San Francisco, Herb Caen, and Me

I guess I will forever love — and forever be annoyed by — the city currently known as San Francisco. No better way to reflect on both extremes than by re-reading old Herb Caen columns. I used to fantasize about taking over for him, as a sort of “Mr. San Francisco” for the 90’s, although I know deep down that I’d never qualify.

There are minor similarities between us, I guess. Like Herb (if I may be so informal), I’m fiercely possessive of a city I wasn’t born in. Like the late Mr. Caen, I feel a tremendous sense of nostalgia for a San Francisco which is long gone. A big difference, however, is that Herb lived this past. I never did. Herb romanticized through reflection. I romanticize through Herb (and assorted others).

Thousands, even millions of words have been written about this city, past and present. The past, no doubt, could never have lived up to its reputation. And my God, what a reputation! From the crazy (or opportunistic) Emperor Norton to the “opium dens” of old Chinatown to the earthquake to the backrooms of Folsom Street…my God…

Thirty years ago, Herb wrote about how the corporate mentality was making San Francisco increasingly bland and generic. Today, I worry about the same thing. Herb was interested in the small places and unique individuals, and the historical context which added life to the present-day landscape. So am I. In many ways, the 60’s and 70’s were not kind to the city, bringing us such hideous bastardizations of urban space as Embarcadero Center and the “new” Japantown. Perhaps the prosperity of the 80’s and 90’s will prove even more destructive, as we build a theme park city so “cute” it is in danger of choking on its own espresso-flavored bile.

Maybe the romantic San Francisco of the past never really existed in the first place, or at least not for a large portion of the population. Maybe it’s always been “just a place” to many of its residents. Who knows?

It’s obviously “just a place” to a large number of its affluent new residents who obviously couldn’t give two shits about the history and customs of the place they’re helping to destroy with their “lifestyle lofts”, their Starbucks and Pasta Pomodoros, and their aggressively incompetent driving. Too many of these people are here simply because of the job market , and not due to any particular affection for the place. They have no context and can’t be bothered to try.

But San Francisco wasn’t “just a place” to Herb. It’s not “just a place” to me. I love it here, although sometimes I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I love what remains of the leftist, offbeat sensibility. I love not fearing violence when I kiss a guy goodnight on a street corner. I love knowing that San Francisco existed prior to my arrival in 1992 and I love knowing how this past affects the future. Unfortunately, the future looks a little frightening right now. But maybe it always has…