Escape to Barbary Lane

‘Connie, I’ve found this darling place on Russian Hill on the third floor of the funkiest old building…and I can move in tomorrow,’ said Mary Anne Singleton when she realised she was moving up in the world.


Mark at 28 Barbary Lane

I travelled 5000 miles to make a pilgrimage to a place that isn’t real. The mythical Barbary Lane is more of a state of mind than an actual place: the heart of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels. The famous wooden steps which lead up to it are real enough, and this is where people from all over the world go to have their picture taken. Standing on those steps I got a feeling of the fantastic history of San Francisco, following in the footsteps of Mary Anne Singleton, the starchy secretary who ran away from Cleveland to live a more colourful life.

Mark Macondray Steps Tales of the City The Vibes

The Victorian apartment house should be perched at the top of the Macondray Lane steps on Russian Hill, but all that greets the curious tourist, breathless from the steep incline of Taylor Street, is a dark fern-lined alley between buildings which bear little resemblance to the movie set (which was based on a place on Napier Lane.)

28 Barbary Lane at Night

In the movies, the house itself is magical. At night, the garden is lit by Chinese lanterns and fairy lights, ‘the whole fantasia’ as Michael fondly remembers in Michael Tolliver Lives. Marijuana plants nestle next to Azalea bushes as the sound of moaning foghorns drift up from the bay. Maupin had created an iconic place to rival Tara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, but here a new tenant would receive a joint taped to a welcome note on their front door, a gift from Mrs. Madrigal, ‘the mother of us all.’

Mona Ramsey from Tales of the City

Not everyone was happy at number 28. “The moon is in ca-ca,” said Mona, the free-wheeling hippy with displacement issues who leaves the warmth and safety of Barbary Lane to forge into the wide blue yonder in search of her roots. ’You can’t hide from the cosmos!’ she says when Mary Anne is shocked by her nudity. It’s Mona who inspired the tagline of my blog, ‘Dreams of a Free Spirit,’ the questing romantic with her Buddhist chants and cosmic consciousness. Of all Maupin’s characters, Mona is the one who really chimes with me. I’ll travel a long way to find a place like Barbary Lane.

mandalaBelow you can see a clip from the Tales of the City tv series, and Mary Anne’s wide-eyed arrival at the house. The series was funded by Channel Four in Britain because the US networks refused to portray gay people in a positive light. How things have changed…


Jump to 1.30 to see the where it all began…

I had to ask two taxi drivers and a realtor how to find the steps, so here’s a map…

Armistead Maupin’s new novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal will be published in 2013. Keep an eye on The Vibes for updates.

Golden gate Bridge san Francisco                                                                    Halloween in the Castro
My adventures in San Francisco               Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City          Halloween in the Castro

Categories: Photography, Random, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “Escape to Barbary Lane

  1. Hi Mark,

    I made the pilgrimage too back in April. Those wooden steps are a little rickety, but hugely evocative and the Macondray Lane itself, whilst not as enchanting as the film set of Barbary Lane, is beautiful and gives fantastic views over the Bay. One of the apartments was on sale recently at $799,000 – oh for a lottery win! I refer to my visit on the following blog post:


    • Hi Tony, I read your post a while back and I think it might have inspired mine which is 4 years overdue! Good to see you going to all the cool places in SF!

  2. Stevo

    Is that a spliff i can see at the top of the page! Naughty man. 😯

  3. I love your line about making a pilgrimage to a place that isn’t real. It does look like you stepped into a dream. I’m really looking forward to reading these books – especially now that the dream is easier to picture!

    • Sheila, it is a dream really. It’s idyllic and I guess Maupin has shown a lot of people that there are always ways to be happy. If I had the money I would build that house! Hope you love the books like I did 😀

  4. You’ve inspired me to read the books. I started to read them once before but got distracted by life. I may even start tonight.

    • Hi Shawn – you’re a busy man! I found the books completely addictive. People talk about having a ‘happy place’ and I think Armistead Maupin’s books are my escape. Despite the dark undertones, I think his characters are so warm and human that you just have to know what happens next.

  5. Carine

    Hi Mark. I love your posts (especially the photos!) about San Francisco and Sausalito. I made the pilgrimage myself in 1999, the cameras were not numerical by the time (and I certainly not rich enough anyway) and I wish I could come back one day. When I was reading the books, Barbary Lane seemed like some kind of paradise to me and I will be waiting for the next book to come! Thanks very much for bringing me back there just by one shot.
    And thanks for all your pictures. you are an artist.

    • Thanks Carine, what a lovely thing to say! It’s a pleasure to share these experiences and I hope other people will discover these books which have made my life brighter.

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