Every day I read about how much San Francisco has changed. I peruse the familiar litany; what business has closed, what arts organization has lost their space to development, who is moving to some outer suburb or back “home”, wherever that may be, how the city has lost its spirit. The blame mostly falls on “tech”, the current catchall for everything wrong with our City by the Bay. I am empathetic and frankly agree with most every complaint and observation.
The pandemic has shone an unforgiving light on all the inequities and contradictions of this place once shamelessly touted as “Everyone’s Favorite City.” It’s the homeless situation that bothers me most, so many wandering lost souls. And seeing for-sale signs on simple three story buildings in my neighborhood, meaning someone will be evicted, condo conversions or transformation to a single family home will follow. These buildings are usually finished off with a tasteful dark gray paint job and metal doors that would be more suitable for a high security prison. Those metal doors say a lot about who will choose to live there. Are they afraid to take on the city, to become a part of community life or will they instead secure themselves in their private fortress with a “great view of the Golden Gate?” And god save the lone houses or cottages that bravely remain, what a waste of profitable square footage. I can’t look at the Real Estate section in the Sunday Chronicle without wanting to throw it across the room. Who on earth except the super wealthy can ever even dream of living here? The young tech workers who were willing to pay outrageous rents now choose to leave, if not for greener pastures perhaps for more affordable ones, since the pandemic showed that they really didn’t have to be here.
Many never “got” San Francisco anyway. They never understood about choosing a place to live so you could be free, without sanction or disapproval. Free to be different or creative or a dreamer or a liberal thinker in search of like-kind. You could be someone who loved the quirky and the weird and the funky. I always hope some of those who came here for tech will catch the bug and stay and keep it all going but the signs are not here, not right now.
And yet – I’m still here with no intention of leaving. I suppose I’m still the flaky hippie who believes in the sort of world we thought we could make, before the boomers got tired of the sex and drugs and rock and roll part, and settled into making money and celebrating lives of comfort and convenience. I remain a transplanted Midwesterner who fell in love with San Francisco nearly fifty years ago and is still doggedly (naively?) faithful.
When I first moved here, yes, the museums were free. I adored the meandering old DeYoung in Golden Gate Park, those cabinets of ancient glass, the period rooms. I wasn’t quite sure about the copper-clad ship that replaced it but on a clear day the view from the tower seems to reach halfway across the Pacific Ocean. And there’s the renovated Academy of Science with the white alligator who must be ancient and the lovely manicured Music Concourse where the Park Band plays amid fountains and neatly lined trees and benches. To commemorate the park’s 150 years, a towering ferris wheel turns lazyily at the bandshell’s opposite end. When I wandered with friends through Golden Gate Park back in the 60s and 70s, we frequently came upon folks congregating back in the greenery. Today, the homeless frequently find shelter there but the park remains San Francisco’s big, always surprising, always busy playground.
I recall the old Modern Art Museum stuffed into the upstairs of the Veterans Building in Civic Center but I applaud the not-so-new Modern and it’s recent expansion. More room, more art, more to see and experience. And boy, has South of Market changed. The most troublesome part of all that development was the displacement of so many low-income folks who lived and worked in the neighborhood. But as San Francisco changed, so did and so does the world. Of that we are not unique, not one single bit.
I know some would call me lucky and I suppose I am. When I came to San Francisco, I wanted to live simply and I came at a time when that was still possible. I wanted to be car free, I had no ambition for a big house, I didn’t think the kids and family thing was for me but trusted myself to go with my heart. That I have done. If I had dreams when I was younger, it was to live in a city and to fully engage in all that living in a city meant.
A few years out of college, I thought I would land in New York but when a youthful but intense romance fell apart, the other half of that short-lived relationship headed East and I headed West. I had hitchhiked out here a few times with friends, had lived a summer in Berkeley and another summer in Boston, so it wasn’t a blind move by any means. A degree in art meant little career-wise but I took it and my cat and decamped to San Francisco.
It is here where I have made my home.
In 1972, San Francisco seemed like a bigger Iowa City in many ways. Maybe because so many Iowa friends had moved here. I took a room in a big flat in the Mission and began my new relationship, this time with the city.
In recent years, I have called San Francisco my “bad boyfriend.” I fell in love with its beauty, the blessed geographic setting alone swept me off my feet. Because of our hills and despite how crowded and dense the city is, you can look down almost any street and see green, open space and often water, the Bay or the ocean. Oftentimes you can see very little at all when our chilly, damp fog blankets the city and foghorns bleat. But on those brilliant blue days of which we have plenty, I still get a rush driving from Marin through the tunnel and suddenly, there it is! Framed by the orange girders of the Golden Gate Bridge, the sparkling white city, my city, rising on the other side.
I’ve lived for many years in the Russian Hill neighborhood, in a small, fortunately rent-controlled apartment. The architecture in this part of the city is fairly nondescript, two and three story flats, an occasional rear yard house, lots of short narrow streets and alleys, and larger 1920s era apartment buildings like the the one I live in. But it’s wonderfully convenient. City buses are well within walking distance, the cable car just down the block. There are many long-time residents and shop keepers up here. I’ve seen them age as they’ve seen me. Some have become good friends. We exchange nods and small talk, neighborhood gossip. The cafes know what kind of coffee I like, the cleaners don’t need my name to pick up the laundry, the wine bar asks when book club plans to meet, the butcher at the local market picks out the perfect sole filet for me or asks me if I need double. Is your hungry guy in town this weekend?
Sometimes I’ll see the little cottage I had long admired has been torn down and a new, hard, unwelcoming building sits there with a condo
for-sale sign. I sit in a favorite North Beach cafe trying to ignore a man raving in the street as an elderly lady tries to cross. I hear of another pedestrian hit by a speeding driver on the Embarcadero. I walk to catch a bus and wonder if I should check on the man laying in the doorway. I read NextDoor and hear about a car broken into, a young woman accosted on her way home in daylight. At Walgreens I watch a young couple blatantly stuffing their backpacks with shampoo, a window is newly cracked at the corner store. The Bad Boyfriend can be pretty shitty on those days.
And then there are those other days when the light is ecstatic and like no other, at least anywhere I have ever been. I walk out in the back behind our building, a casual garden of hard rocky soil and old trees, of hydrangea, Japanese anemones, a gnarly old lilac, datura and bouganvila, the product of years of stewardship and nurturing, our modest but beautiful respite from the busyness beyond our building’s front door. On the street a neighbor greets me and we both continue on our way. Walking down Pacific Avenue to Chinatown, I look straight down to the Bay Bridge, past the Pyramid and the downtown high-rises, past the city and the bay to Mt Diablo pointing its tit to the sky.
I never tire of that view. The bad boyfriend is showing off for me again, and again I am smitten. There are other days when logic and just plain common sense tell me I should break up but I just can’t.
Love always wins out.
Barbara Wyeth. 8/4/2021