Off the Grid Food in San Francisco vs the Red Hook Ball Fields

San Francisco has always been a great food city.  The Bay Area is a locavores paradise.  Food sold here is locally produced and grown within 100 miles of the city year round. The Bay Area is experiencing a food cart trend has peaked and is very similar to the food cart culture of  NYC.  This was until the  Off the Grid SF was created in June 2010.

photo by official Off the Grid Facebook page M. Cohen

The Off the GridSF website describes it as “a roaming mobile food extravaganza that travels to different locations daily to serve delicious food, with a free side of amazing music, craft and soul. We’re bringing all your favorite gourmet food vendors together to create a market like you’ve never seen before.”  Vendors include the Creme Brulee Cart,  TaKorea,    The is only one venue worth mentioning that even comes close to it here in NYC/Brooklyn and it is the Red Hood Ball Field Food Vendors.

"Rain is Not an Obstacle" at the Red Hook Ball Fields by Yelper Marcos A.


For about the past 40 years vendors have set up their grills and blenders during the July and August sports season along the fringes of this remote Brooklyn 59 acre facility.   There were no places when the field was build near the low income housing in Red Hook to get food or drink, so logically picnic goers brought their own.  As the years passed artists and the like escaping the rent increases in Manhattan were naturally attracted to this area.   They, like Columbus, soon “discovered” what was going on at the park. Local mags/blogs began  spreading the word about the cheap sports and eating event that took place each summer in their hood.  Word spread and the Red Hook Food Vendors eventually got a shout out by the NYTimes food section.   And, you guessed it, The New York City Board of health soon paid a visit as well.  They weren’t too happy with the open fires, improper cooking facilities and vendors not following proper food sanitation practices that other licensed vendors did throughout the city.   Threats were soon made by the Parks Department but due to huge public uproar which included a plea from Senator Chuck Schumer .

The Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain with his show No Reservations stopped by and filmed right before the possible closing was announced.   Big names in the New York food scene along with the hard work of executive director of the Food Vendors Committee Cesar Fuentes and his community support, the vendors were back to work.  Some had to throw in the towel because the list of regulations to follow and proper procedures to abide by was just too long.  They had to readjust in many ways and of course many say it’s just not the same.

Food bloggers voices were heard as well as many blogged in support of the food vendors.  One particular blogger J. Slab of The Porkchop-Express did an extensive entry on the history of the field.  This mercado seems to be showing signs of having a bright future as seen in this article in the NYTimes this past April.  It may not be the same as 40 years ago but it still gives those who have stuck around an income and local spectators good food to eat while watching Brooklyn’s own Cabinet Soccer Club vs. Beşiktaş Football Club, league champions of Turkey.

The Off the Grid SF is and inspiration for NYC since it’s a well organized and food community driven event that happens year round and many times during the week.   It has brought new life to Fort Mason that has had it’s ups and downs financially since it was designated as a national park in 1976.  The mobile food market sponsored here by SF Food carts which is run and was started by Mark Cohen has been proven to be a way to revitalize communities as others have been welcomed into the Mission, Haight/Ashbury and the Civic Center/Tenderloin neighborhoods of SF.

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New York City has no shortage of food and street vendors who offer up just about anything these days.  What is missing is a venue where a number of vendors can get together like at Off the Grid in SF and the Mobile Pods in Portland OR.  Why not and make a night or day of good eating and live entertainment instead of just getting lunch or a small bite during the work day?  I got an idea…how about putting one by the old wharfs below Brooklyn Heights?  Do you out there know of an empty parking lot or other open space for such an event?  Where would you put one…?

Get somewhat off the beaten path in San Francisco

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After a few days of celebrating the Giants win it is time to see the city they call home.  There are the usual attractions that people flock to which include the cablecars, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate bridge to name a few, but if you have been before or just want to learn more about the city why not find an off beat way of doing it. One of the big highlights of visiting any city is exploring it by way of public art.  San Francisco has plenty of it to share and a visitor needs to do is head out, slow down a few feet per minute and look closer to your surroundings which includes what’s above you.

Many artists have made a living by making large sculptures that can only fit inside a large space like the Tate Modern and other galleries around the world or just outdoors.  The lucky ones are able to find sponsors who will provide the funds to transport, create and/or maintain great works for just the purpose of allowing the public to view their works.

There are five particular pieces that are currently on view outdoors in the city of San Francisco.  The first one is entitled Cupids Span by Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen in 2002.  The couple have been making these colossal pieces since the late 1970’s and they have been placed all over Europe, the US, England and parts of Asia.  Cupids Span in Rincon Park in the Embarcadero area of downtown San Francisco is a 60 ft. tall 140 ft. wide piece was commissioned by Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of Gap Inc., who donated it to the City of San Francisco and was installed in November 2002.  More information about the sculpture is found here.

A neighbor of the Cupid Span is a tall silver spaceship docked near the newly renovated Ferry Building on the Embarcadero.  The ship is called the Raygun Gothic Rocketship and was created by a collaboration of artists who were sponsored by the BRAF or Black Rock Arts Foundation.  This 40ft tall ship first landed on the Burning Man festival in nearby Nevada in 2009 and will be hanging around here until September 2011 thanks to money raised by the San Francisco Port Commission and varies private donors.  Another work sponsored by BRAF which made her debut at the 2008 Burning Man Festival entitled Ecstasy is currently standing in Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley (Hayes/Octavia)

Visitors who walk west to the Moscone Center and Yerba Buena Gardens don’t have to go in to SFMOMA and other area museums to see great pieces.  The park itself is filled with beautiful landscape and performing arts space such as the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Sony Metreon Theater to name a couple. It is such a work of art in itself that a most visitors can find enjoyment just walking around the grounds.  It’s a great place to picnic, catch up on the guidebook or check email if you must.

