Posts by Ali:

Articles By: alison miller

Ali lives in San Francisco and works as a product manager in Silicon Valley. Originally from Santa Cruz County, Ali bought her first real winter coat when she left for college at Harvard. She graduated with a B.A. in History in 2005 and returned to her favorite coast. While not at her day job or exploring SF, Ali moonlights as a violinist in the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

In the winter of 1888, Vincent Van Gogh came to the conclusion that he could no longer live and paint in Paris. Writing to his brother, he lamented:

It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure.

In search of a quieter, quainter life, Van Gogh headed for Arles, a small city in Provence.

The winding streets of Arles

The city had not always been so quaint. In 40 BC, Arles (then called Arelate) provided military assistance to Julius Caesar in a key battle against Pompey. It fell into the Roman Empire’s good graces as a result and grew into a significant military, cultural, and religious center. Today, these influences are hard to miss: the quiet residential streets of Arles wind around a giant amphitheatre, among other impressive Roman monuments.

The large Roman amphitheatre in Arles

This grand Roman legacy was far from Van Gogh’s mind when he chose to settle in what was then a somewhat faded town. This faded quality, however, was exactly what he was looking for as he sought a break from the hustle and bustle of Paris. He wrote to his brother:

I believe that the town of Arles was once infinitely more glorious for the beauty of its women, for the beauty of its traditional dress. Now it all looks sickly and faded as far as character goes.  But if you look at it for a long time, the old charm reveals itself.

Perhaps above all, Van Gogh enjoyed the beautiful light and weather of Provence, “where outdoor work is possible almost all the year round.” He continued to work outdoors long after the sun set, famously capturing scenes like the “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” Legend has it that the increasingly eccentric painter was seen balancing candles on his wide-brimmed straw hat so he could continue to work through the evenings.

“Starry Night Over the Rhone”

Today’s view of the Rhone from near where Van Gogh sat, pictured here on a foggy Arles day.

Despite only living there for a little more than a year, Van Gogh created many of his greatest paintings in Arles. He originally hoped to found an artists’ colony in the city, thinking that his friends would find Arles just as inspiring as he did. Van Gogh repeatedly urged his friend Paul Gauguin to join him in the South, telling him:

[E]ven while working I never cease to think about this enterprise of setting up a studio with yourself and me as permanent residents,…which we’d both wish to make into a shelter and a refuge for our pals[.]

When Gauguin arrived in October 1888, he stayed in a room in Van Gogh’s rented yellow house (no longer standing in Arles, but immortalized by the artist  inside and out).

“Bedroom in Arles”

The artists’ colony never got off the ground. Van Gogh became ever more unstable, getting into fights with his friend and ultimately threatening Gauguin with the razor blade later used to cut off his own earlobe. Van Gogh spent the rest of his life in and out of hospitals but continued to paint up until his death in 1890.

Today, visitors in Arles can walk in Van Gogh’s footsteps, connecting contemporary sights with the artist’s interpretations. The city has set up easels to mark some of Van Gogh’s more famous subjects, allowing for direct comparisons.

The public garden in Arles, with a Van Gogh “easel” showing the artist’s depiction.

“Entrance to the Public Garden”

The “Café de Nuit” (Night Cafe) was not originally yellow. It was later painted to match the colors used by Van Gogh in his painting.

“Café de Nuit”

The courtyard of the historic hospital in Arles, where Van Gogh recovered after chopping off his earlobe. Today, the courtyard is called L’Espace Van Gogh.

“Garden of the Hospital in Arles”

As a small town, Arles is enjoyable as a day-long excursion from within Provence and is easily walkable. It’s  accessible by train or bus from larger hubs in the region, including Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, and Marseille. For more on the South of France, check out the Untapped Guide to the French Riviera.

They might catch your eye as you hike up the hills near Dolores Park, walk through the Richmond fog, or stroll the quiet streets of Cole Valley: red brick circles are embedded in dozens of San Francisco’s roads throughout the city.

These brick circles might look decorative, but there’s much more to them than what’s on the surface. Underneath each is a concrete tank that holds 75,000 gallons of water. 172 of these underground cisterns exist throughout the city, making up an important component of San Francisco’s Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS).

The AWSS was developed in response to 1906 earthquake, which caused a devastating combination of fires and damage to the major water lines that were needed to fight them. Left with few usable hydrants and a lack of sufficient backup water supply, firefighters were unable to stop the blazes for days.

