E-mail last week:
I’d think a hip cat like you’d be more into their version of things than some tired academics who are just jumping on the caboose of a rapidly leaving bandwagon.
Oh. Woops. You’re in San Francisco.
That explains everything.
Seems to be a common bit of knowledge that San Francisco is pretty well insulated from the realities of the world.The population here tends to be — how should I say it — a tad left of center. Diversity and eccentricity are the norm here. The intelligence, literacy, and education levels are higher here than in most of the country. Queers and other minorities have “nothing to worry about here”.
Of course, anyone who lives here knows that last statement is anything but true, although — at least for some minorities — life is somewhat easier here. Particularly noteworthy is the phenomenon known as the Castro. I’ve written a lot about the Castro. Most of it has not been complimentary. As a matter of fact I’ve often described it as sort of a “reality-free zone”, where the troubles of queers in the hinterland, people on the wrong end of the socio-economic scale, and unfashionable people are no longer a concern.
Could this is true of the whole city?
Well, of course it is. I’d venture to say that a fairly large percentage of the San Francisco transplants moved here to escape the “reality” of the places they came from, be it suburban North Carolina, rural North Dakota, or even the Phillipines or Central America. This collection of backgrounds has produced a wide variety of knowledge and awareness within the city. Unfortunately, it also may have produced a strange sort of insulated cultural vacuum wherein all these individuals fleeing from their own realities have lost touch with large parts of them as well.
I would not disagree with the statement that San Francisco as a whole strongly overestimates its own importance in the world. The things that we believe and hold dear are not the same as those which are important to the rest of the world. Our influence on society is waning, if not close to nonexistent. New York, Los Angeles, even Houston and Atlanta are much more important on a national scale. Contrary to what we may tell ourselves, the world doesn’t generally follow our example, nor does it even particularly care what we think or do.
San Francisco is the capital of muliti-cultural thought, tolerance, and “PC’ (God, I hate that overused term…) Every issue, no matter how inane or trivial is perceived by someone as indicative of society’s oppressive nature. If I get my order ahead of someone else at McDonald’s, it must be because I’m a white male, not because the other order was for a “Big Mac, no salt, light sauce, well done, on a cruelty-free bun”. If I refuse to break the law and reproduce copyrighted material en masse for a customer, it must be because I don’t agree with his politics, not because I fear for my job. Everyone here seems to have an “oppression complex”: gay, straight, male, female, WASP, Latino, Asian, whatever… It gets a bit silly. And people laugh at us, even though many “oppression complexes” may be based in past truths.
The “single issue” politics in San Francisco are astounding and disturbing. Particularly in the “gay community”. This may be our biggest means of forgetting that there is, in fact, a world outside our little peninsula. Most of the world is far more concerned about keeping (or getting) a job which will allow three meals a day and shelter than about whether a school in the Castro is named for Harvey Milk or whether a Lesbian couple is featured in the Valentine’s Day story in the local paper.
We’re creating a city that fewer and fewer people can enjoy. Gentrification has destroyed neighborhoods worldwide, but in San Francisco, we seems to be doing it on a city-wide level. The upper middle class is taking over, raising rents, and pushing out the diversity (musicians, artists, ethnic communities) which attracted them in the first place. Our small mom and pop family restaurants and hardware stores are being replaced with wall-to-wall bistros, Gaps, Starbucks, and Z-Galleries. How livable is a city where it’s easier to buy a $125 framed print or a piece of FiestaWare than it is to find a $4 meal?
And our hypocrisies and inconsistencies are showing:
- We revel in our love of ethic cultures and foods provided and prepared by people who can no longer afford to live here. (San Francisco is the only city of its size and stature in the country where the African American population is actually DECLINING, and with the current rental market, things will get worse.)
- The gay movement was built largely on a platform of freedom of speech and association, but try posting a flyer on a lamppost in the Castro.
- Discount stores like Target or Home Depot face immense opposition from city residents who would prefer to drive to the suburbs and shop there, free of the hassles of anyone who might walk or take transit to them.
- Marin County contains one of the most “liberal” suburban voting blocks in the country. Funny that any form of affordable housing there is consistently voted down, as was the BART rapid transit system many years ago. Shopping centers are OK though, as long as they “look OK” and they’re located in the one predominantly black area of the county. It’s a special bonus if they displace an unsightly flea market or craft fair where “outsiders” can make money in a non-landscaped environment.
- A reviewer fro the Examiner applauds a show which glorifies urban street sensibilities while decrying the real street life — she refers to it as “human garbage” — which surrounds the theater outside.
It all comes down, I guess, to whether we want to live in a real city or a Disneyland-style sanitized version of one. Is it preferable to take the bus to the Western Addition or the fake cable car tour to Fisherman’s Wharf? Is Mission Street or Castro Street what San Francisco is really all about? I must confess to a bias toward the former in all three cases.
And I’ll skip a lengthy discussion of our own version of the costumed “greeters” here in “UrbanLand”: the stockbrokers who dress like gas station attendants on weekends, the trust fund hippies on Haight Street, the artists posing as gangbangers, antuque shop owners posing as longshoremen. However, I must congratulate them for producing an intersting — if not entirely accurate — version of urbanism in safe neighborhoods. Perhaps in a “city of freaks” it is necessary to punctuate one’s identity with an exclamation point.
I must add that I do not claim to be free or above some of the inconsistencies I’ve discussed here. I am also probably no less insulated from reality than anyone else here. The South of Market Area is not really all that high on the “reality index” either (especially given all the drugs down here). Who knows…maybe I’m more insulated than anyone…
All in all, I still love San Francisco and the Bay Area. At least there is an attempt at justice here. In most neighborhoods, it is not necessary to duck immediately after kissing your boyfriend goodnight on the street corner. People here at least feel guilty when they make bigoted comments. Hate-spewing Jesus freaks are regularly challenged when they preach on the streets. And as shallow as it sounds, it’s just pretty here!