San Francisco walking tours
How tourists and locals alike can get to know the city's neighborhoods
November 30, 2010 5:21 PM
The November air is crisp on a sunny Saturday morning and Portsmouth Square Park in San Francisco's Chinatown district is already alive with the sounds of children playing and elderly Chinese men and women partaking in various pick-up card games. Amidst the hustle and bustle of socializing locals, a group of tourists wait patiently by the flagpole at the far corner of the square where at precisely eleven o'clock, San Francisco City Guides volunteer Manuel Maranan rounds up a group of about thirty and welcomes them all to the City Guides Chinatown walking tour.
For the next two hours, Maranan leads the group of tourists up and down the hidden alleyways of one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, rattling off historical facts and showcasing points of interest. He smiles and speaks with an animated voice that carries loudly as he points out miniscule details that one would probably miss if simply walking around the city.
The guide stops his group in the middle of an alleyway and gestures toward an old air vent in an alleyway and asks his audience to guess what this vent might have been used for. When he's certain the audience has no clue, he explains that this seemingly unimportant air vent was once where money used to be borrowed and exchanged by the Chinese when gambling was a popular pastime.
Maranan is one of about a hundred and fifty active volunteer tour guides who lead over one hundred walking tours in neighborhoods all over the city as part of San Francisco City Guides free walking tours program. "I love being a tour guide," says Maranan, who has been with City Guides for about a year. "I love seeing the wow-effect on the faces of the people I'm leading when I explain something they didn't know about before."
Tucked away in a tiny office on the sixth floor of San Francisco's downtown public library branch lies the SF City Guides headquarters. The nonprofit organization was originally started in the late 1970s by Gladys Hanson who had the idea to start City Guides after spending years giving guided tours of City Hall to diplomats who would come to visit from all over the world.
City Guides has grown immensely since its inception in 1978. According to current Executive Director Michael Cushing, the organization conducted over forty three thousand tours in the past year alone and has only continued to grow in popularity. "It's a grass root organization of sorts--people really hear about us through word of mouth and we've been able to grow as an organization because of that." Says Cushing. "Because of the higher demand for tours, we've had to adjust in terms of adding more tours and tour guides over the years."
When asked what the key to City Guides' success is, the director is quick to stress that the non-profit organization wouldn't be where they are today were it not for their extremely dedicated crew of volunteers who, regardless of their different backgrounds all share a similar interest for the city of San Francisco and its somewhat eccentric history.
Cushing also accredits the ever-rising popularity to the guides' passion for the neighborhood tours they give and compares the process of giving a walking tour to that of an actor performing on stage. "There's really an art form to giving a tour. In the training process, we make sure the guides are able to recite the basic information for each neighborhood but it's really the guides who take it upon themselves to do extra research or find that extra little tidbit of information that really makes their tour sparkle." Says the director.
Because each guide puts a different spin on the tours they lead by incorporating obscure facts they come upon while doing extra research, Cushing says that it is possible for someone to take multiple tours of the same neighborhood but have a different experience every time.
Additionally, the longevity of many guides adds to their expertise on San Francisco's vast history. Walking guide Bob Bowen has been volunteering with City Guides since 1998 and likes to describe what he and fellow guides do as locals sharing experience with others. "A lot of our guides are natives to the area and it's great to take tours with them because you get a sense of this personal history they have with the neighborhood they're talking about," says Bowen.
Adding in these bits and pieces of lesser-known San Francisco facts is a driving factor in why the non-profit has been able to sustain itself solely on donations given at the end of the walks by tour takers.
"The people that come on our tours aren't necessarily people who wouldn't spend money on a three hour tour--they're people who are interested in something a little different," says Cushing as he crosses his arms over his chest. "We try to provide them with that something different in the hour and a half we have them for."
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