‘Noodling’ Around San Francisco, a Unique Way to Explore
The art of noodling around: an aesthetic meditation for the constantly curious
“I don’t give tours. That’s not what I’m doing. I take people on an experience. I’ve taken people out and they’ve said, ‘I’ve walked by this building probably a hundred times and I never, ever noticed that.’ That is gold for me,” shared Historic Preservationist Sheila McElroy recently over Zoom. Her mindfully, engaging enterprise, Noodling Around San Francisco, is an insightfully chill exercise that facilitates one exploring San Francisco in a unique manner.
“Noodling around is very much like the slow food movement. It is about tasting that place where you are and having reverence for who brought that to you. The stories, the traditions. It’s about being here now and touching the wall, the soil, drinking the water, realizing this is the same water that fell on the earth 500 years ago that maybe your ancestors drank, harvested with. We are all part of that energy. I try to make it playful and fun. Every Wednesday (on Instagram), I do a “nerd alert” (about) a building or a location and I give a little blurb about it,” Sheila explained.
Seeing as the city will be lifting most, if not all, of its restrictions in less than a week, the timing couldn’t be more perfect as more and more people will be out and about. “I want to spark curiosity. We walk down the street. You see the light dancing across a building and you notice a brick pattern. Who lived there before and why did they build that,” mused Sheila. As a walking enthusiast myself, this all sounds so delightful. But what exactly is noodling? Why not say we’re ‘Exploring Around San Francisco’? “Noodling around comes from the jazz phrase, to improvise. You go beyond your set route. No matter how open minded we think we are, we do the same darn thing. Why don’t you go just two blocks further than you normally would? Why don’t you go left instead of right? Why don’t you follow your curiosity? What do you notice? It can be five minutes, an hour, an afternoon. It’s not a matter of how fast you go or how far,” Sheila replied.
A native New Yorker with Italian-Irish roots, Sheila’s job, career, and calling has always been about connecting people to place. With a background in neighborhood revitalization and community engagement for close to 20 years, her robust track record encountered an eye-opening speed bump. “I had a historic preservation consulting firm in San Francisco for 15 years plus. I closed it because the social division around it really was disturbing me. It was so stratified. Historic preservation was seen as something elitist; people couldn’t relate to it. Then (there) were the people who had too much time and too much money, not just big developers, but a lot of developers. For me, place is about storytelling. Especially these days. I had to fight sometimes to get the lesser known, lesser understood stories told. Noodling around comes out of that. I wanted to, quite frankly, strip out the elitist component and get down to helping people see what is around them,” Sheila disclosed matter of factly.
Thankfully, her method is one that encourages active participation from everyone along with spontaneous, organic discovery rather than a spoon-fed litany of boring, mind-numbing information. “My approach is historic built environments (buildings, bridges, tunnels, walkways, etc.) because they tell a layered story of the people who were there, may still be there, who have had some imprint. I have a very visceral reaction to places. I think I’m naturally tied to a lot of the ancient energies. I’ve always been like that. I try to connect people with environment or to something that is no longer there. I think it’s really important in such a tech society. It’s so easy for us to be disconnected from the humanity that links all of us. These places are important to me. It’s not just a building. It’s not just a bridge. It’s not just a street named after (someone). It is a patchwork of people’s stories connected in a way that is all of our stories; just the names have the changed,” Sheila pointed out.
Whether you’re a resident or a tourist, the benefits one can reap from noodling around San Francisco are totally worth it. “It’s great for your body. The walking, the steps, the miles all add up. It massages your intestines, your organs. When you do something new every day, you actually increase the plasticity of your brain. Walking and seeing and doing all the things I talked about earlier keeps your brain activity heightened (which) goes back to memory, recall. The brain itself is having its own little workout while you take these walks,” Sheila added. In addition to the physical benefits, she also provides each participant with a map of a small area inviting one to explore by allowing and observing during their personal, guided experience. Sheila then meets them later, up the street to share what they discovered. These mindfulness exercises can last anywhere from 45-minutes to two hours in length. I’m a huge fan of the notion that a new encounter can avail itself to one each and every time she or he opts to take a walk simply by allowing. What a gift.
You can also visit her website https://sheilamcelroy.com