On a recent day in July, tourists gathered at the southeast corner of Alamo Square Park in San Francisco to view a characteristic row of candy colored Victorian houses on Steiner Street, set within the jaw dropping background of downtown San Francisco. Many visitors have come to Alamo Square Park, part of a larger City of San Francisco historic district of the same name, to insert themselves into a scene that is synonymous with San Francisco. Visit times vary dramatically. Some visitors lounge casually across the sloped green, taking in the view. Others focus intently behind complex camera equipment. Still more, the largest fraction of people that come to the park, dash out of cars, hazard lights flashing, to capture a quick selfie in front of the postcard-worthy view.
Alamo Square, with its concentration of ornate late 19th century architecture, sloping streets and old-growth trees, is known more recently because of an informal late 20th century pop culture phenomenon. It has nothing to do with turned wood details or historic districts, and nothing to do with who slept here. As photos are snapped and shared, a question is overheard, as well as an answer:
“Excuse me, which one of the houses is the ‘Full House’ House?”
“They all are.”
The answer, by most accounts, is correct. From 1987 to 1995, this view found its way into suburban homes via the opening credits to ABC’S situation comedy Full House. A chorus of angelic “aahs” chimes in with a panoramic shot of Steiner Street, followed by bucolic footage of the Tanner Family having a picnic within Alamo Square Park. While the opening credits vary, the final picnic shot remained consistent across all eight seasons. It might dishearten nostalgic Millennials and Generation X-ers to learn that none of the six Victorian houses are the actual Full House House. Setups for scenes imply that the house was not one of Alamo Square’s famous “Painted Ladies,” but a different house, located at 1709 Broderick, about a mile from Alamo Square.
Further complicating sense of place is the fact that, like most network sitcoms, Full House was not filmed in the city that served as a weirdly tertiary character on the show, but at Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles. This perhaps explains why the interior spaces have more in common with the suburban houses built in the late 20th century that the show found itself being screened in than a wood framed Victorian located in the densest urban area in Northern California.
With the early aughts came an abundance of information available instantly, as well as an increase in life expectancy that has lengthened our culture’s view of personal history. These factors, along with the tendency for technology to turn over quickly, has made the divide between what is perceived as “new” and what is perceived as “old” much greater. People of every age have the right to wax nostalgic about their own pasts, and to become knowledgeable about events that occured before their lifetimes, yet there is a tendency to check a person’s ID before we give them a lane to do so. Along with those who wish to nostalgize their time watching Full House with a trip to Alamo Square, are the thousands that dined at Saved By The Max, a pop-up restaurant concept inspired by another 1990s sitcom, Saved By The Bell. Based on what Saved By The Max co-founder Derek Berry called “nostalgia overload,” Saved By The Max brings a fictional replica of The Max, a hip after school hangout for the attractive peer-aware students at Bayside High School to Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Originally slated to be open for only three months, Saved By The Max continued on for a year due to popular demand, with the restaurant now moving on to spread its nostalgic magic to Los Angeles.
From an experiential standpoint, the search for the Full House House signals something uncomfortable about the turn taken towards being less concerned about the meaning of the places we go to, and more concerned with showing others where we have been. Standing on that hill, it is obvious that smartphones and social media have created a culture that prioritizes capturing yourself within an iconic scene, as opposed to capturing the scene itself, or absorbing in real time how being a part of the scene makes you feel. Prior to digital photography changing the way personal events are documented, and well before social media, pop culture as a whole agreed that in terms of travel photography, nothing was dorkier than the notion of firing up the Kodak Carousel-S and showing reluctant friends and family images of all the places you’ve visited, and how you have managed to insert yourself into nearly every photo taken of a significant place. Instagram is today’s Carousel-S, yet we judge the images in private and have somehow unlearned that there is anything tacky about mashing your ugly mug into the frame of a photograph. A quick search for Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Christ the Redeemer or the Pyramids at Giza using any social media app’s search function yields an embarrassing amount of people looking shiny and overexposed in front of some of the world’s most unique places. Pick the nose of the Sphinx of Giza? Hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa (or Niles, Illinois) with one hand? Give Jesus a double high five in Rio de Janeiro? Jump vertically while flailing your arms and legs like an Air Dancer in front of the Colosseum? These images are repeated over and over.
Back at Alamo Square, people are now informally queuing up to be photographed in front of the most iconic view of the “Painted Ladies” like they were Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Alamo Square is a location, a place, a neighborhood that you physically experience. Mickey and Minnie Mouse are characters that represent the experience, but they are not the experience itself. The beautiful places of the world have become characters in mascot costumes.
And what exactly brings people to these beautiful places? Doesn’t the porch where D.J. Tanner kissed either Nelson, Steve or Viper on the show seem too large for any of these houses? Which house is Kimmy Gibbler’s? “Doesn’t the entirety of the San Francisco Western Addition look Full Housey to you?” Deep down, we know it is impossible to apply a series of logical truths to a fictional television show, yet we can’t resist.
1990s sitcoms and selfie hot spots are only slivers within the historical timeline of Alamo Square, many streets have retained a remarkable amount of integrity overall, a triumph for a neighborhood that was almost wiped out in the 1960s to make way for the Panhandle Freeway. But an influx of tourists after Alamo Square Park’s recent renovation has caused an increase in daylight vehicular break-ins, and wireless providers are hungrily eyeing every street light and tall object to add their antennas to so more selfies can be shared. Despite the attempts for history to nay say social media and early onset nostalgia, these 21st century elements have already altered our experiences with the places we travel to see.