"Second star to the right, and straight on till morning." That's the way to Neverland, the magical island dreamt up by Scottish writer J.M. Barrie in his 1904 play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up and his 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. But those directions might double as the route to San Francisco in the popular conception of our city, one that's been frequently invoked of late. It's not just San Francisco's relative youth compared to its aging surrounding areas, and our increasing childlessness: it's a unique countercultural heritage that makes the comparison so popular. But how, exactly, does the analogy work?
Here on our peninsular, near-island home, we speak in sometimes chiding but mostly proud tones of boys and girls who refuse to grow up, often pathologizing the tendency with reference to Peter Pan syndrome. Though that term wasn't invoked until 1983 in Dan Kiley's hit pop psychology text, similar diagnoses predate it. As former SFist editor Brock Keeling writes for 7x7, the figure of the puer aeternus (Latin for "eternal boy") might be traced through the generations, from '60s hippiedom to '70s gaydom to today's techdom.
The historical analogs are many, so here are just a few. Consider Huckleberry House, a shelter for stray children — literal lost boys and girls seeking the promised land of Haight-Ashbury. This refuge from the violent strictures of exurban American family life was a beacon for runaways, and it was the symbol of its era in late '60s San Francisco, one usually criticized by conservative politicians.
Another roguish figure of the times was the Diggers, a piratical group of anti-capitalists who came to govern their entire neighborhood. The Diggers ran the Haight, providing meals, parties, and political mantras. A few of their notable "happenings" were the "Death of Money Parade," and the "Invisible Circus."
The Cockettes, a psychadelic drag troupe, emerged at the end of the decade, subverting gender and representing San Francisco on tour. Drag is a big part of Neverland: From the original theatrical production of Peter Pan to the Mary Martin classic to the recent live version starring Allison Williams, Peter is typically portrayed by a woman, implying a connection between youth and gender fluidity. That could be another way the Bay Area maintains its youth: by playing with gender expression.
Still, gender undeniably operates in Neverland as the lost boys crave a mother figure in Wendy Darling, a kind of Mama Smurf. The gender imbalance on the magic isle could be a strong reason for comparison to San Francisco. Here, a male-dominated culture — or at least the stereotype of one — exists from the Castro to Silicon Valley.
That isn't to say the boys' club aspect of Neverland is its strength. In fact, it might be among its weaknesses. It's never been said that Neverland is a perfect sort of heaven. Though mermaids, fairies, and magic flourish there, Captain Hook threatens to kidnap, kill, and ruin. Likewise, troubles were many for the youth of Huckleberry House and for the Diggers — from governmental pushback to destruction wrought by drug use. But we forget that Neverland, too, was inevitably half Lord of The Flies a place of peace and freedom from authority that inevitably has its own struggles staying civil.
The "anything-goes" San Francisco has come and gone over the years, notably as the free-loving '60s gave way to the nightmarish '70s. Among a cast of horrors from Jim Jones to the Zebra Killings, one oft-cited turning point was Altamont. The music festival featuring Santana and the Rolling Stones quickly became a free-for-all, partly thanks to a decidedly Neverlandian move of designating the Hell's Angels gang as the festival's security. By the time the horrified Stones took the stage, the mood was violent, even lethal. 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was killed in the fracas, and the event is generally considered the final death knell of the Woodstock era.
But, just like it's been obscured by fog and shaken by earthquake, the city remained, and even managed to stay weird, as they say. Today, there's plenty of youthful vibrancy and Peter Pandom here thanks to an influx of young, imaginative techies and a still very sizable gay population. We've got invention, play, and performance. But there are new nightmares, with still plentiful homelessness and a recent wave of evictions. Mere clapping for Tinkerbell isn't going to keep the magic alive: We have to.
Though Wendy chooses to leave Neverland, there's an interesting hint in many versions of the story. It's implied that Mrs. Darling, Wendy's mother, was whisked away by Peter back in her girlhood only to return home, as Wendy does, to lead a normal life. Moreover, the original story contains an addendum in which Peter returns to abscond with Wendy's daughter.
In addition to being more than a little creepy, the detail could be read as comment on how Neverland exists for many of us. It's a place of joy that must be remembered but not eternally inhabited, a realm and a time passed on, in our inescapable old age, to the next generation of would-be "eternal" youths. Though childish memory and behavior may keep us light of heart, we're inevitably mortal. We age, we die, though in its way, Neverland is always ours. Here in SF, most of us are Wendy, not Peter, and that's not a bad thing.