When I left San Francisco, I did it knowing without saying that I would this time most likely never be able to move back again. I had taken it for granted after previous moves away from the city that I could always move back when I had had enough of somewhere else and couldn’t stand to be away from it any longer. That is no longer true, as rents have continued to sky rocket since my reluctant departure. I left for the East Bay and Oakland, where I grew up, knowing I was going back for good reasons: affordability, peace and quiet, warmer weather, mellow people/neighbors, and a sense of home. Oakland is my hometown.
This time the thought that I was moving from the city I had spent my entire adolescence dreaming of moving to, back to the town where I had dreamed big dreams of city life by the bay, did not escape me.
Now when I commute into the city, following in my late father’s footsteps (and sitting on the same BART train seats on some days), after five years of it, I can’t get home in the evenings fast enough. Back to the relative calm and quiet of downtown Oakland. Living close to Lakeside Park, I hear the birds each morning and evening, and the crickets sing late into the night on the hot summer nights.
But I do miss the city when I’m there and I glance up at a building on Market Street. Or when I walk through a neighborhood I once worked or lived or loved in. And this feeling passes quickly as I realize I don’t really miss this city. I miss the city that once was. The city we will never see again.
It’s not all fault of Tech culture and its tech bros, though. (Although it could be). Some of it is just history happening and the cyclical passage of time. Some of it is–I got older over the past 25 years. A lot of it is looking into a homeless person’s eyes when I tell them that, sorry, I don’t carry cash. Which is not entirely true. I do occasionally carry ones to pay the casual carpool drivers coming over to the city in the mornings.
I was raised from an early age to love and worship from afar-across the San Francisco Bay-the city of San Francisco. Stories told by grandpa and dad, and trips to the city to ride the streetcars and go to the zoo, look out at the ocean, climb the hill to the Cliff House and hear tell of Adolph Sutro. It all added up to a kid who thought it was a magical place.
What does it mean to be a multi-generational San Franciscan, and to be the last of our family to live in the Bay Area? I would still be living in San Francisco if the rents hadn’t gotten so damn high. I moved back across the bay to Oakland when it seemed like the city was getting too dirty, too depersonalised,too uncaring for its people. I moved from an apartment down the hill from the address on Leavenworth Street occupied by my family only a few generations before I came along.
I was raised with the myth of San Francisco as the Golden city on the tip of land that faces the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands as being the mythical place of legend and family lore. There was pride of place in every story told to me as a child, repeated on each visit to the city. These stories were our stories too. We laid claim to them as a part of our family history. Characters from the past seemed to be living and present, around every corner as we took the streetcars around, taking pictures. Dad loved to eat at Zim’s, a well-loved, and much-missed San Francisco “institution” on 19th Ave at Taraval. On our many jaunts around the outer avenues of the Sunset District, we’d end the day with a burger at Zim’s. I loved the green Jello with whipped topping I knew I could order without a raised eyebrow from dad. Sadly, they closed their many locations in 1995.
The streetcars were our magic carpets, taking us all over this magical city, and as we rode, the stories came. Each time some new detail or embellishment was added. I knew I could go home that night and find a book on dad’s shelves about whatever SF lore he’d spoken of that day if I needed more. Such was my faith in the stories dad and grandpa told that if I read or heard a different version of it somewhere else, I doubted the source. I trusted the family lore over any book or other story teller than dad or gramps.
Suggested books about San Francisco’s varied history:
San Francisco The Story of a City, by John Bernard McGloin, S.J., Presidio Press, 1978.
Season of the Witch, by David Talbot, Free Press, 2012.
The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and The New American Dream, by H.W. Brands, Anchor Books, 2002.
When San Francisco Burned: a Photographic Memoir of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, by Douglas L.Gist, Craven Street Books, 2016.
So, you may ask, what is the point of all of this? It’s that I am constantly torn between a love of the city and a reality check that it does not exist the way I would prefer it to exist. I guess I’ve become one of those people who prefer their version of history to what is actually the truth. I can blame the Tech Bros, Ed Lee, Airbnb, gentrification, and condo developers all I want.
But the main culprit is Progress.I hate you and I love you, San Francisco. Every day I look at you I have a thought that you have somehow betrayed me. But it’s not really your fault. It is your fault that you are so beautiful and tempting that now every one wants a piece of you. The problem is, they don’t all know how to treat you properly. They use you for the entertainment value without ever getting to know you, then hand you cab fare home as they move on from their “experience ” of you. When they’re all done with you, we’ll still have you and your history, but your present self will be so stripped of any recognizable culture or magical history, how will an old friend ever recognize you for you?
Some of us will still be here (hopefully) and we’ll have to come visit you from wherever it is we can now afford to live, and try to help you pick up the pieces and get ready for your next Gold Rush. What will it be this time? All we can do is wait (while the rents still keep going up and all the familiar faces are forced out) and find out. I’m going to stick around as long as I can, for dad and grandpa’s sakes. I get the feeling they’d want me to.
I have a silver lining in all of this-I get to work in the city I love and go home to the city that raised me, and I will always be dreaming of my ideal city of San Francisco.
To be continued as the situation develops.