About Thinkwalks


History of Thinkwalks

There was a time when Thinkwalks was nothing but tours and talks. Now we’re bringing speakers to the Randall Museum for a monthly natural history talk series and developing new publications, too!

Folks walking up cement steps in a garden

November 2003: The first Water Walking Tour! (Vulcan Stairway)

Originally, Joel conducted tours mostly for visitors, but in late 2009, by popular demand, he retooled Thinkwalks as “Nerdy Tours for San Franciscans,” to great effect. There are so many people in SF with deep knowledge from exploring the city, and many newcomers who share that interest.

Many of the people on these tours are deeply knowledgeable locals including scientists and curators, some of whom know the city amazingly well. So, as a curious traveler, newcomer or visitors, you can witness know-it-all old-timers saying, “Whoa! I had no idea!” while also contributing their own fun info.

Joel, your guide, had been exploring and writing about the history of SF creeks and fresh water for years, and occasionally giving a public talk. He also helped create a number of public murals, the Wiggle bike route and various essential maps. You can find out more about him on the FAQ page.

Topics we explore and why

In general, we cover topics few others cover. Lots of people research (or spread myths) about the Gold Rush, The Barbary Coast, Hippies and so on. But who else talks about how natural landscapes transformed into a city and why? Or about the evolving interplay between Mexican history, public mural alleys and street graffiti? Every Thinkwalk is a feast of deep, dynamic, big-picture information. We really pack it in.

Tour walking on sidewalkFew guides research their own material from original source documents to find out how SF’s juicily-hidden neighborhoods got to be how they are now. At Thinkwalks, we tie an exploration of history, nature and art to the economic and population shifts, in the hope that the knowledge of the past empowers you to be a full participant in your world.

According to most visitors and even solid residents, San Francisco’s past is a quaint tale of now-cliche landmarks to check off a list. Since those can be boring when viewed in this shallow way, keep the crowd entertained by adding some colorful and eye-rolling stories of weird local behaviors. Sad. Hollywood would have it that way, and so would most local power-brokers.

But the truth, when you dig it out of its commercially arranged grave, looks more like a parade of  bureaucratic policies supporting ambitious, greedy speculators whose plans are constantly undermined by deeply concerned and idealistic freelance innovators trying things to help average people live more empowered and creative lives. Of course this very San Franciscan gadfly dynamic causes trouble for the controlling economic interests, so the real stories are elbowed out of history-for-the-masses and tucked behind the carefully resculpted and simplified stories of complex places and people.

This arrangement goes all the way back to the Mission Dolores (which was, in reality, founded for very political purposes that had more to do with blocking the Russian Empire than saving heathen souls). And it includes the very quaking ground we walk on (in reality, there are specific conditions of soil, water and economic disincentive that facilitate most of the damage in earthquakes).

Skeptical researchers and explorers will find many such oversimplified stories, especially concerning complex people like Lillie Coit (who is always called a fire department “mascot” but should be considered the first female fire-fighter, since she did everything the men in her squad did) or Emperor Norton (whose real story is that he was a creative capital speculator who went insane from being a loser in SF’s typical boom-bust economic games).

To avoid this cinema-style personality distraction our topics tend away from anecdotes (so hard to confirm) and instead dig up material helpful in understanding the big picture and the forces that motivate widespread change.

Joel invites you to his Thinkwalks to scrutinize the exhumed info with inspiration as a collaborative, deliberative effort! That’s something very satisfying and special to Thinkwalks: group discussions and evaluation of the evidence.

Yes, we love living in one of the most dynamic places in the world. Why would we want to dismiss it as a fairy tale?

Who is Joel Pomerantz?

There are many people who have made Thinkwalks what it is. Joel, as founder and guide, is setting the tone.

Joel has co-founded or instigated various community projects in San Francisco. Some of these projects, like the influential San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, are very active, if a bit mellowed. Some, like EpiCenter DeskTop, faded away when no longer needed. And some had kids of their own: Bike Summer, which Joel played a part in creating, traveled from city to city for half a dozen annual iterations, inspiring Chicago, Portland, Vancouver, Sydney, Pittsburgh and other communities to take a leap forward in bike culture and transportation planning.

Joel’s first career, ever close to his heart, was wilderness education. His community journalism and mural organizing (with brilliant artist, Mona Caron) has always included an element of nature education.

Other passionate pursuits that motivate Joel (and which you might invite him to do) include canoeing, supporting grassroots democracy, meeting new people, cooking without a recipe, researching the huge California flood of 1862, camping and participating in random acts of community involving everything from public art to local gift economies.

Did Joel coin the term ‘the Wiggle’? No one knows for sure.

