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San Francisco in the Hot Seat



“Where are you from?” The inevitable question put to ex-pats is all too familiar to Will Douglas. A tireless traveler, he has heard it time after time, especially during his twelve-year residence in Lecce, “Da dove viene?” His answer is easy, San Francisco, the city of his birth that he revisits faithfully twice a year. The hard part comes when he sees his questioners’ eyes cloud over with their own cherished illusions about ‘the Golden City by the Bay’. Should he put them right? That’s a harder question for Will who has shown himself to be the most well-mannered and entertaining dinner guest within Lecce’s walls.

However, on the eve of his permanent departure for points north, Turin next stop, he felt it was time to put wishful-thinkers straight. In a sparkling presentation, he divulged to fellow Berkeleys, “The Truth about San Francisco”. Will began by asserting what the city was not. With a population in the eight-hundred-thousands, it was not big. With a growing number of homeless soiling its streets, it was not clean. With a third of it residents Asian, fifteen percent Hispanic and six percent black, it was not a blue-eyed, pink-skinned oasis. Its Northern Californian climate was never hot, but cool in summer and cold in winter. Its stunning coast and gelid ocean were not bather-friendly. The city’s food was not insipid in the North American style but inspired by a rich and varied restaurant culture. Eating, however, like everything else in the city, was not cheap. The demands of tipping alone could stress out the frugal.

After a final warning to beware of day-old sushi offered on all-you-can-eat terms, Will left off harsh truth-telling and admitted that his native place was nevertheless worth a visit. He gave us a quick review of its past. The Ohlone speaking people, (now all but wiped out), suffered the arrival of the Spanish in the late 1700s and the city became part of Mexico in 1821. Washington’s interest grew with the 1848 Gold Rush and California became the 31st state of the Union in 1850. Politics would long remain of the rough and ready frontier variety. A catastrophic earthquake and fire destroyed 80% of the city in 1906. Rebuilt, it expanded. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937. U.S. internal immigration, especially from southern states, marked the pre-World War II years. The Bohemian lifestyle that appeared in the 1930s transmuted into the counterculture siege of the city in the 1960-70 decade, the hippy ‘Summer of Love’ and the new civil sobriquet of “Gay Mecca”. The national ‘Beat’ movement in the arts centered at the legendary City Lights Bookshop.

Listeners sensed something of regret for this wondrous past as Will returned to the present and its problems. The city that had weathered gentrification was subject to a further blight. From the 1990s, the rapid growth of high-tech enterprises in nearby Silicon Valley produced a new class of the super-remunerated. They understandably were unhappy to spend their after-work hours in sterile corporate surroundings. It was to San Francisco they came to make their homes. The effect of this new moneyed class on property values and the general cost of living was staggering. Workers excluded from high-tech employment were on their way to be excluded from the city. Will, something of a displaced pensioner, found some satisfaction in the irony of the present situation. The earlier invaders from the digital land of silicon gold were now complaining about their late-arriving colleagues who were changing the face of the San Francisco that the first-come thought they had molded to their needs.

Will’s talk focused sharply on shooting down the venerable clichés that come to mind when some world-renowned place is mentioned. The mystery is why years of daily converse with Paris can’t rid us of a mustachioed figure in a striped blouse with a baguette under his arm. Why, no matter how many London espresso machines we have watched turning out our after-dinner demitasse, we still imagine life there stopping at 5 o’clock for a cup of tea. And why does someone who visited Venice on a gigantic cruise liner picture the city in his thoughts as seen from a gliding gondola he never had a seat in? Perhaps we are all, Will Douglas possibly excluded, dreamy romantics. We need the comforting pillow of cliché to cushion our rough global comings and goings.

Peter Byrne

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