Category Archives: destinations

Destinations: Splendid Cycles

Little shop, big idea

I really had no idea what to expect when I visited Splendid Cycles. You can’t tell much about a bike shop will be like from a website (assuming one exists), although you can get a sense of what they sell. And I liked what they were selling. Joel, one of the owners, seemed pretty nice when I emailed him (and turned out to be just as nice in person). Yet visiting the store made it clear how much I have been missing by relying on the internet to learn about cargo bikes.

The average bike shop I have visited tries to have something for everyone, and that often means aiming directly at the market of people who are thinking about getting a bike for the first time. But it is fairly difficult to hit the price point that novices think is reasonable for a new bike (as I’ve mentioned before, based on talking to non-riders, of which there are many up the hill in my neighborhood, that price is: $100). But almost all bike shops seem to have a few bikes near the front door in the $300 range or so, not too overwhelming for the perennially broke college student, but a pretty stripped-down machine by any measure. The other day while chasing down my daughter in a bike shop I overheard a family discussing why two bikes that to their eyes looked identical were priced at $350 and $700 respectively. Like me several months ago, they had no idea.

Ahearne Cycle Truck: not a kid-carrier, but hauls other cargo

However cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes. At their cheapest, new cargo bikes run about $1,000. The price difference reflects the fact that these bikes are capable of doing much more than carrying a student around campus. When you’re hauling real weight, on other places than the seat, everything has to be somewhat higher quality and differently designed, or you end up like my colleagues who tried to put child seats on their bikes and immediately broke all their spokes. And as cargo bikes become more capable, and as you add more accessories, like child seats and cargo bags, their prices rapidly rocket past that $1000 mark even for the least expensive models.

(As with everything else, handy people have more options. People who feel comfortable working on bikes can pick up bikes or trailers or Xtracycle FreeRadicals on craigslist and turn them into something greater than the sum of their parts. I admire their skill, but I’m not one of these people. And I would guess that in this I’m like most parents, unless by happy coincidence they happen to be bike mechanics or living with one.)

Big Dummy with BionX: definitely a family-friendly bike (also: seating for visitors, nice touch)

Which brings me to Splendid Cycles, because it is the only bike shop I’ve ever seen that is exclusively selling bikes that replace family cars, but that still retain most of the advantages of ordinary bicycles. For our lives right now, visiting Splendid Cycles was a revelation.  We don’t use our bikes just to noodle around the park on weekends (although that’s fun too), we use them to move ourselves and our stuff and our kids around town. I had always assumed that this required certain compromises: going more slowly, adding after-market accessories to make a Franken-bike, giving up going up and down hills, or being unable to get the bike inside if you live above ground floor. You can get a heavy Dutch bike if you live on the ground floor, in the flats, and don’t mind going slowly. Or you can cobble together family bikes from child seats and odds and ends like we’ve done and maneuver through traffic and actually make it up real hills, slowly, if you’re strong. Or you can go to Splendid Cycles and be blown away by seeing a dozen bikes that don’t require you to make those compromises.

Metrofiets cargo bikes

Splendid Cycles carries Metrofiets cargo bikes, which I had heard of but never seen in person before. As cool as they are, I realized immediately when I saw them that a Metrofiets would never fit through our narrow basement door. (Less than one minute in the shop and I’d already justified a trip across Portland.) The Winther Wallaroo looked even better for carrying kids, with outstanding seating, but had the same problem from my perspective: unlikely to make it into our basement. They carry Ahearne Cycle Trucks, which look pretty clever for carrying cargo but are not really designed to carry kids, so those aren’t our bikes either.

They had a Big Dummy, which is designed to haul kids, among other things, and another one of which I used to carry my own kids across Seattle a week later.

Bullitts, both with and without child seat

And rounding out the kid carriers, they had a bike I’d never seen before, the Bullitt. From the perspective of a city rider, this is probably the most interesting bike they sell. The Bullitt is narrow and lightweight; even with the child seat on it could probably be carried it up a flight of stairs. It can make it through traffic pinch points and climb hills. It is not perfect for our needs; the narrow child compartment probably limits its capacity to one of our (now older) kids. On the other hand, you could put a trailer-bike on the back (Joel’s great idea, not mine, he was full of them). It could be a great dad bike, but I can’t imagine riding it while pregnant; it does not have a step-through frame. But if you’re done having kids it would be something to consider.

Wallaroos, rigged for all-weather riding

Walking into Splendid Cycles opened an incredible sense of possibility; there were so many bikes we’d never imagined that could do what we wanted them to do. Our kids would have loved this shop; getting them out of a Wallaroo, once spotted, would be almost impossible. And to top it off, at Splendid Cycles they know a lot about electric assists, which make these bikes reasonable options for people who live on hills. I didn’t understand the strengths and limitations of the BionX and whether it could handle San Francisco elevations when I walked into Splendid Cycles. Now I do, and yes it can. Overall I learned more about both cargo bikes and electric assists in person at Splendid Cycles than I’d learned in hours of reading reviews. It was amazing to be able to talk to Joel, who wasn’t figuring this out as he went along like we’ve been; he’d already thought about what was involved in riding with kids or cargo in traffic and on hills and had put together a half-dozen bikes, which were sitting right there, with electric assists, to solve our kinds of problems.