What people say about Thinkwalks

“I had an amazing time, and have been evangelizing your walks to everyone I’ve talked to since.” —Deniz Gültekin 1/11/11 (Walk the Wiggle exploration)

“I couldn’t stop talking about it.…a Saturday very well spent.” —Shawn Lani 1/9/10 (Water Walking exploration)

“Just wanted you to know… I did indeed learn a lot from you over the past week. But even better, no matter how often I’d gone to SF after moving across the bay, I could never manage to shake the feeling that I’d been sent into exile. Thinkwalks provided a way to reconnect with the city I love. You might consider adding ‘Magician’ to your resume!” —Betsey Scheiner 5/16/17 (Hills & Laguna Honda hikes)

“Great tour — fun and really interesting. I feel like I now know what secrets are buried below the streets.” —Dan San Souci 1/25/10 (Walk the Wiggle tour)

“You give good tour!” —David Parkhurst (Outside Lands Bike Cruise)

“We both enjoyed it a ton. It was especially fun to be there with other city planning/water nerds!” —Mara Baum 1/31/10 (Water Walking exploration)

“Thank you for another great tour. Your knowledge and your ability to express it so well are impressive.” —Barbara Cannella 5/16/10 (Walk the Wiggle exploration)

“Thanks for another great tour. I’m quickly becoming your biggest fan.” —Lara Kucera 3/8/10 (Outside Lands Bike Cruise)

“Joel provided one of the best tours and docent experiences I’ve had in a long time. He was so well-informed and upbeat, that it made the tour even more enjoyable than the art already was. I would definitely take another tour with him. I just wish my tour group had more time to spend with him learning about the art, the artists, and the history of the mural movement in San Francisco. I highly recommend anyone interested in touring the murals of the Mission District to contact Joel and book a tour.” —Rabbi Wendy Spears 6/23/10 (Social Justice Mural Tour)

From Yelp

“The tour had a wonderful narrative that created both a geographical and historical sense of place.…These tours attract the best people, too, so you end up learning a little something from everyone! I highly recommend it.” —S.L. 1/18/10 (Water Walking exploration)

“Tour guide Joel Pomerantz did a wonderful job in drawing on his passion.…Pomerantz was also particularly adept at soliciting input from the tour’s participants, providing an opportunity for us to benefit from each others’ contributions as well.” —Drew B. 5/25/2010 (Water Walking exploration)

“I was intrigued when I heard through the Bicycle Coalition about a walking tour of the Wiggle. I’m a big fan of walking tours, but I ordinarily wouldn’t think to do one in my own city. The tour guide, Joel, has done a lot of his own research and amassed an impressive amount of information about the natural history of San Francisco. I was blown away by a lot of the stuff I learned and came away with a whole new perspective on San Francisco. Thinkwalks is aptly named, because this tour was definitely very thought provoking. If you want something in depth, smart, and out of the ordinary, this is it.” —Grace O. 1/30/2010 (Walk the Wiggle exploration)

“I was thrilled to hear about the natural history of the area and the different incarnations it has taken on over the years. Joel showed us the original route of the Wiggle as it would have been traveled by the Ohlone people, and then on the way back touched on a number of more modern events related to the Wiggle.…Really interesting and fun stuff. Joel definitely knows his history and these historical tours really deepen your relationship with your place.” —Morgan Fitzgibbons 2/1/2010 (Walk the Wiggle exploration)

“Not only do you learn about your city in a way that nobody talks about it—Page Street, a 60 foot sand dune?!?—but you are walking with a great group of people. Highly recommend it.” —Thea D. 3/8/2010 (Walk the Wiggle exploration)

“You may go into it thinking: really how much is there to learn about the Wiggle? But, soon enough you will see…” — Martina D’Alessandro (who enjoyed the tour so much she volunteered to design a flyer for Thinkwalks) 4/14/2010 (Walk the Wiggle exploration)

“This wasn’t just any old walking tour. The guide, Joel, took us back in time to ancient hills and Ohlone pathways over long-gone sand dunes. He’s a kickass bicycle activist and really knew his stuff about the history of the Wiggle. He seems very enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge with other people who love this city. I’m looking forward to more tours!” —Lara K. 1/29/2010 (Walk the Wiggle exploration)

“If you thought you knew San Francisco water history you would be mistaken. Pomerantz thoroughly researches the subject and can present all points of view. Joel sent some additional information after the tour. I highly recommend Thinkwalks.” —Beth M. 5/25/2010 (Water Walking exploration)

“It was the highlight of the entire year-long fellowship”  —David Cushman, 9/9/09 (Social Justice Mural Tour)

“Thank you…you’re just a great San Francisco show-er off-er! ” —Elizabeth Smith (tour arranger) 3/14/05 (custom tour)