Smoke billowed over San Francisco as the fires of 1906 spread throughout the city with few available firefighting resources.  [Source: San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library]  

As city engineers developed plans for a better emergency water system, they noted that San Francisco’s 23 cisterns were among the few firefighting resources that had worked in the aftermath of the earthquake. They called for a much larger network of cisterns throughout the city. Over one hundred were constructed in the next few decades, including one cistern every 3 blocks in key downtown areas. Along with cisterns, the AWSS includes a major reservoir on Twin Peaks and  pump systems that draw directly from San Francisco Bay. These backup resources were critical in fighting fires that broke out after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Red bricks outline a cistern on Dolores Street at 24th.

Not all cisterns are outlined by the distinctive brick circles, but you can tell there’s one nearby if you spot a fire hydrant with a green top. Different colors and shapes are used to indicate a hydrant’s water source and pressure level.

A green fire hydrant “bonnet” indicates that there’s a cistern nearby. This one is on Castro Street at 14th.

Each cistern is also covered with a manhole that reads  CISTERN S.F.F.D., but they’re no longer maintained by the Fire Department. In 2010, the Public  Utilities  Commission assumed  responsibility  for the Auxiliary Water Supply System, which has survived several earthquakes but is showing its age with rust and leaks. By the end of this decade, the Public Utilities Commission hopes to have completed major renovations and seismic updates. For more information on these efforts, visit  sfearthquakesafety.org.

Cistern  maintenance  moved to the SF Public Utilities  Commission in 2010, but S.F.F.D. labels remain on manhole covers. This cistern is at Douglass and Elizabeth.

No red bricks here: this cistern cover hides in the grass at the edge of Dolores Park.

Enter Bird and Beckett on a Friday night and you’ll find a scene you won’t see anywhere else in San Francisco. Old friends greet each other and pour cups of wine as they maneuver through bookshelves. Jazz musicians warm up on a small, cozy stage in the back. Books are crammed into every possible corner, spilling out from their shelves into piles on the floor.

San Francisco is home to many renowned independent bookstores, but Bird and Beckett’s focus on music and the community is particularly notable. Established about 10 years ago, this Glen Park bookstore solidified its commitment to local culture by founding the non-profit Cultural Legacy Project. The project seeks to “present, document and archive the creative work of significant living writers and musicians in the San Francisco Bay Area, for a neighborhood audience and future generations.”  In addition to weekly jazz programs, the Cultural Legacy Project presents poetry readings at the bookshop and publishes a literary review called AMERARCANA.


Several regulars rotate on the Friday night jazz stage, and the night I attended featured the Chuck Peterson Quintet, swinging some classic jazz tunes. Vocalist Dorothy Lefkovits joined the group on stage a little later for  Ain’t Misbehavin’  and other standards:

Peterson, a saxophonist, helped get the original jazz series rolling in the early days of the bookshop, and he shared an easy familiarity with both his fellow performers and audience members.

To learn more about the Friday night jazz schedule and other events at Bird and Beckett, visit their website or just drop on by the bookshop! If you attend, make sure to help support the musicians with the suggested donation of $10 per person.

Bird and Beckett Books and Records [Map]
653 Chenery Street
San Francisco

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Untapped San Francisco writer Ali Miller discovers  new favorites and revisits old ones in her travels around the greater Bay Area in this week’s Tap This.  

What I’m playing: I’m a violinist in the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and spent last week rehearsing and performing in downtown Oakland’s beautiful art deco Paramount Theatre. The symphony has a very “Untapped” personality: our programs are always a dynamic mix of old and new, and the audience is much more diverse than you’d typically imagine at a classical music concert. Last week’s concert began with two modern pieces and ended with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony–a serious workout to play, but incredibly beautiful!

What I’m reading: I found a used copy of Fuschia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper  while browsing the shelves at SF’s wonderful independent bookstore Green Apple Books. The book, which came out a few years ago, chronicles the writer’s adventures as she immerses herself in Chinese food and culture. Her experience as the only non-Chinese student in a cooking class in Sichuan Province is particularly entertaining.

My favorite new spot:  I visited  Comstock Saloon in North Beach this week and enjoyed some classy cocktails in an Old West atmosphere. Comstock also has excellent food, and my friends and I ordered the tasty fried chicken and tater tots on the “Honky Tonk Sunday” menu.

My favorite old spot: I grew up in Aptos (near Santa Cruz), and always enjoy going back there to visit my family. I usually also end up visiting the famous Gayle’s Bakery near Capitola Beach. Gayle’s offers everything from delicious pastries and sandwiches to fully-prepared meals. On sunny weekends, it’s packed with hungry beach visitors. They also happen to make gorgeous wedding cakes, which was the happy reason behind this particular visit!

