Letter from the Ephemeral City


“How is it living in a real city now?” friends and family ask with smug earnestness now that I reside in much coveted San Francisco. The response ranges from a straightforward ‘nice’ to a heated diatribe against their assumption that the city to the south I resided in for the previous seven years was not a ‘real’ city. The defense of Los Angeles is futile to those who won’t listen – those who judge it based on what has been projected through television and movies: unrelenting smog, apocalyptic fires, drug addicted actresses, road rage wars and the like.

Yet there is never any need to defend my recent move to San Francisco – a supposed paragon of progressiveness loved by people from all corners of the globe (aside from the right wing media who will use any opportunity to poke fun at the political lunacy that often takes place here). Even the critics of San Francisco cannot deny the sheer beauty of the city’s geography: at the tip of a peninsula bounded by San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Taking its georgraphy into account, it becomes readily apparent that San Francisco is what it is because of the Bay and ocean around it – the inhabitants and architecture are secondary. The city as we know it is merely an homage to the forces of nature.

Beyond the spectacle of the Bay and the favorable weather, what impressions come to mind when San Francisco is mentioned? Aside from icons such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and cable cars, most people remember the city for its historically liberal political climate.Who can forget about the Beat Generation, the Summer of Love and the Gay Rights Movement? There is no doubt that these social benchmarks have had positive reverberations throughout the world –leading to broader acceptance of a diversity of cultures and lifestyles and the elevation of the peace movement.

Unfortunately, because of these successes, the city is currently suffering from an identity crisis in an attempt to live up to its past glory. The city is not unlike a child prodigy, who at a very early age garnered a lot clout but burned out before it was able to fully mature.

It is a tragic observation that liberal politics has become a parody of itself within San Francisco. Just recently, when the Olympic torch for the 2008 Beijing Games arrived in the city, Mayor Gavin Newsom was forced to abruptly reroute the path of travel in order to avoid violent protests from disrupting the event. Even though the good Mayor was looking out for the reputation of his city, the majority of people who waited hours to witness the historic event ended the day in bitter disappointment.

Also in the headlines recently, Barack Obama was chastised for making a disparaging remark about the people of rural Pennsylvania – a key voting block for that state’s primary election – at a dinner party in a donor’s mansion. Of course, the media subsequently put every effort into emphasizing the fact that Mr. Obama’s blunder was made in none other than San Francisco, the poster child of leftist elitism. Even pop culture outlets like the television show South Park and the stand-up comic Dave Chapelle have notably poked fun at the city and its hypocrisy.

There is nothing wrong with liberal political viewpoints. After all, the United States is a country where individuals can freely express their voice for what they believe is fair and just. The breakdown occurs at the point in which the residents and politicians of San Francisco fail to realize that we have entered an era that has superseded identity politics. Instead of focusing on critical issues facing the city, being identified as part of the ‘left’ or any number of ‘special interest groups,’ is actually more important; hence, nothing gets done and real progress is hindered. In other words, the city no longer has a can-do attitude.

Part of the reason for this has to do with the fact that for those who can actually afford to live comfortably in San Francisco, the quality of life is really good. It is not difficult for one to become complacent with the numerous cultural venues and fine dining and drinking establishment in this small city.

It is also easy to forget about what actually makes a city function – like maintaining basic infrastructure, keeping the streets safe and clean, and making sure that the service workers, who are so critical to the prominent San Francisco tourist industry, are treated justly. These issues are not as glamorous to someone more focused on saving the world by ‘going green.’ For someone with a higher than average income, purchasing a sustainable good from a trendy yet over-priced ‘green’ boutique is sufficient for self-satisfaction – there is no need to face more urgent issues head-on.

Like the fog that oftentimes comes in and shrouds the city in a white mist blurring the landscape, so is the ephemeral quality of the city itself. Only 760,000 residents strong and 47 square miles in area, the city can seem provincial. Trumped both in area and population by San Jose, just 50 miles to the south, the Silicon Valley has for the last 30 years or so become the business center of the Bay Area. Many outside the area are not aware that companies like Apple, Google, and Yahoo are headquartered in no-name suburbs with names like Cupertino, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale – a good 45-minute to an hour drive outside San Francisco.

Actually, businesses have been leaving the city for some time now, yet many people who commute outside San Francisco still choose to live within the city limits, contributing to what is ironically called a ‘reverse commute.’ Lifestyle, in essence, is beating out commerce when it comes to the desirability of living in San Francisco. The implications are many for this observation due to the fact that in order for a city to continually be successful, it must promote the possibility of upward mobility and have an entrepreneurial spirit. In this regard, San Francisco is failing.

Growing up in the Bay Area, my impressions of what a city is has been defined by my excursions with my family as a youngster to San Francisco. I would beg and plead my parents every weekend to take me to the city, just so I could be among the tall buildings, be in awe at the topography and views, and people watch in Union Square. Now I live here and the ephemeral feeling of being in a dream state is ever present. Yet, as I have grown older, I am savvy to the nuances of city life and complexities that go into making a place successful. I just hope that San Francisco can wake up out of its slumber, get out of its collective social hangover and take advantage of what cultural capital is left by once again becoming a place where change is possible and ordinary citizens have the opportunity to dream.