Ahmed Loukili biked cheerfully along the downtown waterfront, hauling a couple of tourists behind him in the mini-carriage of his pedicab.
The Moroccan-born man makes his living by pedal power along the Embarcadero, a once rundown, freeway-choked area of downtown San Francisco's waterfront that's been reborn ... thanks to an earthquake.
The Embarcadero Freeway, an elevated concrete double-decker, once walled off almost a mile of this shore. Built in the late 1950s, it brutally isolated the century-old port buildings and historic wood piers and warehouses from downtown. It blocked the glorious views east across San Francisco Bay. And it bathed the area in vehicle noise and fumes.
A 1989 earthquake changed all that. It damaged and forced the closure of the freeway. A few years later, the road, which many San Franciscans had hated since it was built and prevented its further extension, was torn down.
With the freeway gone, a two-mile stretch of wide-open shoreline in northeast San Francisco - from the SBC Park baseball stadium north along Embarcadero Boulevard around Telegraph Hill - is enjoying a renaissance.
Swarms of new condos have sprouted near the baseball stadium. A massive outdoor sculpture, palm trees and mini-parks edge the waterfront and the wide boulevard that supplanted the freeway. The Ferry Building, built in 1898 and once a bustling boat terminal that became isolated by the freeway, has been revived as a wildly successful public market.
Coming soon is The Piers, a US$50-million complex of shops, restaurants and offices due to open next spring in a renovated complex of piers near the Ferry Building. And a new cruise-ship terminal along the Embarcadero is on the drawing boards.
San Francisco's transit system makes it easy to get to and around the Embarcadero. The vintage streetcars of the "F" line trundle past the Ferry Building, linking it to downtown's Union Square area and Fisherman's Wharf on the northern waterfront, two of the city's biggest tourist destinations. Yet the Embarcadero is still a work in progress, not an urban paradise.
Until more renovations are completed, walkers will find some long stretches of sidewalk with great views, but little street life except around the Ferry Building. Some piers and warehouses, built in the early 1900s, remain boarded up. (The area, once the epicenter of San Francisco shipping from the 1840s California Gold Rush to the military might of World War II, went into a tailspin after modernized container shipping shifted to other ports.)
But it's well worth exploring the Embarcadero area for a few hours. Drink in the views of the graceful Bay Bridge and of Oakland and Berkeley across San Francisco Bay. Face the city and admire the financial-district skyline and the quirky Coit Tower, which tops Telegraph Hill at the north end of the Embarcadero.
On a late November visit, I walked along the Embarcadero and then, with my teenage daughter, took a ride with Loukili. We hopped into his two-seater pedicab, feeling somewhat decadent as we sat and enjoyed the sights while he pedaled hard to power his rickshaw-like contraption. He stopped frequently, to catch his breath, fix his bike chain that kept slipping, and tell us about what we were seeing.
We glided round Cupid's Span, a massive bow-and-arrow sculpture on the waterfront that's fast becoming a landmark piece of public art. The 60-foot-tall sculpture frames views of the monumental Bay Bridge that swoops beyond it. Although its sculptors, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and city authorities likely wouldn't approve, we watched kids and parents turn it into an impromptu jungle gym, scrambling up one of the slanted steel beams.
We circled SBC Park, the city's baseball stadium, which has its own equally whimsical art. The Giant Glove sculpture sits at one end of the stadium, a 26-foot-tall rendition of an old-fashioned baseball mitt. An even more giant Coke bottle lies next to it; the 80-foot-long structure (guess who sponsored it) contains viewing platforms and four playground slides, part of a fan entertainment area. In a nice touch, there's a viewing area along the waterfront sidewalk where passersby can stand and watch some of a game for free.
But the heart of the Embarcadero, physically and socially, is the 19th-century Ferry Building. Once the hub for ferries that buzzed all over the bay, it began a long decline after the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate opened in the 1930s and cars supplanted ferries.
The double-decker Embarcadero Freeway then was built smack across its face, practically touching the Ferry Building and walling it off from the city.
Now freed from the freeway and renovated, from its iconic 245-foot-tall clock tower to a new wharf, the Ferry Building reopened in 2003 with dozens of upscale shops and restaurants strung along a skylit central nave.
Offices occupy the upper levels; four days a week there's a popular farmers market, heavy on local organic produce, out front in awning-covered stalls. And ferries still shuttle from the Ferry Building to communities around the bay. Devotees of Seattle's Pike Place Market will find the Ferry Building lacks its funky charm and quirky stores. But it's an excellent place to shop and eat and, unlike Fisherman's Wharf or Pier 39 to the north, it's a place where locals, not just tourists, go.
Cheese and wine shops
Even if you're not a shopper, the Ferry Building is enticing. Book Passage is packed with books on the Bay Area. Far West Fungi has dozens of mushrooms you've never heard of, for eating and medicine. There are cheese and wine shops, and fancy garden and culinary stores, including a branch of Sur La Table.
My idea of a good time was to eat my way through the Ferry Building. I snared samples at cheese and pastry shops; checked out small eateries offering everything from raw oysters to ice cream; then headed to the Slanted Door, a popular Vietnamese restaurant relocated to the Ferry Building. Silly me not to have made a reservation: The line of wannabe diners at the Slanted Door was way out the door. Luckily, we snared seats at the restaurant's takeout kiosk, appropriately called Out the Door, which has four stools at a tiny counter. We filled up on spicy noodles and humbow-style steamed buns, stuffed with chicken and vegetables, a tasty deal at US$3 a serving.
To walk off the excess, we marched along nearby Pier 7 which juts 900 feet into the bay and is dotted with Victorian-style streetlights and benches. We watched the locals fish, listened to the waves lap and drank in the views of city and bay.
Strolling back to the Ferry Building, I spotted Loukili again, still pedaling his pedicab along the Embarcadero. He waved and headed off, taking another few tourists for a ride along the reborn waterfront.