Few cities have more layers than San Francisco, it’s Victorian houses baked onto the hillsides, streetcars hauling up inclines and everywhere the coffee shops and bistros. It’s a city in change, a city in flux: both old and new, layered upon ash and rubble. In parts, the overlay of developmental strata, the wood and the steel, is apparent in the grid of the city: part of it original, part of it the rebuilt, neither lining up at right angles. There are two grids, juxtaposed one upon the other, and at the intersections is where you find the traffic, the complexity. A dynamic tension between two states, two iterations of one city, both made real.
The layers i’m writing of though are less apparent in angles and traffic: these are the layers of culture. The technologists, the middle class, the dispossessed. To say this is a tech city is an understatement, but the most visible manifestation of this is in the great restaurants and bars: it’s not an ostentatious wealth as you would find in Singapore or London, with Porches and Lamborghinis, but rather a wealth of opportunity and self actualisation. The opportunity to have enough, to have it all, to consume and collaborate, to be plugged in and chilled out. The opportunity to take opportunity. Carpe diem: seize the day, and monetise it.
For the middle class, there is shopping, cycling and suburbia: endless tree lined streets and clusters of restaurants and gyms vying for attention. As the city gentrifies, the boundary between the old and new, the boundary between emergent middle class and the reality of may becomes ever more apparent, with hipsters brushing through the homeless, and yet just one street away the overpowering stench is still of urine, sleepers pissing in doorways and against trees. In one place, a trailer, parked up, with washrooms for rough sleepers, policed by a bored looking woman in a hot blue uniform.
Tensions exist: around Mission there’s a cluster of graffiti about landlords and rental default. ‘No fault or low fault’ repossessions, which i take to mean overly harsh eviction for minor delays in payment. The message is clear: stop the cleansing, stop evicting our culture from our neighbourhood. Stop the change. And yet the change is constant, from without and within. The school around the corner is decorated with slogans of strength: slogans of pride and resistance, of role models and vision. I like this tension: graffiti calls out ‘teach the kids‘, in contrast to the usual tag and art.
The commute to Palo Alto is long, and an increasingly significant retention challenge for the tech giants, who are rushing to colonise Downtown: the busses laid on for the trip with tables and wifi have on occasion been assaulted themselves, visible manifestation of the divide between the old and the new. I see this expressed in a series of murals: ‘Evict Google‘, ‘Kill Techzilla‘, a sense of restless revolt against the forces that are the most visible signs of a city in change.
It is, of course, not a battle about technology, but rather one of inequality. The technology is changing the world, making it smaller, making it better, providing both opportunity and challenge to us all: where technology leads, society often has to play catch up, be that in it’s attitudes to privacy, permanence or self driving cars, but one thing is for sure. It’s not the technology at fault for societies inability to address inequality: that is a firmly sociological and political issue.
Yet the city is divided: I pay seven dollars for a taco, i pay seventy dollars for a taco. One in a nicer restaurant, for sure, with wine and a desert, but the sheer range of opportunity, the sprawling distribution of opportunity is sometimes stark.
I love the restless energy, i have to admit: my afternoon in Haight Ashbury, whilst always fun, is aspic, lethargic, fossilised. It’s inauthentic and void. The hippies who line the parks and sell weed on street corners are nothing more than actors in someone else’s play. The shops and costumes mere parodies of decades past. At one time this was a scene of change and peaceable revolt, of reinvention and social unrest, but no more. Now it’s kids shoes, hemp clothing and tie die skirts. With a smattering of disturbance as the achingly trendy boutiques start to dispossess the older, grottier, outdated trinket shops. It feels like parts of Dublin or London, veneers of tourism, proto historic theme park gift shops and memories of freedom and change.
In San Francisco the force or change used to be sociology and impermanence, whilst now it’s technology and opportunity. More layers of the city, superimposed and restless.
New York always feels like it has a plan, Singapore has a drive. San Francisco just has opportunity, and a willingness to reinvent itself in the process.
There’s a strong academic and industry backbone to all this: proud heritage that was built even as the hippies danced and sang. My trips to Palo Alto, to Menlo Park, to Mountain View and Cupertino all laden with context and history. It’s a far cry from my time as an archaeologist, unearthing medieval pipes and pots. Here the history is more recent, more raw, more immediate. More in flux, Nothing here is sacred or fossilised, but rather transient and opportunistic, clutching onto the ground in anticipation of the next shake up, the next transformative quake. Be that geographic or technological, social or political. One senses that this is a city that survives.
Ancient, in this context, is a first generation iPad, or remembering to Ask Jeeves.
Culture is a two way street: we both inhabit and create it. The fractions and tensions are not a response to the culture of this city, they are the dynamics that created it. You cannot rebel against yourself, without risk of injury: the solutions reside within the communities that feel the tension, not imposed from outside.
When sub cultures define themselves through difference, it’s weaker than when they define themselves through unity: to rebel is easy, to create, much harder.