This kind of expertise and fit for our needs comes at a price. And at one point that kind of price left me in shock, but I now realize that these bikes are worth it. They cost as much as the first car I drove, but that car was a junker, whereas these bikes are as reliable as bicycles can be.  Furthermore, the bikes are more practical for moving around the city than that car. These are true car replacements, except we’d never have to worry about parking again.

Thanks to Matt’s bike maintenance class, we’ve recently learned more about the compromises manufacturers have to make to get the price of cargo bikes down around $1,000 (crappy brakes, tires more likely to get flats, etc.), and we’re now spending money to upgrade the MinUte to become more like the bike we want. So in many cases it’s a choice between paying up front for quality or paying later for repairs and upgrades. There are legitimate reasons to choose one or the other, but it wasn’t a choice we realized we were making at the time.

From my perspective, Splendid Cycles isn’t a Portland destination so much as a destination in its own right. It would justify a trip to Portland by itself for the right family. I met a father from Eugene visiting the shop who’d decided just that. It was definitely worth visiting given that I was already in Portland.

Worth the trip

Joel pointed out that Oregon has no sales tax, and that having Splendid Cycles ship a bike somewhere would cost less than the sales tax in less enlightened locales. I am an employee of the state of California and thus feel guilty for even mentioning such a thing, but for less tormented souls, this is yet another reason to talk to Splendid Cycles about cargo bikes.

There are lots of reasons to be impressed by Portland’s bike culture, but its breadth still amazes me. I never imagined a bike shop like this could exist. Splendid Cycles has put all its chips on our kind of bicycles. It is a bet that the world will change to make space for many families like ours, and that one day hauling kids on bikes will be as unremarkable here in the US as it is in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I don’t think this will happen here while our kids are young enough to ride on our bikes, and I am envious that Portland can support a shop like this. I wish there was a Splendid Cycles in every city.

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Bicycles in Beijing

Rental tandems in the Huohai lake historic district

While I was riding around Portland and Seattle (more to come), Matt was in China for business. Because he knows I love bicycles, he took some pictures of the ones he saw while he was in Beijing. Most of Beijing is evidently terrifying by any mode of transit, and Matt claims that even standing still and breathing there feels risky. However a portion of the city, the Huohai lake historic district, is off-limits to cars and thus packed with bikes, bikes, bikes. He sent me these photos labeled “Copenhagen East.”

Little bike, big seat

In virtually all of the photos I’ve seen of bikes in China, riders have not shrunk from carrying passengers on bikes, even if said bikes were technically not designed for this purpose. The rear seat on this bicycle is disconcertingly far back on the rear wheel, which must make the bike itself fishtail like crazy. So I find it especially impressive, or alternatively crazy, that the rear seat is large enough that it could almost certainly carry a second adult. And that seat does not lack style. Compared to the sea of gray plastic child seats I see mounted on rear racks in this country, it is a nice change of pace for the child seat to outclass the bike.

Three-seat tandems, city-bike style

But if you really want to ride in style, you can rent a three-seater tandem. Compare these rides to the surreys you see in American parks: there is no comparison. I especially like that they come with fenders, chainguards, and front baskets, as though they were actually viable commuter vehicles, which seems pretty improbable. But it’s nice that that’s the assumption; tandems in this country seem primarily targeted to the road biking set. This is a shame given that kids love tandems.

Really basic bike shop: no walls, no ceiling

By contrast, the bike shops of the lake district are a lot more ad hoc. In Portland they put everything on cargo bikes, and I imagine that this is handy when you have a flat by the side of the road: rolling bike shop to the rescue! But in Beijing a bike shop is evidently a guy on the sidewalk. Despite having a lot less real estate at his disposal than even a tiny San Francisco bike shop, this guy has nonetheless provided customer seating. I thought that was a classy touch.

Maintenance lessons for the next generation

In keeping with the customer-focused theme, the owner of this open-air shop started giving a young customer a bike maintenance lesson while Matt was there snapping photos. I like that they’re working on another mama-bike–you can see it’s balanced on the child seat in the back, and has the usual commuter accessories: fenders, chainguard, front basket. The bikes in all of these photos probably sell for the equivalent of less than $100, and every single one of them is a more practical commuter than over 90% of the fixies I see in San Francisco’s Financial District. The US is a great country, but also crazy.

Soft and Lazy Restaurant, clearly catering to the tourist trade

Unlike me, Matt was not able to bail on many of his business obligations to ride bikes around a strange city, more’s the pity. So his impressions of actually riding a bicycle in Beijing will have to wait for another time–there will be at least two more extended trips this year, and I have faith that eventually he’ll make it out of the taxi. He said he came back feeling much like this perhaps-too-honestly-advertised restaurant. Chinglish: it’s funny because it’s true.

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On the road again

We're off to see some big trees

My recent frenetic posting pace reflects a kind of end of term wrap-up. The university, the school district, and our preschool are all closing for a week of spring break.  Matt is going on a two-week business trip to Beijing. But let us not judge his carbon footprint; he is there to site renewable energy plants, surely an offset for using all that jet fuel. Instead let’s judge mine: rather than stay home and twiddle our thumbs, the kids and I are headed north to visit my mom in Washington.

