collective imagination. It manifests a sense of mystery, of a desire to peer into the mundane and see, instead, a story.
A city is made beautiful by of the strikingness of its contrasts: In a city of hundreds of thousands of doors, someone has made magic out of the smallest one, and has brought otherwise anonymous city-dwellers together because of it.
If you want to find it, it’s somewhere behind the Japanese Tea Garden, but I can’t be any more specific than that. Telling you would ruin the magic.
What do you love about where you live? Have you visited these gems in San Francisco before?