There are two large public art pieces that stand out among the rest. The first one is Three Dancing Figures by Keith Haring which is located on the southwest corner of 3rd and Howard.  Kids but not adults are allowed to climb on the sculpture which was displayed in 1989 about a year before the artists’ early death.  The sculpture was one of many brought to the city by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

If you walk east from the Three Dancing Figures you will see the fancy W hotel on the southeastern corner of 3rd and Howard.  If you are standing across the street you will get a good view of the large metal wire sculpture of a woman reclining at the edge of the first few floors.  This sculpture entitled Pneumatic Dreamer by Michael Stutz can be easily missed if you were just walking by.  This particular work was installed in 2001 and was commissioned by the SF Redevelopment Agency.

Next, continue walking a little over a mile or grabbing the MUNI up Market to the Civic Center.  This is home to San Francisco’s Symphony Hall, Main Library and Asian Art Museum.  Across from the museum is a sculpture Three Heads Six Arms by artist Zhang Huan was brought to the city also by the San Francisco Arts Foundation in part of the marking of the San Francisco-Shanghai sister city 30th Anniversary.  This colossal bronze sculpture will be guarding the Civic Center and Asian Art Museum through 2011.  I unfortunately was visiting after the Giants had won the world series, during election season and after it had been victim of graffiti and climbed on.  So it was surrounded by a tall ugly wire fence.

I couldn’t find one guide online to all free public art projects but the best thing to do is just do an online search to the city you are visiting next and you will more than likely find some.  Many times you won’t even realize that something was actually commissioned like I did while researching for this article.  I also came across something online called the San Francisco Art Hunt PDF that was quite interesting and provides a start to exploring SF’s public art.  Looking for Public Art while visiting a new city is a great way to get the lay of the land and do something a little of the beaten path.  Highly recommended.

Get out of the Rain in San Francisco

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Many artists and admirers would agree that art should be free to view by the public.  Many museums, local governments, artists and their philanthropic admirers believe this as well.  Thanks to their generosity, we the public are able to view pieces for free or at a low-cost to us the viewer.

Art galleries, museums and public outdoor art is a great way to get to know a destination especially when you are on a budget.  Most cities around the U.S. these days have sponsored free or discounted nights, days and evenings at many major galleries and museums.

In San Francisco there are many opportunities to see art for free in museums or just on the Street.  I started with a visit to SFMOMA on Tuesday where they have AT&T Free First Tuesdays.  Visitors to the Bay Area are able to see its great displays of works thanks to AT&T generous $10 Million gift to the museum in late 2008.  The museum is located in the SOMA or South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco and right across from Yerba Buena Gardens.  This fall and early winter is a great time to visit SFMOMA since the 75th Anniversary is being celebrated by a showing 400 pieces of works that represent what SFMOMA has been throughout those years.  Highlights include masterpieces by Jackson Pollock, Jeff Koons and Barry McKee.  If you don’t happen to be there during a free Tuesday the museum is well worth the full ticket price and it’s a great way to spend a not so uncommon rainy day in the Bay Area.

Another wonderful opportunity to see art for free is at the Asian Art Museum‘s  during their Target First Free Sunday’s.  The 29,000 square foot museum was relocated in March 2003 into the former main Library Building in the gritty Tenderloin/Civic Center area of San Francisco. It’s new location is much more accessible then it’s previous location in Golden Gate Park and is not too far from the SOMA section of town.  It is now a 5-10 minute walk from the MUNI or BART Civic Center Station.  The area has cleaned up in the past 10 years since I lived there, but I wouldn’t suggest being there too late in the evening.  The current exhibit is a show entitled Beyond Golden Clouds:  Five Centuries of Japanese Screens is on view until January 16, 2011.  The Target First Free Sunday’s is free to for the general museum but is $5 for special exhibits like the Golden Clouds.  The next exhibit to the museum is Bali: Art, Ritual and Performance doesn’t begin until February 25, 2011 but I’m going to try to make it to it if I can get a cheap ticket from JFK next year.  Looks amazing.

Being from New York I also expected both museums to be jammed but I was wrong.  There was plenty of room and it wasn’t hard to get a good view of the works without bored and restless children and obstructed views.  Free days to museums and similar attractions can be found in many other cities.   It’s more common then you think.  If anything,  it’s a good way to save money and maybe try something new if you don’t usually find interest in museums.

Short List of Subway train fares in the U.S.

Here’s a breakdown of current subway fares which will all probably be going up soon.  This isn’t a complete list but the most popular and interesting routes in the U.S.

New York City MTA: $2.25

Washington D.C. Metro: $1.65-$4.50

Chicago L: $2.25

Boston T: $2.00

San Francisco MUNI: $2.00

Los Angeles Metro:  $1.25

San Juan, P.R. Tren Urbano: $1.50

Detroit People Mover: 50 cents (WOW)

The fares on the New York City Subway aren’t looking too bad are they.  It’s not the cleanest and it’s not as modern like the Tokyo Metro, but it does take riders far and does it 24 hours a day.   Chicago charges the same fare but goes a fair distance but only until around 1am like Boston which is 25 cents less.  The MUNI is a fare price if you live in the right neighborhoods.  If anything, one can’t beat the transfers they give out.  I once got one that gave me 2 hours.  Who even takes the subway in LA?  Ridership is up on LA subways so hopefully there are less cars on the road as well (doubt it).  San Juan P.R. (10.7 miles) and Detroit (3 miles) are small systems but they must help some people get to where they want go.  Can’t beat either prices.