But there is a stop along the way: I am going to Portland, North America’s bicycling mecca, to attend a professional conference for a few days (some of which I will skip in order to ride bicycles, shop for books, and visit friends I haven’t seen in years). Frankly I’m so excited I could jump out of my skin.

At any rate, posts for the rest of March are likely to be irregular at best. I’ll be back in April.

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San Francisco destinations: Roll San Francisco

Welcome to Roll San Francisco

The bike shop my sister hauled me to on Saturday has an interesting concept. Roll doesn’t sell bicycles as much as it sells services. It’s not a business model I’d ever considered.

Most bike shops, to my mind, are kind of 20th-century enterprises. They tend to have limited websites, if any, and don’t bother to post inventory or prices anywhere. A few lack the attention to cleanliness and presentation that you would find at even the most slovenly used car dealership. Virtually all of them seem naively optimistic about the level of knowledge that new customers bring in the door. These aren’t always bad things—I for one would happily never set foot in a used car dealership again in my life—but they can be off-putting. It had been a long time since I’d ridden a bike when I bought one, and I certainly could have used reminders that I would need a lock and should pump up my tires once a week. There is a certain hobbyist flair to the bicycle shop (and in many cases, bicycle manufacturing) enterprise that leads me to believe that many of the people involved grew up thinking that “business” was a dirty word.

They fix unicycles, don't they? (Because someone asked them to.)

My sister was excited about Roll because the owners have thought about some of these issues. They recognized, rightly I think, that there is an abundance of stores in San Francisco that can sell you a bike, and that they didn’t want to compete with them. They do have a couple of bicycles for sale (literally: they had two bicycles for sale) but they are mostly about what happens after you buy the bike. They’ll repair anything, and by anything I mean that one of their current jobs was blasting the rust off a frame that someone found in an attic, which had been made by his grandfather, which they would then build up into a functioning bike. They posted the prices of all the services they could think of right on their website (admittedly not yet updated to include blasting rust from a 50-year old frame). They are open from 8am to 7pm so that you can drop a non-functioning bike off in the morning before leaving for work, and pick it up on the way home. You can make an appointment in advance online. Transparency! Availability! Online scheduling! What’s not to like?

Front and center

The owner we spoke with, Renita, was a long-time bike commuter who had evidently been saving up a list of her irritations with traditional bike shops for a while. There is, for example, just one other bike shop in the city I know that keeps comparable hours; that is Warm Planet, which is open 7am-8pm M-F because they primarily serve Caltrain commuters (they offer free valet bicycle parking). Traditional bike shop business hours (Renita: “They’re better than banker’s hours”) have annoyed me as well; once when my tire was low after I arrived at work, I figured I might as well pick up a pump to keep at the office. But the bike shop near my office didn’t officially open until 2pm, and I was warned that I’d be lucky if they actually showed up by then. I had a class to teach that afternoon, so I ended up getting a pump during lunch at the hardware store in Laurel Village. Good thing I don’t have Presta valves.

Bicycle surgical unit, complete with sink to scrub in

I mostly spoke to Renita, because Sam, the mechanic, was keeping busy working on bikes. They are evidently doing a land-office business, because they just hired a second full-time mechanic. The shop was packed with bikes when we came in, but it was not overwhelming. Renita was justifiably proud of their setup, noting that they wanted to put the bike stands and tools up front, where everyone could see them, rather than hidden in the back. There is a back cubby, however, where they do all the scary things that no one wants to watch that involve tools like saws. I could not help thinking of this room as the operating theater.

Step up to the bar

She was also proud that they had something else I had never seen in a bicycle shop before: seating and books, as well as a television that played bike-oriented shows (at the time we were there, an incredibly boring bike race). I am used to standing around bike shops waiting to be helped and staring at the walls by now, but have never enjoyed it. Including seating was an inspired move, particularly given that they wanted a space where women and kids would feel welcome. My sister and I agreed: mission accomplished. They even have a child seat in stock, a Topeak. It’s not the model I would have chosen (either Bobike or Yepp would be better) but it’s nice that they made the effort.

And they aren’t snobs. Like Sosuke in Ponyo, they love all the bicycles. Hence the custom Seven we spotted between two decidedly-not-custom bikes, a Giant and a Cannondale.

The frame-mounted front rack, my new Holy Grail

When I saw the front rack on a Storck (which I was told was the only aluminum frame Storck model, like I would know that Storck primarily makes carbon bikes, which I guess I know now) I asked if they installed frame-mounted front baskets. Sure, she said, they had a metal fabricator on call that could create one and add it to any bike. (I’ve since realized that a Soma Gamoh would serve our needs more than adequately. But FYI.)

We don’t live anywhere near Potrero Hill and getting to this shop would be a five-mile slog for us. This would not be ideal if our bikes actually needed repair, but I understand why locals seem to be swarming it. My sister has a bike mechanic hanging out at home in the form of my brother-in-law, but I imagine she’ll be back for larger jobs he’d prefer not to do. Overall, although I can’t speak to the quality of their work from just wandering around taking pictures, I was impressed. This is a different kind of bike shop, and it’s different in a good way.

