The battle for the soul of San Francisco

Golden Gate BridgeIt’s a cold wind that blows in from Alaska, cutting through my light jumper and chilling me in a way entirely out of line with my expectations of California. The sun still shone bright enough to burn my nose after four hours, but i was wrapped in layers and sheltering behind the low side of the open tour bus come the end.

As we crossed back over the Golden Gate Bridge, returning from Sausalito, the overpriced and exclusive gentrified fishing village across the Bay, the city of San Francisco stretched out in front of us: less a picture of grand architecture and statement skyscrapers, more a collection of communities set out within a grid of residential enclaves.

On each intersection, fire hydrants in two colours: one set connected to the water main, the others direct to the bay, intended to still function when the mains pipes fracture, a typically pragmatic approach to engineering from a city that burnt down following an earthquake and has shaken repeatedly ever since.

San Francisco houseIndeed, the city itself is divided between the more historic Western districts of Pacific Heights, Haight Ashbury and The Castro, with their surviving Victorian mansions and ‘painted ladies‘, the multi coloured, timber framed town houses of the emergent middle class, and the Eastern business districts and Mission, typified by denser apartments and tower blocks and, in my eyes, denser tourism and more homelessness. The separation is not accidental: the fires of 1906 that ravaged the city were only eventually stopped by dynamiting city blocks to form a firebreak, rending the city in two, a divide still evident in architecture and mindset between the hippy communes and central business zone.

Maybe the fires that burnt the Victorian architecture to the ground helped generate the sense of restlessness and impermanence that seems to lurk just underneath the surface at every intersection? A sense that a history of flames and quakes is closer than we care to remember, well within living memory (my AirBnB host described driving through the city as the 1989 quake rippled around her, the streets undulating like a rough sea. Frightening, although she was still diligent enough to turn up for work anyway, before being turned away by the emergency services).

San Francisco VanAs well as the physical evidence of separation between east and west, there is a vertical class separation between the wealthy and disenfranchised, with homelessness a significant and intractable issue for this tolerant and liberal city.

The climate differs too as you cross the city: that cold Alaskan wind hits the western districts first, creating wind tunnels and chill breezes whilst the more sheltered eastern quarter is noticeably warmer.

Not that the wind bothers the sealions sheltering at Fisherman’s wharf in the glare of flashing tourist cameras and day boats. Content to haul their massive forms out of the water and onto the pontoons in the man made harbour, around seventy of them lay there, basking in the sunshine and occasionally bellowing and nudging each other in an ill tempered manner to claim the best spot. Adaptable and as pragmatic as the city that harbours them, when the authorities tried to drive them off in the past with fire hoses, they simply rolled over to turn another flank to the blasts of water: a gentle massage to such gentle giants.

Sea LionsThe uneasy alliance led the city to celebrate them as a tourist attraction, when it became clear that shooting them wasn’t an option. adding yet one more community to a city that harbours many, both formal and welcome or informal and tolerated.

Ritual coffee on Valencia acts as a hub to one of them: the hipster, connected virtual workers. Plugged in and wireless, each huddled over a MacBook, the aroma of coffee permeated and provided the backdrop to a space undergoing renovation before my very eyes. These public and open meeting spaces fulfil a function of connecting us in a disconnected world: shared workspaces more about creativity than caffeine (although one very much fuelled by the other).

There was very little interaction there: our conversations more virtual than physical in this space, more a sense of shared comfort and validation through proximity than actual communication in any meaningful sense.

As i sat there, a guy in an orange jacket stumbled in, clearly living on the street, connected to his own reality but distant from ours as he looked around wide and wild eyed before staggering out again, without a latte.

Later i saw him over the road: fighting imaginary demons, lashing out with fists at thin air, absorbed and distracted by his inner torments as two mothers walked past with trendy strollers and a svelte jogger passed in the other direction, chatting on his phone as he ran. Three realities, connected in space but worlds apart and me, observing, capturing photos on my phone and interpreting the world as i saw it through the coffee shop window with my English eyes.

This is the reality of the Social Age: physical environments shaped by our habits and desires, structured for the wealthy and literate, inhabited and squatted by the disenfranchised and poor.

San Francisco homeless man

The physical zones of the city, for business, for retail, for residential, increasingly blurred by our behaviours as we work from cafes and shop from home. I saw the Google branded vans carrying shopping deliveries along the highway, reminding me how far they’ve come from search engines. I half expected to hear an Amazon drone overhead.

