Technically, Eleanor Burke retired 23 years ago. In actuality, she’s done more in those two-plus decades than some do in a career lifetime. When the San Francisco native left her longtime position as a Lick-Wilmerding High School English teacher in 1995, she took up photography, purchased a motor scooter, and started sketching city scenes in her newfound spare time. The result? The 2010 book, Sketching San Francisco’s Neighborhoods: A Visual Journey Through a Diverse, Unique City, which includes more than 485 drawings and personal anecdotes. And while any other retiree might have been perfectly satisfied to stop there, Burke had other big ideas.
“I thought that if I were going to do a sketchbook on the entire city, I ought to walk the entire city, the little alleys and lanes as well as the major streets, like Mission Street, the longest,” she says. ”I certainly needed the exercise.” So to become a true expert on all things SF, Burke vowed to walk the walk, successfully navigating the entire 7-by-7 span on foot. “I wore out a number of shoes and walked almost daily for 11 months,” she says. “I loved every minute—an explorer in my own city.” The odyssey resulted in another book in 2016: A Walker’s Sketchbook of San Francisco, and Burke doesn’t plan to stop strutting any time soon.
Here are the street-savvy adventurer’s tips for making the most of our welcoming, walkable 49-square-mile home:
Take a(n urban) hike. “Walking is free and it’s the best way to see a place, no question,” Burke says. “It’s great exercise and you get a wonderful sense of well-being being outdoors, breathing fresh air, and talking to people.” But even with those perks in mind, one might find the idea of exploring every corner of a bustling metropolis a little intimidating. Not Burke; she says there’s nothing to fear if you have the right attitude. “Don’t be afraid to walk city streets: they are safe, especially if you are friendly and open and expect them to be safe. If you should see something sketchy, turn around and go the other way, cross the street, or take care not to walk into a dicey situation. But above all, don’t be afraid to walk your own city.”
Hidden treasures. While Burke doesn’t pick favorites, she says some streets have proven to be pleasant surprises. “Noriega Street, from beginning to end, is wonderful (on a sunny day),” she says. “You go from Golden Gate Heights with its stunning views past the Sunset all the way to the Farrallones, 27 miles offshore. In between are lots of places to stop and enjoy: Henry’s House Of Coffee, Polly Ann Ice Cream, and the surfing shops near Ocean Beach are just a few. But also I think of Bernal Heights, a neighborhood whose streets I particularly enjoy walking: the small town, village feeling of the place. The street around Precita Park, ending in the lovely café on its eastern side, is a welcome spot to get a cup of coffee and find a couple of locals to talk to.”
Tiresome treks. Burke doesn’t like to speak ill of any streets, but she’s walked her fair share of spiritless stretches. “The worst, and I hate to say that, are the streets that have nothing but duplicate houses and nothing much else: no cafés, no parks, no benches, nothing to break the monotony—and offer a bathroom when needed,” she says. “I think of Midtown Terrace especially in that regard. It’s not bad, it’s just boring. And desperately in need of a bathroom a walker could use.”
Be my guest. If you’re tasked with entertaining tourists, Burke says it’s best to make a pilgrimage to the hippie capital. “I’ve found that walking through the Haight-Ashbury is really rewarding in impressing out-of-towners,” she recommends. “It’s good to do a little research first, find out where the Grateful Dead lived and the story behind Huckleberry House and the Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic, both of which still exist, for instance. Great food along Haight and Cole Streets especially. And thankfully, the elegant Victorians were saved from destruction by neighborhood activist groups.”
Let me take a selfie. When it comes to picking the most picturesque spot, Burke has a few best contenders. “I love standing under the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point and looking up and out,” she says. “I think of our history, about why Fort Point was built. The bridge itself is never the same two days in a row—in the fog, the sunshine, with surfers on the waves there, ships and sailboats going by, you get a sense of why San Francisco is (never the same from day to day).”
Sketches of the City
Here are some of the iconic views that Burke has encountered on her walks and featured in her books.