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San Francisco destinations: Everybody Bikes

Perhaps not the most practical use of the shop pump

I have mentioned before that our local bike shop is Everybody Bikes. This place belongs in our San Francisco destinations because we are there so often we have started to feel like stalkers. We’ll love you even if you get that restraining order, Everybody Bikes! However my son, who can be very literal, finds their name inappropriate.

“Not everybody bikes in San Francisco,” he says. “Their store should be in Copenhagen, not in San Francisco. That’s where everybody really bikes.”

Tires, small bikes and a folder in the attic

Our initial visit to Everybody Bikes came at the strenuous urging of my brother-in-law, who had bought his commuter there a few months earlier, when they opened. Unlike us, he knows a lot about bikes, and he was very impressed with their work. On first impression, we were not as infatuated. When we walked in the door, we immediately noticed that they primarily stocked mountain bikes (this has changed). They did not have child seats. Moreover, the hipster vibe was very strong. The shop’s owners wore the kind of tight pants that always make me want to check for gangrenous toes, accessorized with heavy black plastic glasses, knit skullcaps, and Rorschach facial hair. As a parent these visual cues make me twitchy. These looked to be the kind of people who screamed “Breeder!” at moms in minivans during Critical Mass rides.

The view from the spiral staircase

What’s more, on our first visit they weren’t too familiar with children. We usually bring toys for our kids when we are stopping in a store, but this is hopeless in a bike shop: no toy in our possession compares to bike accessories. Our kids bolted for the bike bells and pumps (we figured they could do little damage in this section of the store); one of the owners visibly flinched and asked us to please get them to play somewhere else. This was tough to do; the store is roughly the size of a suburban walk-in closet.

Since then, we have all gotten to know each other a little better. Despite our initial reservations (and, evidently, theirs) we’ve realized we’re fortunate to have a shop like this within walking distance. When we lived in Berkeley, our apartment was down the street from an independent hardware store legendary for its service. When I came in to buy nails one day, I saw one of the owners signing tentatively with a deaf customer. When she left, I commented that I didn’t know he knew how to sign. Oh, I just started taking a class because she moved into the neighborhood, he said. Everybody Bikes is like that hardware store. What they don’t know, they’re ready to learn. And although this is changing, family biking has a fairly steep learning curve. They’ve been game to help us figure it out.

Upstairs where the training wheels hide

Our kids made the shop owners nervous at first, but they have gotten more comfortable with families. They carry a couple of balance bikes and children’s bikes, and from day one they were able to fit a kid’s helmet. They are good-natured about our daughter’s efforts to pump air into the hole in the sidewalk at their front door, and endlessly concerned that both kids not injure themselves on the store’s spiral staircase or on our bikes. This is a hopeless cause in the case of our daughter, but we all make an effort. They have learned that kids need frequent bathroom visits and always volunteer theirs. Like Trader Joe’s, they offer stickers, and we have probably a hundred “Everybody Bikes” stickers now in various corners and drawers. I see other families in the shop now, and this attention isn’t unique to us.

The owners might look like hipsters, but they don’t act like them. They take the shop’s Kona Ute to the farmer’s market and to street fairs and give free bike tune-ups. They offer a bicycle maintenance class, which Matt is taking this year. They open the store for neighborhood movie nights and art shows (okay, this is kind of hipster-esque). When we talk to the owners at the door, neighbors walk by and greet them by name. We’re not the only people around here who like them. They stock more commuter bikes now, and a month ago I watched a family walk in and order a Linus from them that they planned to rig up with child seats. I’ll admit that I still wish they actually stocked child seats, but they’ll order and install them.

A variety of kids' helmets

The Sunset is one of the few places where families are relatively thick on the ground in San Francisco, and because they aspire to be a neighborhood bike shop, they’ll work out issues that come up when riding with kids. They’d never set up a Kona MinUte to carry kids before (ours was the first MinUte they’d ever sold, and they gave us a great price), but they found really nice stoker bars for us. When the footpegs they wanted to fit on the bike were out of stock, they found and ordered an alternative on eBay. They keep adjusting the MinUte’s crappy brakes for free. San Francisco can be hard on bicycles. They keep us moving, and they are unbelievably nice.

Everybody Bikes took over their location from an extremely successful and much-beloved shop, Roaring Mouse Cycles, when it moved to larger digs in the Presidio. Roaring Mouse would be a tough act for any bike shop to follow, but they have managed it with grace. When other parents in the neighborhood ask us where we got our MinUte or where to buy a kids’ helmet, we’re always delighted to tell them to head over to Everybody Bikes, at 15th and Irving, where they’ll be treated like human beings even if they are as clueless as we were.

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San Francisco destinations: Parnassus Heights

The route to preschool: Staircase #1

We live on the main campus of the university where I work, at the inflection point between the approach to the mountain, which is steep, and the mountain itself, which is really steep. We’ll ride our bikes up to where we live (I wrote about the hills we face on that trip) but after that we pretty much throw up our hands. For short distances, we walk, and for longer distances, we take the shuttle or we drive. Unless and until we get an electric assist, this is unlikely to change.

