Spell Walking: San Francisco

On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, the shelter-in-place order intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 went into effect in the city of San Francisco. I knew that if I stayed indoors indefinitely, then I would get–God, I have gotten so sick of hearing this phrase–stir crazy. So I began going on near-daily walks.

Using my Apple Watch, I record my walks as “workouts”. Upon completion of a workout, a GPS track of the route taken during the workout is available in the Activity app. Yes, I’m voluntarily and consistently submitting my location data to Apple, so when the day inevitably comes that a foreign government has a bounty for my head, I’m sure Apple could help them organize a targeted airstrike on me. But, whatever. I’m sure that merely by opening the browser to operate this blog, our Great internet OverlordsTM already know everything there is to know about me.

But I digress.

About a month and a half into quarantine, aimless walking started to get a little stale. The Embarcadero is lovely, but familiarity breeds contempt. To spice things up a trifle, I decided to start taking advantage of San Francisco’s many many (many) street grids to spell words via my walking routes. After a couple trial routes (stay tuned for the next post), I got the idea to walk routes that would spell out the name of the neighborhood in which the walk occurred. I shortly thereafter mapped walking routes to spell the names of 24 San Francisco neighborhoods.

So, that’s pretty much all the background you need to know. The purpose of this blog is to document the routes as I take them and spell out neighborhood names. Each post will include a satellite image with the GPS track of the route walked overlaid (thanks Google Earth), the distance walked, how long it took me, and a qualitative assessment of the walk if I’m feeling extra saucy. I’m considering this my quarantine pet project.

A few disclaimers and rules about this project:

  • I require that the walking routes be continuous. The Apple Watch has the ability to pause and resume workouts, but that seems like cheating to me. Accordingly, letters will be connected. I do not, however, require the paths to be circuits; that is, to start and finish at the same place.
  • The Apple Watch GPS feature is not perfect. Noise in the tracking algorithm gives the appearance of wiggles in the routes. So, no, I probably wasn’t cutting back and forth across the street, and I probably didn’t go through someone’s bathroom window and out the wall.
  • Not all neighborhoods will be spelled out in this effort. Please don’t get offended if your neighborhood is excluded. This exclusion could happen for at least one of two reasons:
  1. The first possible reason revolves around the more philosophical question of, “what is a neighborhood?” The concept of a neighborhood as a named place can be an arbitrary marketing ploy intended to increase location desirability and artificially raise real estate values–think of the Tenderloin being branded as “Lower Nob Hill”. Google Maps does this all the time, introducing what I consider to be fake neighborhood names such as “The East Cut” and “SoMissPo”. Additionally, as is common in low-density, suburban-style housing, a neighborhood name can alternatively be tied to individual tract-housing development projects, which generally constitute small land areas that lack the characteristics of a traditional urban neighborhood. The southwest corner of San Francisco is littered with dozens of these little “neighborhoods”, many of which don’t contain even a corner store. My focus will be primarily on well-established urban San Francisco neighborhoods.
  2. The second possible reason is that the physical characteristics of the neighborhood don’t work. Either the neighborhood’s boundaries are too small to fit all the required letters (sorry, Telegraph Hill), or coherent letters cannot be formed within the street patterns (sorry, Glen Park and Twin Peaks).

Let’s go.


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