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more than 100 recognized neighborhoods, not to mention a dozen distinct microclimates. And because several huge freeways planned in the 1950s were never built, you have to take surface streets to get anywhere, which slows the pace of travel and makes the city feel bigger than it is.
It’s all very much like life on an island. And just like other islanders, San Franciscans spend a lot of time focusing inward, on our own problems and opportunities. We bling out our bridges with LEDs, and argue about composting and recycling, and shop at outrageously priced farmer’s markets, and rhapsodize to anyone who will listen about the wonders of San Francisco (guilty as charged). We assume that the way of life we’ve invented is the same one everyone else would want, if they could have it.
And all of that gives San Franciscans the arrogance required to invent cool new things. Things that no one will understand at first, but that will eventually come to be loved, like Howl and sexual liberation and the Grateful Dead and the WELL and Twitter and Instagram.
Being stuck on an island together, people in San Francisco have also figured out how to tolerate one another—a feat that seems out of reach for the nation as a whole. I’m not saying the city is a model of integration and cooperation; it definitely isn’t. But there’s little racial violence here. The city’s political leadership is ethnically diverse, four of our 11 county supervisors (and both of our senators) are women, and gays are part of the power structure (and can finally marry each other). In technology, the executive ranks are still largely male—partly a legacy of the way engineering education works—but there are many Asian-American and Indian-American faces.
Mostly, San Francisco is about voluntary community. People come here because they want to be here. They’re welcomed, and everyone gets down to work.
4. San Francisco is a living storybook.
There’s no humble way to put this: nature has given San Francisco a stage unlike any other, and if you spend much time here, you start to feel like you’re a player in the drama.
Sure, other cities can boast about their spectacular physical locations—I think of Hong Kong or Capetown, both built against mountains. But San Francisco has it all: the ocean, the hills, the Bay, the bridges, the fog, the cable cars, the vistas, and the light—always, the golden light.
That’s why it’s one of the world’s best shooting locations for movies and TV shows, from Dirty Harry and Harold and Maude to Monk and Star Trek. In fact, I fell in love with San Francisco long before I ever considered moving here, the first time I saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And I remember being stunned when I finally learned that Fort Point, with the Golden Gate Bridge soaring overhead, where Madeleine throws herself into the Bay, is a real place—not the special effect that I’d assumed it must be.
Everywhere you turn, the imagined San Francisco and the real San Francisco overlap and intermingle. Who can visit Macondray Lane without thinking of Mary Ann and Michael Mouse and Mrs. Madrigal in Tales of the City, or walk around Russian Hill without imagining Steve McQueen flying through intersections in his ’68 Mustang, or drive over the Golden Gate Bridge without recalling how many times it’s been blown up in science-fiction movies?
All I’m saying is this: Every environment gives a certain shape and flavor to the imaginations of its inhabitants. You can’t imagine Woody Allen’s films without New York, or James Joyce’s books without Dublin. In San Francisco, people dream big because the city itself is dreamlike. That’s probably why Tony Kushner wrote, in Angels in America, that “heaven is a city much like San Francisco.”
Even the weather conditions here—those winds of the future—are like a stage effect designed to egg on San Franciscans’ creativity. It’s never truly frigid, almost never sweltering, and often magically entertaining, at least to a Midwesterner like me. I recently attended a performance of Macbeth at Fort Point, and the fog swirled down as if the three witches had conjured it up especially for the play. Kamiya captures the conditions perfectly: “Cool and fresh, constantly cleansed by the sea, it is walking weather, thinking weather, alert weather.”
5. San Francisco is a city of endings, and beginnings.
For a nation whose “gaze is ever West,” San Francisco is the edge of the world, the last stop on the road trip, as Kerouac and his friends discovered. Either you get on a boat or a plane and keep going west, or you stay here and invent a life for yourself.
Many weren’t allowed to choose: San Francisco was the port of departure for most of the sailors and soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater in World War II, as well as Korea. But for the lucky ones, it was also the place they came back to when it was all over. Kamiya quotes newspaperman Harold Gilliam, who was watching from Fort Point in the early 1950s as a troop ship brought soldiers home from Korea: “The vessel was half a mile away, but the moment it passed under the bridge we were startled to hear a shout that rose from hundreds of throats and echoed across the water from the cliffs beyond. This was the place and the symbol every man aboard had been dreaming of during the months and years of exile, and it resulted in a spontaneous upwelling of sentiment and sound—a soldiers’ chorus of total exuberance.”
Most of those men got on trains and went home. A few—the misfits and hustlers—probably stayed, and added their own stories to the story of the city. That’s how it has always worked. Lucky for us, though, every new story makes a difference. The city is still young; its history, like its geology, is close to the surface. On the Embarcadero, the bones of old ships lie just below the street. In the Mission district, the fire hydrants that stopped the 1906 conflagration still run. The very peninsula scrapes and slides against the neighboring tectonic plate (which you can visit by driving to Point Reyes). If you live here, you never forget that you’re part of something big.
Yet Peter Shih was not completely wrong. San Francisco gives any thinking person plenty to fret about, like rampant economic inequality and a history of misguided “urban renewal” efforts that end up extinguishing whole neighborhoods. Sometimes, the growth comes so fast that there’s scant time for contemplation or compassion. “I think of it as frontierism,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually, and people are ground underfoot equally casually.”
That’s probably accurate, but I think a frontier can soften. The people who stay develop attachments, not least to the marvelous city itself; look at the role Twitter is playing in the revitalization of the Central Market district. You just need people to breathe the air for a while.
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