The physical zoning of the city carries little relevance for the homeless beyond structuring the best place to find a free meal, to beg, to score drugs. The issues are laid out for all to see: when people gave me directions of where to go on Mission for dinner, they were equally clear where i should avoid, demarcating the ‘safe‘ from the ghetto.

This is a liberal city: Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and whilst his influence was significant (he is hailed as ‘the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States‘) it was also short. After 11 months he was gunned down by a disenfranchised official in City Hall, immortalised now in stories and apparently a small American Diner i passed on the drive out.

San Francisco GraffitiLiberal or not, i spent some of the most uncomfortable moments i’ve ever witnessed in urban America when i ventured behind the facades of Mission, away from the main street. Photographing graffiti took me into an area where hostile eyes stared wordlessly from doorways and, when the shouting started, i retreated with haste.

The recent history of San Francisco is one of innovation and creativity, of liberal freedoms and wealth creation (which is a good thing when you consider the astronomical rents commanded by even single occupancy bedsits downtown, with shared bathrooms, but still around a thousand dollars a month). But that wealth creation is unequal: take the buses used by the tech community.

Companies like Google and Apple are based out of town, an hour and a half or so to commute, but home to a young workforce that wants the city. To attract and retain the best talent, they run buses, exclusive and anonymous, hi tech and comfortable, with tables, coffee and WiFi. These buses have, to some extent, created a new layer of society, a new community with even greater physical separation from the ‘real‘ city. Whilst commuters have always isolated themselves in their Mercedes and BMWs, distant and insulated from the smells and noise of the public transport, these buses were viewed on a whole new level and, for a while, protests sprung up with eggs being thrown. A physical manifestation of the divide between the old and new, the interconnected wealthy and empowered and the disenfranchised and forgotten old.

But that protest is to miss the point: why not provide great transport for your employees? After all, they work long hours (stories of regular fifteen hour days, happily endured, but taxing nonetheless, abounded) and part of a fair social contract between organisation and employee may include providing these perks. There’s little benefit to the organisation of people turning up hot, tired and stressed, when for a small outlay they get three hours of work time done on the bus.

San Francisco Jesus Loves YouIt may be our new reality to see this increased segregation, where our ghettos are less physical, more conceptual. More about where the coffee shops are, who rides the Google bus or which parts of the city get the blanket free WiFi. Technology is not the cause of our social problems, and neither will it be the whole solution. The very notion of a city as both a physical space and heart of the community is being eroded by our virtual lives. As our expectations of our physical environment evolve, so too must that environment. Stagnation is not an option.

Increasingly our communities are online and the physical spaces and resources are simply ways of accessing and engaging in individual conversations within them. The city just provides infrastructure for meaning which is created in the ether.

The Japanese Tea Gardens are a favourite spot for both locals and tourists. Nestled in the Golden Gate park, a few acres of carefully landscaped hillocks, ponds, waterfalls and stone outcrops form a surprisingly tranquil escape. I love these spaces: whether there’s something innately calming about the shape and juxtaposition of these elements, or whether it’s a subtle aspect of the total control exerted over the landscape (yet sitting under the guise of a totally natural landscape), i am not sure, but i seek them out wherever i travel.

San Francisco Japanese Tea GardenIn the shadow of a pagoda, a step ladder straddles a stream. Perched on top, a shoe box, apparently serving as temporary bee hive. I can only assume it’s an attempt to relocate a swarm, away from the tourists, ready to be carried to a new location, but i’m inevitably reminded of the swarming Google employees on their buses, busy as bees as they’re shuttled to Mountain View.

As i leave the tea gardens, i walk round the back, past the service entrance and various compost heaps and dustbins: every beautiful space needs it’s compost heaps, just as every city has it’s derelict zones, it’s edge-lands where renewal is but a distant dream and past glories have faded in the sunlight.

A sign reads ‘Garden is under renovation‘, stencilled on a plank, and it strikes me that here the technology of graffiti, used throughout the city to claim space, to tag, to tell stories, is here co-opted for more official messaging. The irony is not lost on me.

Ever in the conscience of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge, where i started my windswept journey, is a mixed blessing to the city. When it was constructed, received wisdom stated that one worker would die for every million dollars spent, and at a cost $35 million things boded badly. In the event, increased attention to safety and the use of nets meant that eleven people died in construction (ten at once when the safety net failed under the weight of collapsed scaffolding) and a further 19 were saved by the net, joining the ‘half way to hell‘ club for those who survived the partial fall.

