Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Urban Ephemerals

Peterme posted an interesting review and commentary on his site which I added a coment to. His comment program, however, has gone askew, so I am posting my comment here. But you should read his review first. And then this:

San Francisco might well be described as De Tocqueville once said of Phildadelphia, "it's sole defect, I repeat, is to be monotonous in its beauty".

I first hit S.F. in 1950, and might still be there yet if the labor unions hadn't had such a controlling grip on job applications. After a few days of hiring hall corruption I headed south to L.A. and still be there yet.
Regarding San Francisco, I have to agree with Kotkin, except for his belittlement of its mayor and service industry. That is pure bitchiness.

Otherwise, I have enjoyed S.F. as a visitor several hundred times in the past 55 years. But I have never thought of it as a city, I even refer to it as The City as an ironic comment on its pretension. And no way is it now or ever has been an art or culture center. It is, and has for decades been a holiday destination. I remember Herb Caen saying so himself in columns dating back to the early 60's.

Cable cars, bright orange bridge, chinatown, a twisting street, Fisherman's Wharf, Candlestick Park. These are holiday icons and attractions, not the stuff of urban sinew and muscle, not: HOG Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders: not a Chicago.

Where else I disagree with Kotkin is that he seems to think this is a bad thing. Or that there is some methodology available to determine what any city can, or should, be. I say let San Francisco be San Francisco. I need to enjoy it every couple of months or so.


At May 18, 2005 3:29 PM, Blogger Elise said...

Hi Mr. Merholz (I'm a friend of Peter's and parents of friends are called Mr. and Mrs. even though I'm in my forties until asked otherwise).

Question. If you've never thought of San Francisco as a city, what qualifies a city to be a city? And what cities, other than NYC, in the US make the cut?

I spent my childhood in LA and 10 years of my adulthood in San Francisco and I think of SF as a city and LA as a sprawl.

Regarding culture, San Francisco has terrific opera; Boston has a great Symphony; you can find great contemporary art in LA, Miami, and NYC; Chicago has some great museums and Oprah. NYC has everything, but who can afford to live on Manhattan these days?

At May 19, 2005 10:39 AM, Blogger BJMe said...

Howdy Elise!

I think my sons' friends call me B.J., at least to my face.

I was born and raised in Cleveland. Definitely a city. The U.S. has plenty of cities, large, small and sprawl. And L.A. is a sprawling city. With huge working ports, railroads, trucking, heavy and light manufacturing, a major library system and some of America's leading medical and educational institutions.

San Francisco has the attractions I already listed, plus... "Terrific Opera!" I mean, how cultural is that? Culture refers to a general society, not just High Society.

San Francisco is one of the jewels of the Pacific. It boasts some great weather, charm, food and a high tradition of alcohol mixology. And if you are an S.F. city and county resident you are either pretty rich, very lucky or on welfare. Who else can afford to live there these days?

At May 25, 2005 3:22 PM, Blogger Elise said...

Hi BJ, :-)

I think part of the problem is that the neighborhoods in SF that are nice, that used to be "within reach" are no longer. Most people who can afford to live in California can afford to live in San Francisco, if they are willing to live in Excelsior, lower Bernal, Hunters Point, the Mission, or the Avenues. What we are seeing throughout SF is gentrification. First it hit Noe Valley, Cole Valley, Haight Ashbury, Potrero. Now it's moving more South and West. But there's a lot of land to cover before it prices everyone out. It's just that those other neighborhoods aren't "cool". And right now it costs a lot to be "cool" in SF.

I'm still struggling with your implication that SF doesn't qualify as a city through lack of culture. What is meant by culture? As a former resident, I loved visiting the several fine museums - Asian, SFMOMA, De Young, Legion of Honor. I've attended numerous Open Studios over the years. I was on the board of BATS - Bay Area Theatre Sports - a terrific improv company. You can get $15 tickets to opera by the way, and the opera in SF is very good, not just for high society, or at least no more so than the Symphony. San Francisco is neighborhoods of people from all over the world and has good, cheap, restaurants with world cuisines as well - Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Hungarian, Burmese, the list goes on. I think there are something like 3000 restaurants in SF. Does it count as cultural to be able to fill up on Korean food for less than $10? or Japanese? or _____(insert food type here)_____?

San Francisco is a little low on the University side. The famous schools in the area are Berkeley and Stanford. But they do have UCSF - one of the best medical schools in the country, right up there with UCLA.

I grew up in LA near the corner of Wilshire and Crenshaw. I was surrounded by kids of every color and background. The only place I've ever lived that came near to that melting pot experience was in the Avenues in San Francisco.

What is hard for many who move to the city is to see the city from the perspective of one who has grown up there, whose parents live there, who is raising their kids there. I think it is family bonds that really hold a community together. The longer I lived in SF and got to know people who really were not just passing through, the more of the city I came to appreciate.

BTW, I no longer live there. Had to move out when a house guest turned into a psycho squatter. Moved back home to Sacramento, which is way less of a city than San Francisco, and even more lacking in traditional definitions of "culture". But it is where my family is, and that makes all the difference.

At May 25, 2005 5:44 PM, Blogger BJMe said...

Excellent, Elise, you make some very points about S.F., especially about the various neighborhoods. As a frequent visitor, never resident, I speak with little, or no authority on that subject. But one thing I think I have noticed in the last twenty years or so is that most of the neighborhoods you mention don't seem to serve their own immediate community. The bars, restaurants and coffee houses draw most of their clients from other parts of S.F. and the Bay Area. When I stay in Noe Valley or other districts, I encounter no local activity or neighborhood projects.

S.F. regions are also not that much different than L.A. sprawl. Nobody, except tourists, walk from one neighborhood to another. The distances aren't as great but you still really need a car to get around, or else a cab or bus.

I didn't intend suggest that S.F. suffered from cultural deficiency, just cultural anxiety. I sense a certain insecurity in that part of the population that wants to puff of The City to seem grander than it really is. Methinks they doth proclaim too much.

Regarding Sacramento, I can only offer my condolences.


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