Tourism for Locals: Macondray Lane Paves the Path for Tales of the City

By Juan De Anda
Thu., Jan. 30 2014 at 12:10 PM

After 40 years of entertaining readers and viewers with the adventures and tragedies of Anna Madrigal, Mary Ann Singleton, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, and other characters; Armistead Maupin, creator of the Tales of the City series, is ending the series with last week’s release of The Days of Anna Madrigal.

What started off as a set of weekly installments in The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, Maupin’s Tales of the City series turned into an eight-novel series, three PBS television miniseries (based off the first three novels starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney), and a stage musical at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater in 2011.

The ninth and final book focuses on the final days of the title character, the endearing and all wise, transgender landlady and matriarch of 28 Barbary Lane.
But even if Mrs. Madrigal is ready to “leave like a lady” and Maupin is bidding goodbye this cast of S.F. personalities, it doesn’t mean you have to as well.

After all, Tales was inspired by events and location here in our very own foggy City. So let’s visit the place that inspired the fictional address of 28 Barbary Lane: Macondray Lane.

Macondray Lane is a small pedestrian lane on the south-eastern side of Russian Hill. The quiet and ivy covered pathway extends two blocks east-west between Leavenworth and Taylor, paralleling Union and Green.

On the Leavenworth side of the lane, there’s a wooden arch welcoming visitors to world of enchantment and charm.

At the Taylor Street end, a set of steps descend from the lane to Taylor; the staircase is a key detail that was replicated in the scene of the 1993 PBS mini-series, where Laura Linney’s character of Mary Ann Singleton climbs up to discover her future home.

Maupin says in our exclusive interview with SF Weekly, that Barbary Lane originated in part because he needed a place of this world of San Francisco characters to live but also because he always fantasized about creating an address, “a fictional address that would become so real to people that they would go looking for it.”

Here’s how Barbary Lane is first described in the first novel, which is an accurate description of the real life Macondray Lane, except for the fact that the house doesn’t exist at the address provided (of course):

“The house was on Barbary Lane, a narrow, wooded walk-way off Leavenworth between Union and Filbert. It was a well-weathered, three-story structure made of brown shingles. It made Mary Ann think of an old bear with bits of foliage caught in its fur. She liked it instantly.”

Barbary Lane is integral to the development of the plot and characters in the series. In the novels, Barbary Lane becomes a refuge and safe haven for those on the fringes on society for being themselves — unique and different.

Maupin was able to take a 1970s San Francisco that was the national mecca of sexual liberation and acceptance and depict it in an endearing and humane manner — without misrepresenting or oversimplifying it all. And to think that this two block lane was a catalyst of sorts for Maupin’s work and ode to San Francisco for the past four decades.

So it’s hard not to fall in love with cobble-stoned lane, just like Mary Ann did. Our advice is to take your favorite book and read on the little bench that is located in front of the Buddha statue and koi pond. Plus the views are indispensable and breathtaking, especially at sunset: you get all the downtown skyline, the Embarcadero, Coit Tower, and even Alcatraz.

But if Macondray Lane is not enough for you, or those hills are just too steep, then follow this Google Map that pinpoints all the sites that are featured in the books and TV miniseries.

Our final piece of advice is taken from the final sentence in the Tales of the City saga, and it echoes the beginning of it all (when Mary Ann comes to the City by the Bay), just explore all that you can because there’s a city waiting for you.

NOTE:  Don’t forget to check out where site developer, and tour guide, Larry Rhodes, has downloadable walking tours and occasionally hosts group tours.

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