The four hundred steps

It is a climb of 400 steps to the top of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill.

Through vertical neighborhoods of quirky Art Deco buildings and cozy bungalows tucked away amidst lush vegetation.

The trek is stimulating and the views fantastic. But the real reward for making the assent is to be found hidden inside the tall, spiraling Coit Tower.

Built in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, the tower’s expanse of stark, blank inner walls seemed a too dismal reflection of the hopelessness that gripped the country.

And so under the auspices of the Roosevelt-era Public Works of Art Project, 26 local muralists were hired with the charge of covering those stark inner walls with scenes of everyday life in San Francisco.

How people worked.

When there was work to be had.

Together, to feed a city.

Most of the artists were left-leaning socialists, many of them disciples of the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

And their work reflected a city that was as diverse as it was teeming with life and activity…and chaos.

And like Rivera they preferred to apply their paint onto still-wet, fresh plaster, so that the very walls would absorb the colors.

Unveiled to the world, some of the works were deemed objectionable because they reflected crime, unflattering depictions of city life, or, worse, liberal views.

And because this was a public works project, it had to be periodically reported to the federal government that the artists involved were all “very moral and conscientious, not drunken, promiscuous” or “orgiastic.”

San Francisco today remains a city of startling sights, sounds and experiences.

But tucked away in that tower, 400 steps up from the bay, are the images of a bygone city of industry, despair and hope. It is a feast for the eyes and not to be missed.

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