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The Allure of Clement Street
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The sound on the street is loud and seemingly endless -- words spoken rapid-fire in Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Burmese, Cambodian, Thai, Indonesian. Sometimes, though, it's Russian, or Hebrew or Italian or French, even English. Welcome to Clement Street in the Richmond District of San Francisco, a city that's now more than one-third Asian.

You're in an area that's become a major center of the city's vibrant and varied Asian community, yet has retained the broad ethnic diversity that has long distinguished San Francisco. To walk along Clement Street is to experience the true ambience of San Francisco, in the company of San Franciscans rather than crowds of other tourists.

Few, if any, of Clement Street's merchants are trying primarily to attract tourists. They leave that to the hustlers on Fisherman's Wharf and other areas favored by visitors who miss the real city. Clement Street's merchants are in business to serve those who live in the neighborhood and elsewhere in the city.

You want to learn what San Francisco's really like and have a good time doing it? Stroll along any or all of the dozen blocks of lower Clement Street, an area bounded by two boulevards, Arguello on the East and Park Presidio on the West, toward the ocean.

Walk among the crowds of people -- the Asians and Asian Americans, the recently arrived Russians, some of whose forbears settled in the area after fleeing from their homeland in the wake of the 1917 revolution; the newly settled Irish Americans whose roots are as deep, and the others of European stock. As mixed as the people are the dozens of stores, shops and restaurants that line Clement Street. You'll find, for instance, a Chinese bakery jammed with tea-sipping Asians chatting loudly in several languages and dialects immediately next door to a pub filled with boisterous, beer drinking Irishmen.

New and used book shops, video rental and variety and tropical fish stores, clothing stores, a record store, laundromats, florists - those and more are along the street, too, signs proclaiming their wares and services in several languages.

Among my favorite places are the photographer's studios, their display windows showing broadly smiling residents at weddings, graduations and other events of happy ceremony. One look and you know you're in a genuine neighborhood, not one of those artificial places dedicated to tourism.

Food, however, is the centerpiece of Clement Street. Cartons overflowing with fruits and vegetables are piled high on the sidewalks outside grocery stores better described as produce stands. Shoppers closely inspect the cabbage and mushrooms, the bok choy and doong gwah, the oranges and apples. Meat and fish markets are like that too. No doors, just open stands set back from the street. Fresh fish are laid out on tables for close inspection by shoppers, crisp roasted ducks hang dripping on hooks attached to the low ceilings.

And the restaurants - oh, the restaurants. There are several dozen of them in the 12 blocks along lower Clement. And I'm not even counting the bakeries, delicatessens and cafes that serve snacks and meals. If you're not hungry when you arrive on Clement, you soon will be, thanks to the wondrous smells of a wondrous variety of foods wafting out onto the street.

Mandarin, Hunan, Szechwan, Shanghai, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Cantonese restaurants, Vietnamese and Indonesian, Burmese, Thai and Japanese, Italian, French, English and American -- all those and more are on Clement Street, everything from pizza parlors, doughnut, gelato and candy stores, fast-food and takeout places to quite proper restaurants, many open all day and far into the night.

If that's not enough variety for you, go over to Geary Boulevard, or farther out on Clement, for Korean, Cambodian or Russian cuisine, or maybe for the treats of a Kosher or Russian delicatessen. Wherever you go, the price should be reasonable.

Copyright (c) Dick Meister