The route to preschool: Staircase #2

This frustrates my daughter, whose preschool is a couple of blocks straight uphill from our house, because no matter how many times she requests a bike commute to school or back, it has never happened. Even when we return from a ride to our son’s school in the morning, we park the bike in the basement and walk her up to preschool. Maybe someday we’ll have the foresight to walk a bike up the hill and blast on down with her on board at the end of the day, but we haven’t managed it yet. Also I would only feel safe doing that shortly after a brake tune-up. It’s a straight shot down.

The route to preschool: Staircase #3

At least it is a very pretty walk. Much of the campus is difficult place to build anything, although the university has managed to pack more clinical and lab space onto the site than anyone ever thought was possible. Nevertheless a lot of trees were left standing around.

The university was founded in 1868, but only moved to the Parnassus site thirty years later, in 1898. The land was donated by San Francisco’s mayor at the time, Adolph Sutro. His motives may not have been pure; the land around Golden Gate Park, which he owned, was largely undeveloped at the time, and putting a university there spurred development that might not otherwise have been as lucrative. At the time, many faculty members viewed the Parnassus shelf as hopelessly inaccessible—then as now, it seemed insane to put a hospital halfway up a mountain. But no one was turning down free land.

One block up from us: Why not commute by zipline?

Many of our neighbors live in buildings that are the equivalent of several stories above us, even though they are only a block away. One of my daughter’s classmates lives in an apartment complex above the preschool, on a hill that is so steep that it has been reinforced with steel bars to prevent mudslides from burying a portion of the campus in the rainy season. I once suggested that she run a zipline from their apartment window to the preschool for a quicker commute in the morning.

I have been locked out of this building more times than I care to remember

The Parnassus campus is extensive and labyrinthine, and after five years working at this university, I still have difficulty navigating it. When my children were babies I had many frustrating experiences trying to find the pumping stations for nursing mothers scattered around campus, which were thick on the ground but almost impossible to locate. Eventually I learned enough about the campus that I was able to find my way around by getting in the general neighborhood of a room using the letter and number code, then asking people to direct me to the exact location like a bat taking soundings. This is how I navigate the campus to this day, and although I used to find myself locked out of buildings on a steep hill with no apparent path back to campus on a monthly basis, that now happens to me only about once a year.

This driveway block is too penny-ante to draw the tow truck, but our neighbors aren't going anywhere by car

Parking around urban hospitals is always difficult and expensive, and this one is no exception. As a result, I have lost count of the number of times that we have missed work meetings, pediatrician appointments or been late to school because someone parked in our building’s driveway. It is better when we ride our bikes, but there are, astonishingly, ways to block even a bicycle from leaving our building.  However the university is very aggressive about protecting its right of way, and our children have come to love the sight of the tow truck barreling up the hill to remove yet another car.

I would never have imagined that a site like this would draw more than a trivial number of bicycle commuters. Before I moved here I thought that Seattle, where I grew up, had a discouraging number of hills, but the hills around this campus really mean business. Yet the 200 bicycle parking spaces on campus, which are spread across a bike cage and several racks, are woefully inadequate, and there are bicycles locked to parking meters and fences for several blocks on either side of campus. The university is currently building a new bike cage twice the size of the existing one, and new racks are put in almost monthly, on nearly every level surface. Yet this is nowhere near meeting demand.

7:45am, and the bike racks are filling up

I believe that infrastructure drives bicycle commuting. We are more likely to ride in places that have bike lanes, especially when we’re carrying our kids. Parnassus Heights makes it clear that infrastructure also works in reverse. The campus is such an appalling place for cars that many people simply give up driving, even if that means riding a bike up the side of a mountain. Even my colleagues who commute from the suburbs park in the garage at the level of Golden Gate Park, take the elevator up, and walk around campus rather than attempting to drive to their ultimate destination. We can park in our building, but find that it is rarely worth it to drive anywhere else unless we’re leaving the city altogether. And there’s no guarantee that someone won’t be blocking the driveway anyway.

This campus brought to you by MC Escher

But this is a shift in perspective that makes sense only in hindsight. I still have conversations with my son’s classmates’ parents that make me realize this. When they see us on the bike in the morning, these parents sometimes ask, “Did you really bike from your place? Over the hill?” And I am thinking, well, where else? We didn’t sleep in the park last night. Yet at one point, taking a loaded cargo bike up any hill seemed insane to us as well. But now my perspective is: at least we don’t have to go all the way up.

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San Francisco destinations: Rosa Parks Elementary School

Welcome to Rosa Parks

We started riding our bikes in large part to solve the riddle involved in getting our son to his elementary school. For the first year, we all went to kindergarten together. Our daughter was in child care downstairs at my office, so we’d drive to school, play on the yard until the bell rang, then I’d drop Matt off for the express bus and head to my office. Matt would take the express bus back, pick up our son at after-school, and I’d meet them with our daughter in the campus parking lot. This worked pretty well, although it was time-consuming, until we enrolled our daughter in preschool closer to home. At that point things got more complicated.

