This has been a strange week for those of us who love this mad town, and a particularly strange one for me. It started on Tuesday, when I got an email from my friend Beth Spotswood. Beth was writing a column about San Francisco, and more importantly, what does it mean to be a native. The interesting part is that she was not rehashing the "born and raised" meme, but rather when does one consider oneself to be a San Franciscan? What do we do, how to we act, and why do we see the world in a unique way?
Seemed easy enough. After all, I am one of those "born and raised" people, so this should be a layup, right? And yet as I sat at dinner with my girlfriend, with each passing thought it seemed to get harder, not easier. I was finding it impossible to reduce my thoughts about this town to two concise sentences.
Part of the reason might have to do with the fact that I believe San Francisco is at a crossroads. We have always had a peculiar interaction with our present and our past, and two great moments in our history were landmarks for when the city changed dramatically. One of those events was of course the 1906 earthquake, when the city was built back from the ground up. The break between our past and our future could not have been more abrupt and more obvious. The great mansions on Nob Hill and along Van Ness, Victorian masterpieces built painstakingly with wood, all burned violently to the ground. Those days were over.
The second event was World War Two, and the great change was not physical, but human. A wave of soldiers poured through San Francisco on their way to the war in the Pacific, and for most of them this was the first time they had ever laid eyes on San Francisco. We were still a bit of a magical far-off place to the rest of the country, but as Liberty ships were built in the East Bay, and we filled them with our fighting boys, the secret got out. The city experienced its greatest population explosion after the war when many of those soldiers decided to come back and start their new lives here in San Francisco.
Those were two dramatic changes to the fabric of our city, weaving more into our collective story. What is happening now feels less dramatic, and in a way that is more dangerous. When things change slowly, it's harder to see it until it is too late. And this time it does not feel like we are adding to the story, but rather we are starting to take parts of it away.
I am not just talking about losing parts of our history like the Gold Dust Saloon (whose landlord's PR shill ludicrously described as a "tourist dive"). I am more concerned about something that we seem to be losing in us, in a viewpoint that used to define a San Franciscan. This is what was making my task so difficult. I was not sure if I wanted to describe San Franciscans as who we are, or who we seem to be becoming.
The irony of the situation did not escape me. Beth's article was being published the following day, February 1st. For most people this is an innocuous date, but for me it's the anniversary of my father's death, and this year was the 15th anniversary of that day. He wrote about, defended, and celebrated this town for fifty years in his column, and I could only wonder what he would think of this city today. I am not sure he would even recognize the place.
What does it mean to be a native? Such an easy question, and yet I was unable to get my arms around it. We used to play by our own rules, a more civilized instruction set for going through life. Now we seem to be inheriting the worst of the world around us. I think the saddest part is what has happened politically. A "San Francisco Democrat" used to mean someone who was socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Today we seem to have checked the second part at the door, and now you are either a progressive or "the one percent." Supervisors Mark Farrell and Sean Elsbernd are described constantly as the "Board's conservatives," which I find wildly amusing. Anywhere else in the country they would be practically burned at the stake as liberal heretics.
Another subtle change, and right before our eyes; we never saw the world as "us" and "them." That was how the rest of the country behaved, but not here. We accepted, we accommodated, and we did so with a grace and civility that seems to have been replaced with vitriol and intransigence. Last night at an event someone brought up Vernon Alley. Vernon was a legendary jazz bass player, and also a consummate San Franciscan. He was graceful, gracious, tolerant, and funny. Most of all, he had style, a style that seems to have also faded over time. Now we crash into each other on the street as we text feverishly, cut each other off with a rousing chorus of car horns, and refuse to extend each other even the smallest courtesy.
Vernon would be horrified, as would my father. What does it mean to be a San Franciscan? I owed Beth a quote, so I had to decide which way to turn. Did I describe who I thought we were, who I thought we were becoming? In the end, in classic San Francisco fashion, I accepted both. I wrote what I hope we want to be. Because at the end of the day, San Francisco is not forty-nine square miles of hills and streets, concrete and wood. All of us are the DNA of San Francisco, and we are the ones who get to pass it along. What will you do with this gift, I wonder?
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