Following on my own two rejoinders to the recent pieces in the New Yorker and Washington Post about San Francisco irreversibly going to shit, the Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub and Mission Local's Joe Eskanazi have each penned their own responses.
My main — and most objective — response to this current wave of sensational trend pieces, which actually dates back a good seven or eight years, is that a) every single person is going to have a different idea about what a city's "soul" represents, and anyway it's a myth of our collective creation; and b) if the main point of these essays is that San Francisco is changing too fast and becoming less culturally "cool" while also getting too expensive, there's a lot to unpack there too. And why don't we talk about how awesome New York or Los Angeles were in the 1970s and how those cities have irreversibly lost their cool? There's a Target in Tribeca for god's sake, and a friend was paying $10,000 a month to live in a two-bedroom on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and that was five years ago.
Hartlaub digs deep into the archive to support his argument that "The death of San Francisco is an illusion, and it always has been," and it's a city "cursed to always be considered one or two generations past its peak." He finds a comical letter from the Chronicle's Letters page from 1874 in which a reader complains about the construction of the seven-story Palace Hotel, suggesting that it may be too late to remedy such a blight. And he draws on a famous quote given to columnist Herb Caen by another, older newspaperman who had famously written an obituary for San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. That writer, Will Irwin, said in 1946, "San Francisco isn’t what it used to be. And it never was."
Hartlaub rightly brings up the the horrible ways LGBT people were treated in the city in the 1950s and 60s, and the murderous darkness of the 1970s when many families were fleeing what they saw as a city completely out of control.
In his Mission Local response, Eskanazi recounts his own mother's story of being stoned at a laundromat near Army Street in the 1970s when some random guy walked in to share his Kahlua cheesecake with everyone. When remembered against the backdrop of the Zebra murders that were happening at the time, he gives an example of the contrasts between the intimacy and occasional loveliness of everyday life in a city during a time of great fear and loathing. "The San Francisco of Kahlua cheesecake in the laundromat is also the Zebra Killers’ San Francisco or the Jim Jones San Francisco or the Dan White San Francisco," he writes. "We choose to decouple these memories. But, at the time, they coexisted."
He's careful to suggest, though, that San Francisco "may have gone off book" in recent years, and all the IPOs and million-dollar shacks contrasted with "jarring public misery and filth" could suggest some "transcendence" of other historical moments.
Hartlaub writes that "everything from the invention of radio to rock ’n’ roll to Sutro Tower to video game arcades to electric scooters has been blamed for the demise of San Francisco." And even if income disparity, displacement, and a general antipathy and ignorance among newcomers to town about the glories of The Cockettes, Clothes Contact, or whatever shuttered dive bar you loved fifteen years ago are all depressingly realities of our current moment, the heart of the city beats on. All we can do is learn from past mistakes and debate future legislation that might improve some small piece of the bigger picture.
As the novelist and philosopher Annie Dillard once wrote, "There is no one to send... but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time... There has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day. Yet some have imagined well, with honesty and art, the detail of such a life, and have described it with such grace, that we mistake vision for history, dream for description, and fancy that life has devolved."
Life hasn't devolved — even if our national politics may have — and neither has San Francisco. It is in some ways a crueler place than it was 30 or 40 years ago — higher rent, more visible mental illness and drug abuse on the street, less racially diverse, with a greater emphasis on wealth and status (in certain circles) — but in some ways a kinder place — more inclusive of LGBTQ people, more aware of our differences and inequities, less trusting of religious mores. Would everyone feel less down on San Francisco if a strongman mayor walked in and swept all visible "vagrancy" off the street the way Giuliani did in Manhattan in the late 1990s? Would that make it feel like a kinder place?
Most who will tell you this place has gone to hell are likely feeling down for other, perhaps personal, reasons. Or maybe a confluence of events that they can blame on "the city" has caused them genuine pain. But meanwhile there are people both less fortunate and more fortunate than they are getting by and possibly having a very fine week. It's a city full of people after all.