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In this Untapped series, we’re visiting the Carnegie branch libraries of San Francisco. In part I, we got to know the Richmond, Mission, and Noe Valley branches-the first three Carnegie branches built in the city. Now, we’ll take a look at the Golden Gate Valley and Presidio branches, located just about a mile from each other and both recently renovated.

Golden Gate Valley
The Golden Gate Valley library just reopened in October 2011, after almost 2 years of renovation. Located in Cow Hollow, the library originally opened in 1918 as the ninth branch in the SF public library system. Its elegantly curved structure, meant to evoke a Roman basilica, is unique among the Carnegie branches:

Inside, books line the curved wall, creating cozy reading spaces for patrons.

This library was designed by English architect Ernest Coxhead, who lived in San Francisco for many years and left a lasting impact on Bay Area architecture. In addition to the library, Coxhead designed iconic homes and nearly 20 churches in the area-many of which still stand today. The San Francisco  Chronicle  noted: “Few architects have created buildings as quirky, playful and personal as Coxhead…or as historically informed and serious. And few architects cast the same spell.”

The recent Golden Gate Valley renovation process is detailed by the San Francisco library website, which offers an  interactive tour. The tour highlights    key eco-friendly features (like solar panels and the all-important seismic retrofitting),  which hopefully allows this almost century-old building to serve patrons for years to come.

 [Source: SF History Center/SF Public Library]  

The final Carnegie branch built in San Francisco, the Presidio library opened its doors on Sacramento Street in 1921, replacing the Fillmore branch established in 1898. Like several other local SF branches, the Presidio branch only came into existence after several years of petitioning by library advocates. While Carnegie funds were available for its construction, the city was originally unable to commit to the operating costs of an expanded branch. Ultimately, the library advocates prevailed (assisted by some timely increases in city tax revenue), and the completion of the Presidio branch helped to usher in a high point in library funding and collection growth.

The Presidio branch has played an important role in the library system over the years, serving as the home for the Library of the Blind and holding special performing arts and international collections. Today, the freshly-renovated building makes a grand statement, set apart from Sacramento Street’s charming shops and restaurants by a large front lawn:

The Presidio branch was designed by architect G. Albert Lansburgh, perhaps best-known for the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and the War Memorial Opera House here in SF. He also dominated the design of the SF Carnegie libraries with his work on  the Mission, Sunset and North Beach (now Chinatown) branches. Inside the Presidio branch, high ceilings and arched windows resemble those in the Mission  library:

A look inside the Presidio branch in the 1970s    [Source: SF History Center/SF Public Library]  

Stay tuned for part III of our series, where we’ll visit the final two Carnegie branches: the Chinatown and Sunset libraries!

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My dad, who grew up in Brooklyn, loves egg creams. When I first visited New York as a young kid, he couldn’t wait for me to try one. Unfortunately, I was not pleased. The frothy, sparkling texture of milk mixed with seltzer water was unexpected and weird. I didn’t get why anyone would choose this concoction over a milkshake.

Luckily, that Brooklyn heritage eventually kicked in, and I grew to like the distinctive combination of chocolate (or vanilla) syrup with seltzer and milk. I even scored major points by tracking down an official egg cream kit (including the original Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup) as a Chanukah present for my dad one year, so egg creams are readily available whenever I visit home.

Still, it’s rare to find a real egg cream on the West Coast, and I had yet to have a non-homemade version outside of New York. Strolling through Bernal Heights one Sunday afternoon, I peered into a storefront and was delighted to see a handmade sign for “EGG CREAMS”, with a clarifying disclaimer: “does not contain egg or cream.”

The place? Paulie’s Pickling, a self-described “Cali-Jewish deli”  that’s tucked away in a Bernal Heights storefront on Cortland Avenue with several other small shops. It’s probably the only place where you can order house-cured lox from one counter, and then turn around to buy rare spices or a fancy Japanese knife from another.

I definitely had to order an egg cream. I spied Fox’s U-Bet  chocolate syrup on the counter, but decided to go non-traditional and ordered the Mexican chocolate flavor instead. Also non-traditional but fittingly San Franciscan: the egg cream was hand-mixed for me not in a tall fountain glass, but in a compostable plastic cup:

It was a perfect mix of the old and the new: that familiar, frothy milk and chocolate flavor with a spicy twist!

You can find  Paulie’s Pickling  at 331 Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights. Recently, Whole Foods also started stocking their pickled items, but you’ll need to go to the source to enjoy an egg cream.


The shops at 331 Cortland share space on their signs, advertising everything from piroshkis to pickles. Inside, cookies and Bissli Israeli snacks on the Paulie’s counter share close quarters with the high-end Japanese knives and sharpening machines at Bernal Cutlery.