Lombard Street is supposedly the “crookedest” street in the world. Actually, it is not even the most crooked street in San Francisco, but it is just so charming that you will find yourself wanting to believe that it is.
One sunny afternoon I found myself at the top of Lombard Street. Located in Russian Hill, it is one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods. Colourful little two and three storey houses line both sides of the street and flowers bloom in the midst of each turning, demarcating the eight hairpin turns. If you ask a San Franciscan, they’ll cheekily tell you that the flowers have been planted to cover the graves of all the people who didn’t make it to the end.
The best way to see Lombard Street is to drive down it in low gear, but you can see it on foot too. If you start from the top you’ll get a fabulous view of Coit Tower and North Beach, but walking upward can be quite steep. Don’t worry; you can always stop to catch your breath under the guise of clicking pictures. The Powell-Hyde cable car, another major tourist attraction, stops at the top of the street. While you can only see the next two turnings from the top, you can see (and photograph) the entire street from the bottom – it looks like a giant squiggle, a pink one at that.
Lombard Street wasn’t always curvy. It was initially a straight road, but it was so steep that it was difficult for cars and pedestrians to navigate it. In 1922 it was paved and reconstructed, and curved switchbacks were installed to reduce the gradient. Since cars could now enter and park here, property values started rising and soon it became one of the most expensive areas in the city.
Initially, the residents used to quarrel about the landscaping and would not pay for the maintenance of the street. One of the residents, Peter Bercut, who happened to be the Commissioner for Parks and Recreation, used to actually trim his neighbours’ shrubbery, a habit that would really annoy them. Then, early one morning before everybody woke up, he hired a bulldozer and mowed down all their plants and had flowers planted instead. This did not stop the problem of soil erosion that they were facing however, so one year when Bercut visited France, he had the idea of planting hydrangea bushes here at Lombard. This gave the street its famous pink appearance and in 1961, when a picture of the street with the hydrangeas in full bloom was printed on a postcard, tourists started flocking to the area.
Lombard Street, once considered just a crowded road that you had to pass through to get to the Golden Gate Bridge, soon became a destination in its own right. Initially most of the real estate was owned by Carl Henry, an insurance and drug business executive. Soon others started buying property from him and the area flourished. Some of the notable residents included Winifred Bofils, a reporter who used the pseudonym Annie Laurie; Rowena Meeks Abdy, an Impressionist painter; and Arthur Caylor, a newspaper owner who first published the picture of the street with the hydrangeas. Elizabeth Huntington Metcalf, the grand-niece of Collis P. Huntington (the founder of the Southern Pacific Railway), also moved here.
Alfred Hitchcock used 900 Lombard Street in Vertigo and if there was a car chase filmed in San Francisco then Lombard Street featured in it. Disney’s Love Bug, Peter Bogdanovich's What’s Up, Doc?, Nick Lyon’s Rise of the Zombies and of course, the Steve McQueen classic, Bullitt. As for TV shows, Simpsons, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Monk, American Dad and MythBusters all have scenes that have been shot here and even video games like Grand Theft Auto have routes that pass through here.
The only thing Sanjana loves more than writing is travelling, so writing about travel hits all her sweet spots. She trained with the digital team at Conde Nast Traveller India for six months and is currently working at Times Internet Limited.