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Among the joys of being a tourist in San Francisco are the secrets to be discovered around so many corners of the city. That’s why it can be a thrill to explore the backstreets and rolling hills by foot — hoping to find a surprise view, a hidden treasure or a place that harkens back to another era.

For more than 44 years, San Francisco City Guides has helped tourists find the city’s gems, providing free walking tours to anyone who wants them. The nonprofit group depends on donations for its survival.

“We are very lean with only two paid staffers, and everyone else is a volunteer, so everything goes to run the organization,” said Rory O’Connor, one of the volunteer guides. More than 80% of the group’s annual revenue comes from money collected at the end of the tour or other donations from walkers.

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That spelled trouble when the pandemic hit in early 2020, and tourism dwindled to a trickle. The organization’s two staffers took pay cuts, software used in scheduling was canceled, such extra expenses as printing out a map were discontinued and walking tours were reduced — with masks and social distancing employed, of course.

But the organization survived — thanks to the generosity of donors, an emergency reserve fund, some requests for private tours, seemingly improving pandemic conditions and the dedication of its volunteers.

“Your tour guide is a local who loves the city of San Francisco, who doesn’t do it for money, who doesn’t receive tips, and is very loyal to the community,” said Demetri Rizos, SF City Guides executive director. “So you see that passion through our tours, and that’s what sets us apart.”

Today, City Guides offers 80 different tours with more than 300 volunteers.

Among the most popular attractions is the Alfred Hitchcock tour, which highlights the famous film director’s romance with the city by visiting numerous sites from the movie “Vertigo.”

“There is a building that was used as one of the apartments for ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, James Stewart’s character in the movie,” O’Connor said. “Well, the people who now own it built a wall around the yard because ‘Vertigo’ fans used to throw pennies in or pick up a blade of their grass as a souvenir.”

O’Connor moved to San Francisco for a job in the early 1980s, and he was captivated by the city. He invested in maps and books that taught him about every street. And he concedes that being a tour guide in one of the world’s most iconic cities often comes with a level of obsession.

During the Alfred Hitchcock tour, guide Steve Reinhardt stands outside the James C. Flood Mansion, showing the replica of which Alfred Hitchcock used in the movie “Vertigo.” According to Reinhardt, the 19th century building was one of the very few structures that survived the 1906 earthquake because it was constructed from brownstone. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

As a result, he has been thrilled to see many fans returning to San Francisco for the Hitchcock tour and others.

“I thought that it would take a little while for people to come back,” he said. “To get 40-45 people on the Hitchcock tours, it’s like old times, and you start getting your crowd-voice in play.” 

The volunteer especially appreciates how “Vertigo” illuminates so much of San Francisco and its history.

“There is this line in which Scottie is trying to find something out, and he goes to his former finance Midge Wood, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, and says ‘Who knows the history of San Francisco, I mean the obscure history, like who shot whom on the Embarcadero in 1857?’” O’Connor said. “That’s the kind of thing that we actually try to find out.”

Tour guide Steve Reinhardt holds up a poster of the Hitchcock film “Vertigo” during SF City Guides’ Alfred Hitchcock tour in San Francisco on March 6. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

Rizos is happy that the organization has survived the pandemic, but said it is not entirely at full health. The cash reserve fund, initially established to help the group weather an earthquake, has been spent, and Rizos hopes more explorers and their donations can eventually rebuild the fund.

“We know that many of the people that are coming are local or from the state or from around the country, (but) international travel hasn’t bounced back just yet,” Rizos said. 

“Given time (though), there will always be tourism in San Francisco, there will always be interest in the city.”

To donate to or volunteer with San Francisco City Guides, visit https://sfcityguides.org/.