From the outside, just another urban public school

San Francisco is one of the cities in the United States that operates a public school lottery system. I know there are others (Cambridge, Los Angeles, Champaign, Berkeley, etc.) but this is the one we know best. There is no guaranteed neighborhood assignment. So at that time you toured a bunch of schools, listed up to seven that you liked, and hoped you got one. If you didn’t, you would be assigned to the closest school with openings. This can be intimidating but also offers huge opportunity. There are citywide schools that offer more than the general education curriculum, including foreign language education, K-8 schools, a Montessori school, etc. Most schools are pretty good and some are terrible, but because people hate the lottery system so violently, the perception is that only a few highly-desired schools are acceptable and the rest are hellholes.

For people who appreciate the charms of being underrated, this misperception offers an enormous opportunity to beat the system. We found it surprisingly easy to find schools we liked that none of the other preschool parents we knew had even heard of, let alone toured or listed on their applications.

From the inside, a garden

There is a lot of herd mentality with a school lottery. There are about a dozen schools of the 100 or so in the city that get over half of the first choice requests from parents. They tend to have higher test scores. Parents we know like high test scores: they seem objective. But it only takes a little reading to realize that they are highly correlated with demographics. Schools that don’t have a lot of poor students have high test scores; schools that have more have lower scores. After reading some articles I realized that I could easily derive a formula: for every percentage point of students getting free and reduced price lunches, expect a 5 point drop in API (from a max of 1000). I made this up but it works pretty well in most circumstances (schools with a large share of Chinese-American kids tend to outperform their demographics, however).

San Francisco Unified School District enrolls about 60% free and reduced price lunch students. The school nearest us has ~10% free and reduced price lunch students. Its test scores are ~950, as expected. It is wildly popular and completely oversubscribed. On tours they indicate that parents are expected to contribute $1000 to the PTA annually, which I’m sure discourages certain families from even applying. On the flip side, we a toured Spanish immersion program in the Mission that had ~80% free and reduced price lunch students. Its test scores were, predictably, ~600. Poor students do poorly, because they tend to be English language learners, because they’re hungry, because they may be in transitional housing and lack heat and light, whatever. Wealthy students with educated parents do well no matter where they are (and the state has the demographic breakdowns to prove it at the Department of Education website). There are just more of them at certain schools.

My son learned to eat vegetables by growing them

I have a different perspective on all of this now, but at the time, like many parents facing the lottery, we pretty much lost our minds. Like everyone else at our preschool, we wanted the brass ring schools, the ones that had great scores. We knew it wasn’t that important, really, but a school with high test scores seemed like, if nothing else, a useful insurance policy. And it’s hard to buck the tide. Other parents said things like, “Well, 900 API is like an A, and you want an A school for your kids, right? You wouldn’t accept a B or a C school.” And thanks to relentless fundraising those schools had money to burn; their facilities were nicer, the selection of extra-curricular activities was better, and afterschool programs had won awards. It seemed easy enough to look past the occasional signs of near-rabid parental intensity to get the goodies.

Despite this, we did take the (in hindsight excellent) advice from Parents for Public Schools to tour every school within a reasonable commute distance, no matter what its test scores or perceived popularity. The internet is not your friend during the school search. With hindsight, it told us nothing useful, and often made us doubt ourselves for no good reason.

Morning PE--the Cha Cha Slide

Our favorite tour by far in our busy pre-kindergarten tour season was Rosa Parks. It is not a school that had traditionally gotten any buzz in the San Francisco parent community. Middle-class families like ours tend to shun schools named after civil rights leaders, strongly preferring schools named after dead philanthropists or expensive tree-lined neighborhoods at nose-bleed elevations. I like to imagine SFUSD opening a new school named “The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Nob Hill Academy.” Even if it were in the Tenderloin, I’ll bet it would be hugely popular with parents.

What we liked about Rosa Parks on our tour:

  • A state class size reduction grant ensured that all classrooms were capped at 20 students
  • A beautiful historic building with ample space, including both a cafeteria and gymnasium; we had toured schools without either and wondered what they did on rainy days or for assemblies
  • A sunny and well-stocked library, staffed by a full-time librarian and media technology teacher
  • Daily Japanese language education by native speaking senseis, funded by the district; by 5th grade, at least one Rosa Parks student had passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test
  • A new edible garden program funded by a major grant, now expanded with a chicken coop and new plantings in what was formerly blank blacktop on the upper yard
  • UCSF graduate students teach science in the upper grades—this is the only school where this happens, and their faculty advisor insists that it is only school where it ever will happen
  • Grammy-nominated artist Anthony Brown teaches jazz at the school—again, Rosa Parks is the only school with this program
  • More parents than visitors on the tour, which suggested to us both that we could get in and that parents were engaged
  • Representation by LGBT families (LGBT parents have the same effect on schools that they have on real estate)
  • Harder to describe, but a peaceful feeling: students were engaged in their work rather than throwing spitballs (which actually happened on one of our tours) even when we visited a room with a substitute; upper grade students were eager to show us their letters to Japanese pen pals; kids walked down the halls instead of running
  • A warm principal who reminded me of Mr. Rogers; later, when I called the teachers’ union for their opinion on schools (we didn’t want to walk into a labor dispute), we learned he was highly regarded by teachers as well. Last week he led an impromptu ballet class for my daughter and another preschooler in the hall after drop-off.
  • Academy-award winning PTA president. Parents who attended last year’s a garden workday got to hold the Oscar. Did you know that Barbie doll clothes fit an Oscar? I didn’t either, but her kids figured it out right away.
  • An enormously rich history that deserves another post on its own; Rosa Parks, formerly Raphael Weill, was the site where Dorothea Lange came to document the process of Japanese internment, where one of America’s most distinctive photographers, John Gutmann, took some stunning pictures, and where San Francisco schools began their re-integration in the 1960s
  • Parents I wanted to hang out with, maybe the best indicator of all

Building the upper yard garden

There were 12 people on our tour of Rosa Parks. The parent representatives said they were thrilled with this turnout. We had toured another school with well over 100 other people, in which the parent leading the tour complained how few of us showed up.  He wasn’t joking.