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge viewSince completion in 1937 however, the bridge has demanded a much higher toll from the city: over 1,400 people have jumped to their deaths. A staggering figure, peaking in 2013 with 46 suicides. This aspect of infrastructure is not mentioned on the tours, except in passing reference to traffic delays. It hints at the underlying social issues, poverty, disillusionment and lack of comprehensive social care and mental health care. They got as far as installing a free telephone to the Samaritans half way across: standing there, in the icy wind, a small comfort i suspect.

Communities can be strangely uncaring sometimes: this constant attrition recognised by nothing more than another rush hour traffic jam. When the environment becomes too painful, we just add another layer of abstraction: streets too dangerous? Public transport too dirty? Rise above it in the air-conditioned coaches. Sometimes we engineer in the very disenfranchisement we seek to abolish.

This is not simply social observation: there are lessons here for the organisations which are part of the very fabric of our society. It’s not just in the architecture that companies like Bank of America (which was itself founded out of the ashes of the San Francisco fires) contribute to society. The nature of their employment and purpose shapes the communities it establishes and supports. These organisations employ tens of thousands of people and their reach is wide. Social responsibility and accountability goes beyond simple policy: increasingly these organisations are bigger than government, bigger than military. We are moving to a global nation defined by brand not borders.

San Francisco: think about this space.

Wooden architecture rent and burnt by earthquakes and fire. Formed, reformed, rebuilt. In the very architecture, the means of salvation: City Hall stands proud with it’s golden dome one of the five largest domes in the world, the dome itself cleverly supported and suspended independently of the main structure, the theory being that in another quake it will be insulated from the most excessive movement and avoid shattering. That very dome veneered with 18 carat gold (although the gold at street level is just paint: the homeless population caught scratching it off to sell once too often).

San Francisco sign

Saved from destruction only through the destruction by dynamite of whole city blocks. Poised for the quake at any moment. Multiple communities separated into distinct physical spaces and overlaid by many more virtual ones. Horizontal and vertical separation by place and community. Entire new infrastructures overlaid on each other, from the tramcars and streets to the private buses and bridges. Layers of civilisation: homeless, business, hipster and hidden.

Formal spaces, tea gardens and tower blocks, great barracks in the Presidio, the former army camp, repurposed to desirable new condos and townhouses.

The reputation of this place now is creativity, it’s about innovation and technology. The constant sunshine and almost constant drought somehow conspired to create an optimism and energy that fosters and rewards ideas. The city in constant flux through geography and geology kept in constant flux through mindset and circumstance, but not without a price: homelessness and suicide just the visible signs of certain failures in the social contract.

A self perpetuating chain of innovation catalysed by the dense population of optimistic nerds and investors: this place spawns ideas and fertilises them aplenty, although whether it’s emergent super-sized tech giants with their own cultural issues as they enter their teens will eventually swamp it remains to be seen.

The locals joke that, come the next quake, they’re all heading inland, straight to the town hall: confidence in it’s suspension is not high and the opportunity for a little creative urban vandalism and a pocket full of reclaimed gold leaf is tempting.

For now, all is bright in the City on the Bay. Silicon Valley is triumphant, the nexus of the new global age. But we should heed the lessons of our environment: there is no panacea. Unless we work to protect the disenfranchised, the divides will only grow wider and no amount of buses will make what’s wrong be right.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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14 Responses to The battle for the soul of San Francisco

  1. mymindbursts says:

    Don’t knock Sausalito. We found somewhere inexpensive to stay and had immediate access to the woods, the bay and ocean, the city via the ferry or bike ride, Nappa Valley … far, far preferable to being the South Side of the Bridge … and out of the fog.

  2. toby klayman says:

    You must also remember now that San Francisco loves you and wants you to return!Your marvelous insights demand a Part Two, please!

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  4. davidhain says:

    I’ll be there with the family in 2 weeks (return visit after 19 years), and will look at the city with fresh eyes. Thanks for this, you tend not to get too much of this analysis on Triposo!

    What’s the one thing you would recommend doing above everything?



    • julianstodd says:

      Have a great trip! Well, i really enjoyed the Golden Gate park, walking through the Japanese Tea Gardens to Haight Ashbury (then browsing the vinyl in Amoeba…). Have a great trip and i look forward to speaking soon, best wishes, Julian

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