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Soundscape of a city: Exploring San Francisco through sound

There are many ways to explore a city, the most obvious being – you guessed it – in person. But in the age of Covid, we’re having to find new ways of travelling, new modes of escaping the mundanity of our everyday surroundings without…actually…leaving them. Many have returned to books, dipping into fiction and travel literature to – if only for a short time – explore an unfamiliar and perhaps unreachable city through somebody else’s eyes – experiencing all their pain and joy along the way. But what about sound?

Anyone who has been forced to lump around after an overly-enthusiastic tourist will tell you that a city’s character cannot be captured by mere sight-seeing – rather it is the way the cityscape fills up our senses (no John Denver reference intended) that comes to define our experience of it. We hear cities as much as we see them, so why not join us as we travel the city of San Francisco with our eyes firmly closed; discovering another, previously hidden side to this great American city. You’re welcome to experience this article in any way you’d like. You can listen to the soundscape above before, after, or (and this would be my preference) while you read. Either way, it’s your choice.

Perhaps the first and most pervading sound of San Francisco is the traffic on the golden gate bridge. Unveiled in 1937, this iconic art deco-inspired suspension bridge spans the mile-long gulf between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The day it opened, some 50,000 people walked across it in celebration, their footsteps pounding along the sun-scorched tarmac, sending vibrations running through the steel cables flanking them on either side like a huge metallic corset. There was certainly reason to celebrate. Ever since Americans had settled in San Francisco, residents of the gold-rich city had looked out across the oceanic expanse and wondered if the two sides could be connected. Even when engineers began to consider the construction of a bridge in earnest, many of them were left scratching their heads and claimed that crafting something of such magnitude was simply impossible. But, then, impossibility is second nature to the golden gate bridge. According to maintenance workers, several microclimates exist along its stretch, with temperatures varying up to 20 degrees between either end, leading to stories of workers’ paintbrushes freezing in their pots in the middle of July.

In the city itself, the traffic doesn’t die down. The street hum with an intoxicating vitality that seems to enter your bloodstream the moment you arrive. It’s no wonder this is a city where revolutionary ideas are born. Close your eyes, and you can hear the hard-edged slide of countless skateboarders, whose percussive slams bleed into the rattle of tramcars and the holla of prospective street-side diners waiting in line to receive something deep-fried and mouth-watering. In summer, you might even find yourself amidst the joyous roar of the city’s legendary pride parade, the first of which took place in June 1970 and saw 20 to 30 people walk from Aquatic Park to Civic Center on Polk Street.

But, as you continue to blindly wander, you’ll soon find the clamour of the city has melted away, replaced by the relative calm of one of the many tranquil parks and innovative green schemes speckled throughout San Francisco. Take the golden gate park, with its Japanese tea garden and neat hills, offering stunning views of the surrounding city. Or, perhaps, Tenderloin National Forest – a verdant garden in one of the city’s most notorious districts, that was once filled with the sound of the hottest jazz artists of the ’50s and ’60s. While it has long been known as an area with high rates of crime and poverty, it has been home to the city’s outcasts, making it a hotbed of cultural fusion. The many music venues that once lined the streets here attracted the likes of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis – all of whom recorded live albums in Tenderloin.

Floating down to the docks, we find the echoes of another legendary artist gently reverberating along the waterfront. I was here, across from the famous Fisherman’s Wharf district, that Otis Redding rented the boathouse in which he wrote ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’. The neighbourhood still rings with the sound of fishing boats slowly churning the water as they make their into port, ready to unload their dead-eyed haul onto the wooden pontoons, from where it will be carried to one for the many restaurants and fishmongers along this stretch.

It is the city’s location on the shores of the Pacific that have come to define the paradoxical legacy of San Francisco. Because, it is these expansive waters that helped it become one of the most liberal places in America and, simultaneously, one famous for its incarceration of criminals. The looming shadow of Alcatraz, the maximum-security prison, famed for its impenetrability, cannot be ignored. The cavernous cells within this fortress prison were constructed between 1909 and 1912. After being deactivated as a military prison in 1933, it reopened as a federal one, and became famous for holding the most infamous criminals of the day, such as Al Capone, Bumpy Johnson, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Franklin Stroud, otherwise known as the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. Despite their attempts, none of the prisoners incarcerated on Alcatraz island ever successfully escaped – or so we are told.

In 1963, struggling under the financial strain of keeping the operation running, the penitentiary was closed. Shortly after, in 1968, the island was occupied by Native American protesters led by Richard Oakes and LaNada Means. The protest group, known as Indians of All Tribes (IOAT), argued that, under the historic Fort Laramie Treaty, all abandoned or out-of-use federal land was to be returned to the Native population who had once occupied it. Seeing as Alcatraz had been abandoned, the IOAT claimed that the island qualified for reclamation and set about doing just that.

Back on the mainland, there was another protest underway, a protest of the mind. By 1968, the countercultural ‘hippie’ movement had reached its peak, and San Francisco was at the centre of it all. Having grown up looking out onto the endless expanse of San Francisco Bay, young San Franciscans were primed for utopian thinking. Staring out into the water, they imagined a new world defined by individualism, pacifism, and eco-centrism. And soundtracking this utopian ideology, was the cerebral pulse of bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead – groups who came to formulate what was coined ‘The San Francisco Sound’.

So, you see, with our eyes closed, the city of San Franciso easily unravels itself. Listening to the soundscape of a city offers us a new way of thinking about tourism. Rather than repeatedly honouring the same tourist sites, we find ourselves wandering the streets untethered from any destination, which, as any seasoned traveller will tell you, is the perfect way to find what you’re looking for. So, the next time you find yourself in an unfamiliar city, take a moment to close your eyes and listen to the world around you.

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