More than one person on our tour asked why there were so few of us and why, historically, no one had applied—the year prior to our enrollment Rosa Parks received fewer applicants than there were places available. The parents leading the tour sort of sighed and said that the combination of neighborhood and low test scores meant most people never even visited. We knew low test scores were explained by the high proportion of English language learners and SpEd students, so they didn’t bother us much. They had nothing to do with what our son would learn in a supportive environment. The neighborhood was admittedly a little grimmer than we’d hoped for, but I’d seen worse.

Now we have chickens. Yes, we are that trendy.

An unspoken reason for low enrollment (there were other schools in worse neighborhoods with worse test scores that were considered much more desirable) was the fact that the school was 40% African American and 20% Latino. Less than 10% of families were “white” as the district defined it, and many of those were Middle Eastern families where the women wore hijab and everyone spoke Arabic. When I mentioned touring this school to other white and Asian-American parents we knew who’d actually heard of it, there were, on occasion, curled lips, and comments I would be embarrassed to repeat. Last year I overheard one of my co-workers complaining to all and sundry that the district had assigned her to a horrific Title I school, Rosa Parks, and she wouldn’t be caught dead sending her son there. When I asked her what she didn’t like about it, she admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that she’d never visited. I told her we were very happy there.

Although it was not in our neighborhood (we live near the obscenely popular nosebleed schools, and knowing that our odds of getting into a school that people spoke about using exclamation points!!! were near-zero, we had expanded our range), Rosa Parks made our list. It was the school where we were placed in the first round assignment, not surprising given that only 44 families applied for the 40 available kindergarten spaces, and many of those were placed in schools they’d ranked higher. After a week of emotional flailing about not getting a school closer to home, we enrolled.

New upper yard garden, still in progress

It would be a huge understatement to say that we have never regretted this decision.

We could not have asked for a better environment for our son, who was nervous about the transition to kindergarten. He joined a wonderful group of children and we adore them all. As long as he is with them, I have no fears about his voyage through the rest of the city’s school system. His teachers have been more caring and supportive than we had dreamed was possible. He is excelling academically despite being one of the youngest children in his class. Working in the school garden has led him to eat new vegetables, sometimes with gusto, a battle we had assumed was permanently lost. In his first year he went on over a dozen field trips (making me feel like I was rooked as a child). He tries to trick us by speaking in Japanese at home and strangers in Japantown compliment us on his accent.

That would have been enough. But for us as parents, there was more. Sometime in the middle of our son’s kindergarten year, I realized that not only did I know the names of all of our son’s classmates, I knew the names of all their parents. And I knew the names and ages of all his classmates’ siblings. I often knew where those siblings attended preschool, or if they were older, the names of their teachers.

First week of first grade

And I liked all of these people, some mildly because I barely knew them, some quite a lot because I knew them well. I liked how they were raising their kids, and I liked that I saw them in the classrooms when I volunteered, and I liked that his kindergarten teacher sometimes had more chaperones for field trips than she had expected. I found that I didn’t mind attending school events like PTA meetings and work days that I had always assumed I would dread. Two parents organized a drop-in Friday coffee klatch, which continues. When I think about school community now, I think about a crying kindergartner being successfully comforted by another classmate’s dad, or watching my daughter meet and play with her future classmates before she turned two.

Rosa Parks was not our first choice school, but it should have been. We hit the jackpot.

In our second year, the school became (marginally) more popular, and even though it was located in a not-terrific neighborhood, parking in the morning was getting more challenging. We couldn’t carpool in the morning anymore, and driving our son was making us crazy.

New bike racks filling up on a Saturday morning

When we returned from Copenhagen with what seemed to us like a novel idea to start bike commuting, we were surprised to realize that other parents at the school were already way ahead of us. Some were riding cargo bikes to school with their kids on the back, or tandems, or trailer-bikes, or jury-rigged bikes with their kids on the top tube. Our principal rides his bike to district offices to avoid having to park there. We had, astonishingly, never even noticed. These families had already asked the district to install bike racks.

Rosa Parks in 1942, but looking much the same 70 years later

Rosa Parks is a school in transition. It is still in a borderline neighborhood, its test scores have jumped but are still nothing anyone would brag about, and the community is still rough around the edges. But I yield to no one in the value I place on a good education for my children, and I am confident that we have chosen well. And we are in transition, too. Rosa Parks is the right place for us. We are, in many ways now, enjoying the ride.

