I've lived in or around the Mission for 10 years, and I'd never been to Garfield Pool. You can swim there for three bucks, and it's never crowded. The locker room feels like something out of a 1940s socialist paradise — everything's one color, brutally utilitarian, and just a little bit broken. There are free kickboards, basketballs (and a poolside hoop), and sometimes even swim goggles (I guess when people leave them behind they become properly nationalized). The Upper Noe Recreation Center has the same sort of feel: on Saturday mornings, there's a toddler gym, filled with a huge conglomeration of toys that look and feel like they were never actually new. But they work just fine and are durable as hell, and on rainy days, dozens of children stranded inside get a chance to ride welded tricycles and plastic cars around and crash into each other, with no ill effect. I smile just thinking about it.
The big children's playground at Golden Gate Park has a long, steep slide made out of concrete that would make a modern-day insurance agent gasp in horror and alarm. Kids who have barely learned to walk somehow manage to climb up about 75 slippery, uneven steps that are almost too much for me, then sit on torn pieces of cardboard and careen down a hard, fast incline and skid to a stop at the bottom. It's outstanding.
At Crissy Field, there's a narrow, shallow channel where the water in the newly restored tidal marsh flows in and out of the bay. I don't think the people who oversaw the ecological restoration of the wetlands area had any idea they were creating a swimming hole for kids, but that's what happened: on warm days, dozen of children splash in the stream and build elaborate sand castles on the banks. When the tide goes out, a muddy island appears in the middle. Even with the tide coming in, the channel is never more than a few feet deep. It's mind-boggling: you're on the edge of the bay, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, a few yards away from the icy-cold currents and riptides where even seriously athletic adults in wet suits venture only with care — and three-years-olds are romping in the water with their dogs.
There's a railroad museum at the old Hunters Point shipyard, with vintage steam engines that still work. There's a model river (full of water and plastic fish) at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. There's a working beehive in the bug house at the San Francisco Zoo, and the queen bee has a white dot painted on her abdomen. There's an artificial earthquake that shakes up the Lego houses you can build at the California Academy of Sciences.
There are stores in the Mission that sell parachuting space aliens. If you ask nicely at Mitchell's Ice Cream, they'll stick a few green gummy worms in your chocolate-chip cone.
These are all things I didn't know.
When I was a kid in the suburbs, I couldn't imagine growing up in a city. I hope my kids see it differently. Because I'm getting to be a kid again right here in San Francisco — and I can't imagine anyplace better.