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First Monday

Public Affairs


Getting street smart with Max Kirkeberg

August 18, 2003

The following is excerpted from an article originally published in the Spring/Summer 2003 issue of SFSU Magazine.

Photo of Max Kirkeberg with five students in front of a row of Victorian housesA count of heads, a glance at his watch, and Max Kirkeberg is on the move.

"If we're running behind schedule, well, we'll just sprint," Kirkeberg jokes with his students, as he adjusts his cap and tie, and launches into his tour of San Francisco's Western Addition.

The group follows the instructor through Alamo Square Park, past a row of poplar trees, to view the celebrated Painted Lady Victorians on Steiner Street.

Kirkeberg has only one firm rule for his students on today's tour: "We must have a good time."

Welcome to a Friday afternoon in Geography 454: "San Francisco on Foot."

For the past 30 years, Kirkeberg has designed and led credit-earning tours that take students through the bustling Inner Mission to the rocky coastline of Land's End.

"Max is a cultural geographer to the extreme," says co-teacher Ellen McElhinny. "He knows a billion details about the city."

At "postcard row," home of the Painted Ladies, students learn that in 1894 the Victorian houses originally sold for $4,000. Today asking prices hover around seven figures.

Then it's on to the Archbishop's Mansion at 1000 Fulton Street. Built for the archbishop of San Francisco in 1904, the French chateau mansion is now an opera-themed bed and breakfast. Kirkeberg explains that the archbishop's former bedroom has been converted into "The Don Giovanni Suite."

"A little ironic, I think," Kirkeberg says with a chuckle.

The tours are steeped in architectural lessons. Students stop to take periodic quizzes designed to see if they know their Queen Annes from their Classical Revivals. But Kirkeberg says, "It's more important to learn to look and to ask than to know all the answers."

On weekends before the start of each semester, Kirkeberg and McElhinny walk each tour route. As real estate prices change, buildings are remodeled, and residents move, new questions arise. To find answers, the geographers swing by police stations, chat with people watering gardens, and drop off notes requesting informational interviews.

Thanks to their legwork, today students learn what inspired an enormous sculpture of wire and bells on Fulton Street. It is the work of Ron Hingler, who lives in the artists' collective next door. Influenced by Tibetan religion, the sculpture's bells are intended to send prayers every time they ring.

In Kirkeberg's investigations of the landscape of San Francisco, he's even established Kirkeberg's Law: People don't shop uphill. You won't find commerce on the city's steeper streets.

His tours don't go uphill, either. When Kirkeberg first began his tours as summer weekend classes at State in the '70s, he remembers a group of teachers panting behind him as they trudged up the Filbert Steps. "These people were mad at me for an entire weekend," he says. "I learned that I don't want to do a walking tour where people are struggling for breath."

Each tour ends with a half-hour discussion while the tour is still fresh in students' minds.

Jacob Goldman enrolled in the class to get to know the city better. "I find myself looking around and really paying attention to things I don't think I would have noticed before," he says.

Goldman and his classmates will have the chance to demonstrate their observational skills later in the semester when they design and lead their own walking tours.

For Kirkeberg, the reward of teaching is watching students learn to look and wonder about their surroundings. It's a trait he hopes they'll carry with them wherever life takes them.

More: Max Kirkeberg's Favorite San Francisco Spots

-- Adrianne Bee

photos: Lui Gino de Grandis


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Last modified August 18, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs