Once upon a time this was my absolute favorite activity in the world: a friend of mine from out of town would announce that he was coming to San Francisco, and could I "show him the sights." My heart would jump, my grumpy little columnist face would contort into a smile, and my mind would start racing immediately. Let's be honest, there is nothing a native loves more than showing off our town.
We have good reason to be so proud of our 49-acre woods. San Francisco occupies a magical and sometimes mythical place in peoples' minds, and sometimes we forget this. We clump up and down our hills, through our neighborhoods, and forget just how special this place is. Yet whenever I go on a vacation, and tell people I am from San Francisco, more often than not I am greeted with a gentle smile and a sigh of recollection. It has that affect on people.
But the times, they are a-changing, and not always in a good way. I should go on record here as a Caen and as a San Francisco native, which means I have always had an uneasy relationship with change in general. I become morose when I pass a corner where a favorite restaurant used to be, and yet I could not wait to show my girlfriend my childhood neighborhood and how many things had not changed there. Walking through San Francisco with me has a certain bipolar element to it, happy one block, devastated by the next.
But walking people through our town and showing it off to tourists was always my thing. It just seems that recently there are more and more places changing. Which brings me to last night, when a mob of us descended on the famed Gold Dust Lounge downtown to lend our voices in support. As many of you already know, the landlord is threatening the bar with closure. The Gold Dust is one of the venerable old watering holes downtown, which used to be littered with them. Now, like many other cities, the main tourist area downtown is turning into a glorified mall, and apparently the saloon is being forced out to make room for yet another clothing store.
Actually, I have to make a small correction. According to the latest rumors, the space currently occupied by the Gold Dust is not going to be used for the store itself, but rather for... wait... wait for it... an escalator! Yes, you are reading that correctly. This great old bar is being taken away from us locals so that a pack of lazy tourists don't have to face the terrible fate of having to climb a flight of stairs.
Which brings me directly and immediately to the second uncomfortable relationship we have after that whole change issue. Tourists. We love them, we hate them, we hate the fact that we love them. Oh sure, we all giggle to ourselves as they charge around Union Square in their shorts and sandals, since we know damn well in twenty minutes they are going to get engulfed by the afternoon fog. And we laugh even more when we see them an hour later in their "I (heart) San Francisco" sweatshirts they bought to ward off the cold.
They take pictures in front of the gates of Chinatown, happily sit in the car line all the way up to Coit Tower, and pack our cable cars. And our uncomfortable relationship is based on the fact that we can laugh all we want, but we need them. Yes, for all our collective cosmopolitan brilliance, those tourists represent our number one economy in San Francisco. We point to Twitter, and the America's Cup and other economic drivers, but the engine deep in the heart of our town is tourism. Shipping has long since headed across the bay to Oakland and Alameda, most of our local financial institutions have hit the road, and many companies have left for places friendlier to business. But the tourists remain, and every year they return like the proverbial swallows.
They come because we are different. They come because we are unique. They come because we are one of the last remaining places where the past and the present seem to coexist at the same time. Where you can walk the Barbary Coast, ride the 49-mile trail, and explore forts, buildings, and places representing over two hundred years of history. All packed into seven miles by seven miles.
They come because the single most important thing is we never have crossed that line from "San Francisco" to "San FranciscoWorld." We have never become a caricature of ourselves, but instead keep our reality grounded in our connection with our past. Which is why losing places like the Gold Dust takes not just an emotional toll on us, but a financial one as well.
I find it shocking that the landlord who is pushing them out is the owner of a downtown hotel. A hotel that is filled 365 days a year with tourists. Tourists who come to San Francisco because of places like the Gold Dust. Places like the old M&M bar, Hannos, and the Iron Horse, which was also thrown out by a landlord during the wave of dotcom evictions. These places don't come back, and there is one less reason to come. One less reason to see us as anything more than a shopping center, but with better views. Our tourist guides get thinner, the memories get dimmer, and maybe next time, San Francisco will not seem such a magical place to visit. After all, what photo album, what memory, what Facebook posting, ever started with an escalator?