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San Francisco destinations: Laurel Heights

My office, hulking over the landscape

The university where I work is sprawled across the city on multiple campuses. This has some up-sides: I can take one of the university shuttles to many locations in San Francisco, which is often handy, and they all have bike racks, so if I’m feeling lazy or especially traffic-phobic it’s easy enough to ride to a campus location near where I’m headed and use the bike for the last leg. It has some down-sides: my department is also spread across the city on various campuses, and so I can go months without seeing some of my co-workers, or for that matter, my department chair. And there are often days when I am expected to be at multiple campuses. On one terrible day I had non-negotiable meetings at five different campuses. I didn’t get a lot of work done that day.

On campus, headed up

My main work site is at Laurel Heights, which is a weird little neighborhood in San Francisco. Like most of my regular destinations in the city, it has the word “heights” in the name, and this word is not an affectation in San Francisco. Getting there involves some climbing, although it’s not as bad as where we live. Nobody offers an elevator option for bicycles in this neighborhood.

Laurel Heights is the site of a former cemetery, Laurel Hill Cemetery, which was surrounded by cemeteries in an area formerly known as “the silent city.” In San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, even the cemeteries were damaged, with shattered tombstones strewn about. In the next few decades, the cemeteries became run down and were viewed by local business owners as discouraging development and encouraging juvenile delinquency. To be fair, there had been advocacy to remove cemeteries from San Francisco since the 1880s, as they were viewed as health risks. In 1937, a ballot initiative, Proposition 43, passed. It allowed the city to move all the cemeteries (or more accurately, the remains interred in them) and open the land they’d been located on for development. Most of the bodies were transferred to Colma on the San Francisco Peninsula, City of the Dead, San Francisco’s necropolis. “It’s Great to Be Alive in Colma!” is the town’s actual motto.

Of their bones are houses made

Some of the rest of the bodies were victims of the time; remains from the Chinese Cemetery were wrapped in canvas and sent to China by Pacific Mail Steamer. I have a friend whose great-whatever-grandparents arrived in San Francisco after dynamiting the path of the railroads across North America, and whose family has lived in San Francisco ever since, only in his generation finally moving out of Chinatown. He is more native San Franciscan than anyone else I know. Doubtless some families like his found their dead relatives sent across the ocean.

Modernism in the city: a strip mall

As a result of all this, most of the neighborhood was developed long after the rest of the city, and it is an odd 1950s modernist enclave in a city famed primarily for its Victorian houses and their look-likes. The building I work in was built and then abandoned by Firemen’s Fund Insurance Company, and it may now be part of a medical center, but it still looks like an insurance company headquarters inside and out. It is huge and black and sprawling and can be seen looming over its neighbors from as far east as Nob Hill. Across the street is a huge Muni depot, always filled with hundreds of buses. Laurel Heights contains one of San Francisco’s few strip malls, although in keeping with the city’s style, the only national chain store there is a Starbucks, and it is anchored by two excellent independent grocery stores. I end up doing most of our grocery shopping on my lunch break, and I now have an extensive collection of panniers, insulated bags and cargo nets to haul everything home on the bike. This was complicated by finding bags that would fit on the rack under the child seats that I’m always swapping on and off, and is worthy of another post.

View from the cafeteria

I like working in Laurel Heights. Before we moved into university housing, we lived here as well. It is a very quiet corner of the city, and although it is on the wrong side of the fog line, it is less pounded by relentless fog than the Sunset (a misnomer if there ever was one; you’ll rarely see the sun in the Sunset). Unlike the campuses with hospitals, it is always quiet here. And although I wish we had a library on site, there are still many amenities. Like all medical center campuses, it offers a cafeteria serving cheap, healthy, and rather unappetizing food (I’m not sure why this is, but it’s been the case at every hospital I’ve ever worked, including the Panem Institute in Copenhagen and Cook County Hospital in Chicago). The Laurel Heights cafeteria has a nice view of the city. There is a child care center on site, and I was able to walk downstairs to visit and play with my daughter every day when she was enrolled there as an infant. And although this is one of the few campuses without a bike cage, bike parking options are more than respectable, although they get crowded fast. We have a lovely view of Golden Gate Bridge from the mail room.

Bike parking at 8:30 am

There are weird quirks about working here, some of which are annoying. The neighbors ferociously resisted the university moving to the site; I am told by my dentist, who’s been here forever, that there was suspicion that we would all be torturing monkeys and releasing strains of smallpox (I don’t know anyone who does either of these things). As a result, every window in the building is glued and bolted shut permanently, even though there are no wet labs on this site and the only viruses in the entire building are on the computers. It would be nice to be able to open a window.

Spot the dead bodies...

My office overlooks a small garden and parking lot. When an older colleague stopped by once, he laughed out loud at the view from my window.  He is a San Francisco native, born at UC Hospital long before it was converted to classrooms and offices or condemned. And he has been working at this campus since it opened, in a swank office with a drop-dead view of Golden Gate Bridge befitting his stature as the director of California’s Poison Control System. He told me that years ago, right outside my window, when they were repaving the parking lot, he suddenly saw a bulldozer stop dead and every worker swarm over to it like ants at a picnic. It turned out that the bulldozer had hit a tombstone.  They searched for some time but never found an associated body. But now I have yet another good reason not to drive to work.

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