You can’t go to San Francisco and not leave with some unique cultural marker that helps define what you think of the City and what the City thinks of you. And no, I don’t mean Fisherman’s Wharf.
I could do a whole blog just about San Francisco but there are plenty of other blogs out there doing it better. Still, a Sunday Op-Ed article in the Los Angeles Times by Richard Rodriguez brought me back to San Francisco, where I lived and loved until nine years ago.
Rodriguez’ second book, Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father, is an exquisite and colorful view of his life in San Francisco. It is also deeply personal and at times painful. He talks not about the postcard views of the bridges but of being a college teacher, being Mexican (or is it Mexican-American), gay, dark-skinned. The chapter “Late Victorians” is a melancholy, grieving snapshot of the Castro District as the gay community felt the first hits of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. His rejection of multiculturalism in the 1990s caused him to be p0rtrayed as a conservative in the liberal Bay Area. Such seeming contradictions are rich material for his writing.
Richard Rodriguez’ “Postcard From San Francisco” in the Sunday Times paints a picture of San Francisco’ unique (and what isn’t unique there?) take on the recession. While whole neighborhoods in other cities are abandoned to squatters and swimming pool mosquitoes, San Francisco looks elsewhere. A combination of style, flair, architectural beauty, class struggle, resentment of the rich, disdain for the homeless, patronizing for the poor, and really good coffee all compete for his attention.
There are potholes on the streets that recall the potholes of Tijuana. The city and county of San Francisco is too broke to repair them. Range Rovers must finally endure jolts as severe as those portrayed on off-road TV commercials. The four-tiered city park across the way is as wild now as an English spring garden; the tall grass is slowly dying. Cars are broken into nightly. Women cross and recross the paths in the park all day, confiding their souls to cellphones. A neighbor tells me he has lost fully half his savings. Nevertheless, he has engaged a crew of four construction workers for two months to reconstruct his kitchen. I watch the four men unloading slabs of white marble from the back of their truck.
My neighborhood lies between the public housing of the Western Addition and the mansions of Pacific Heights on the hill — most of them recently restored to a Victorian-era excess of craftsmanship. Real estate agents are apt to describe this neighborhood as “lower Pacific Heights,” ignoring our descending southern flank in favor of the grandeur up the hill. In my neighborhood, there are more apartments than houses, though probably more condos than rentals. In my neighborhood, there is youth, obnoxious, glorious.
Obnoxious, glorious indeed.