It's the Scenery, Stupid
by Hank Donat
This week the Chronicle published a eulogy for San Francisco that lamented the City's decline as the cultural, economic, and social center of the Bay Area and the world. Written by Mark Simon, a fourth generation San Franciscan who lives in the Peninsula, the article cites a whole litany of reasons that Simon says prove San Francisco doesn't matter anymore, including: dirt; inconvenience, unpleasantness, expensiveness, hubris of San Franciscans, proliferation of suburban entertainment venues, symphonies, theatre companies and gourmet restaurants; lack of interesting characters, harsh and mean streets, the Board of Supervisors, incomprehensible and incapable (sic) politics, hypocrisy about intolerance, economic decline and the loss of dot com companies, the fact that it's not Silicon Valley, the homeless, time, events, and the City's own foolishness (whatever that last one means.) Evidently Simon likes Muni, because the transit system is about the only thing that escaped his indictment unless you want to read into inconvenience.
I have decided to postpone my rebuttal for just a moment. Rather, I'll look out over the Marina from my perch near Baker Street, the golden sunlight shining through the transom to warm my face. I'll close my eyes. Looking at the late afternoon sun through my eyelids I'm completely filled inside with gold. Eyes open, I see the Presidio with its straight, tall pines that remind me of a town I visit in Germany that's flanked by the Bavarian Forest one side and the Bohemian Forest on the other. The elegant Palace of Fine Arts looks tonight like a great button waiting to be pushed. The masts in the Marina make a bed of nails that fronts a mosaic of gleaming buildings playing Escher-like with light and shadows. The last sailboats of the day glide swiftly across the bay, like Snoopy when he ice skates. The fog begins to creep in. It sneaks as though unnoticed. If, like yesterday and the day before, the fog obscures this scene before sunset there will be but one beam that breaks through and illuminates all of Alcatraz Island. Now the fog horns caress the senses with gentle and familiar tones. A mere suggestion of a chill tells me to close the transom and start the tea.
Where was I? Oh yeah, San Francisco sucking. It is true that San Francisco's leadership as a financial center has fallen. That crown, like most others, is passed around. Cultural and economic influences have their ebbs and flows. In the words of Ronan Anderson, the San Franciscan by way of Ireland who produced the Millennium Clock for Euroclear in Brussels, "Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate. It's about being there." There will always be a struggle for the character of San Francisco. Corporate influences that wish to make the City look more like the Peninsula, rather than the other way around, are powerful. Today's downturn is one thing, but there will likely always be money and people with money in San Francisco. (We lionize the great capitalists who built the City mostly because they were hedonists and they built beautiful structures.) But the secret of the character of San Francisco is no secret. It's in its neighborhoods and in its people.
We didn't always have Lenny Bruce, Alan Ginsberg, or Harvey Milk. There was a San Francisco before the Beatniks, the hippies, the gay parade, and Pets.com. There will be a San Francisco after. Every generation of San Franciscans has gotten more or less the San Francisco it deserved. Throughout the history of all great cities, what remains is the land and it's people. That's what endures. The rest is a matter of values. What do we value as a culture? What do we celebrate? Is it artistic expression? Sexual freedom? Natural beauty? Each other? Or is it IKEA, things, and the every-man-for-himself culture Survivor?
I'm not trying to be obscure, but for me and most of the people I know who call themselves San Franciscans the best things in life are free, uncrowded, and non fattening.
Perhaps I'mfalling into Simon's trap. In his article he dares romantics to dismiss his claims out of hand. Not me. I agree that, at the moment, San Francisco isn't what it used to be. It's just the only thing even remotely close to what it should be. Or, ito quote a Quake era San Franciscan, I'd rather camp in the ashes of San Francisco than live anywhere else. (P.S. to Mark Simon: If you'd like me to be more specific than that, there are hundreds of additional examples of the City's rich character on this web site. Click around.)
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Copyright 2001 Hank Donat