When people ask where I am from, I tell them, “San Francisco.” It’s a spiritual truth as much as a literal one. When I left the Bay Area at age nine, I truly left my heart behind, and when I graduated from college just over a decade later, the first thing I did was flee westward to the San Francisco of my dreams.
In the intervening years, San Francisco had grown some, but it was still, fundamentally, itself. It was a place where all possibilities were possible – from miner 49ers to flower children and beyond. It was a city filled with active neighborhoods and the activists who loved them; of spicy eucalyptus pods dropped along the park; a place of historical hangouts and the leftover hippies who still hung out in them, as fervent in the 90s as they’d been three decades before. A place of ocean and fog, of salt that floats out each morning and in each evening on a sweet wet wind, burned off and on by a bright but not-too-hot sun. It was the Golden Gate, the Bay-to-Breakers, Alcatraz and Angel Island and Marin in the distance. It was, of course, a city of hills – hills navigated slowly by original Beetles and VW vans with bumper stickers of dancing bears and, ‘CoExist,’ and ‘dog is my copilot,’ and the Darwin fish. It’s where garage doors rolled up on a Saturday, revealing one sale after another; where you could start a fight on the Muni by insisting your burrito place is best; where grown men rode skateboards, not scooters; and everyone was a politician of some sort because we were all devoted to our systems of belief.
It is by no means surprising that this city of free love and the Diggers and Bill Graham and the Grateful Dead and acid-dropping and Black Panthers (I’m appropriating Oakland here) and City Lights and Spec’s and Fillmore posters and the thriving Fillmore district replaced by the yuppie Fillmore street and motorcycles not bicycles outside Toronado and the TransAmerica building and hip-hatted Willie and Jerry Brown and Harvey Milk and Margo St. James and free speech and SDS not LDS – it is by no means surprising that this is the place where tech went boom. It was as inevitable as the fire of 1906. Only a place of such possibility would yield a creative mushroom cloud of such impact as to bust the city it dropped on.
Last month, I was home in San Francisco for a wedding. It had been a while since my city and I had reunited for more than a night or two, and it filled me with conflict, and an overwhelming nostalgia. San Francisco was, and remains, my one true urban love affair. I love its grungy streets and random murals, the sound of electric busses passing and the streetcar on a track. I love the beach in the fog and a grungy coffee house in the spring. I love those Eucalyptus trees, and triplexes of railroad flats. But San Francisco, my San Francisco, is gone.
It’s hard to be a dreamer in San Francisco anymore. Dreams there are incredibly expensive. In the mid-90’s, I shared a three bedroom flat in the mission with two other women and we paid $1350 combined. We were two blocks off Dolores Park and surrounded by stores of used stuff, semi-functional laundromats, a couple sketchy-marts, and the 500 Club.
In that same neighborhood now, a one-bedroom costs upwards of $3000 per month, and our combined rent couldn’t even get you a studio (I’m not exaggerating). The sketchy-marts are now smoothie bars and hi-end independent organic grocers and farm-to-table restaurants with lines out the door. The 500 Club is still there, but I doubt the same is true of its Addams Family pinball machine, or the regulars who camped out on the same bar stools, night after nigh,t with a bartender who resembled Pinhead. Friends who grew up in the city by the bay, who are married with solid double-incomes have been priced out, and in their places have come a new generation of dot-com and start-up youth who think it’s normal for a martini to cost $15 and will never know the inside of a true dive bar.
The “go west, young man,” dream is in our national psyche, for better or worse. We leverage it to create a new beginning when the going has gotten too tough or the odds are never in our favor. But where do we go to start over when the start-over west goes bust?
When I was looking for a place to settle, I was frequently asked, “why don’t you go back to San Francisco? You love it there!” I struggled with an appropriate answer because what my heart was shouting was, “because my San Francisco is dead.” Meanwhile the Los Angeles of my memory was calling.
Since all of my fun Los Angeles memories take place on vacations, I figured I should come down from my temporary encampment in Washington State and check it out. I intentionally went to dinner during rush hour traffic, to see how bad it was (not fun, not horrendous). And then, while having lunch with a friend I’ve known since the sixth grade, the lightbulb turned on.
“LA is great,” he said. “I love it here because you can decide to do anything you want, and people will help you make it happen. Want to start a line of vegan baby clothes? Great, how can I help? I know a dude who went to Harvard and decided he really wanted to be a dog walker. Done. You just put it out there and work on it, and people are on your side.”
Now, granted these are ridiculously Californian examples, but the lightbulb went on: a place where all possibilities are possible. Not everyone’s dream will come true. But in LA, your dreams aren’t over before you find a place to lay your head.
My heart is still in San Francisco. It always will be. It remains the city that launched a thousand dreams – my own alone. It will always have its funk, its fog, its coffee and its political vibe. I will always want to be there, when the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on the bay (or when Journey is playing a concert). But I’m creating a life in the new San Francisco, a city with a vibrant history of its own, where museums are popping up amidst the bright lights of movie premiers and the dark corners that yield a crisis-launching number of homeless. We lack funding, and water, but we have enough palm trees and dreams for everyone. Come join us – we’ll help you make your dreams come true.