“There might not be a Heaven, but somewhere there is a San Francisco.:
—Inscription on a postcard
I was in a local grocery store in the Bay Area when a spindly fellow who had been staring at a particular cabbage for a while frantically pulled a crystal from his pocket and pointed it with great hostility at the cabbage. Dissatisfied with the reaction of the cabbage, or lack of, he repeated the procedure with several other vegetables before deciding to purchase a romaine lettuce.
Relating the incident to a native San Franciscan, my laughter was greeted with stony silence. Then he promptly reprimanded my insensitivity, retorting that in the Bay Area such behavior is tolerated, not mocked. My thinking that the desire to get in touch with a soul of a cabbage could be interpreted as odd was dismissed as (dare I say?) “incorrect”. This incident was but a reminder that even though conservatism had started to ingrain itself within mainstream America, the Bay Area was determined to remain unaffectedly, super, liberal.
As the Bay Area’s colossal hordes of anti-Gulf War protestors swarmed the streets (thereby seeming to astonish a largely pro-war nation), San Francisco declared itself an official sanctuary for war objectors a move which furthered the city’s already less-than-a-serious-place reputation. Despite the declaration that the peace movement in America, as a local newspaper observed, had taken a worse beating than the Iraqis, the barrage of anti-war slogans around San Francisco appeared alive and well; confirming the city’s collective radical standpoint.
Indeed, the city’s periodic displays of radicalism has made San Francisco permeate the rest of the nation in a rather malodorous fashion; described as “the stench in the nostrils of America”, by a writer for, ironically, San Francisco Examiner. A detail about San Francisco that is often overshadowed is the city’s historic acceptance not only of radical, but also opposing, doctrines; thereby allowing contrasts to co-exist. Staunch peaceniks, as well as war supporters, are permitted to opine freely.
But since the ‘60s, the city has acted as a liberal watchdog for the rest of the country, frequently reminding a comparatively conservative norm to check itself. Indeed, Berkeley, a town across the bay from San Francisco and home to one of the world’s most politically active universities, has been associated with all things alternative since the ‘60s, including the Free Speech Movement. As the US began to pummel Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, Berkeley, true to form, became the first city to declare a halt to the US retaliation. The City Council’s decision on this declaration, however, was announced after a 5-4 vote. This narrow margin signals that even Berkeley has come to terms with the fact that its “peace for all” cries may be falling on many a deaf ear.
Yet San Francisco’s role as a “sanctuary” for the liberal-minded remains steadfast. Last year, the city declared itself a haven for medicinal marijuana users, and this July, as a result of government crackdowns on medical marijuana clubs, the city prepared to cultivate and grow its own herbs. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted “to put a measure on the November ballot that would have city officials explore growing marijuana on publicly owned lots and distributing it to ill patients.” The US Drug Enforcement Administration is up in arms and responded that since marijuana use is illegal, “appropriate action” would be taken. Since the measure goes on the ballot this November, a “pro” victory could spell a serious showdown with the USDEA. On the flip side, if the measure is disapproved, San Francisco’s liberal sheen could suffer a serious scar.
More than any other city in the US (with the possible exception of New Orleans), San Francisco is defined by its legend. The myths of the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, and the cafes and bars of North Beach where the Beats proved that anyone incapable of rhyming poetry was cool, continuously lure thousands who cling to the nostalgia the city offers so readily. But after the initial thrill of, say, walking along the Golden Gate Bridge, or loitering around poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore wears off, reality sets in. That’s when you realize the realization that like you, every tourist in town, has attempted to steal the Haight-Ashbury street sign; and that the bearded guy who spends his days in the City Lights reading section isn’t awaiting his muse, he’s just unemployed.
Author and San Francisco “cool” maven Herbert Gold once waxed nostalgic in an essay in Image magazine about the heyday of a pre-chic North Beach when the staples of bohemia cheap rent and food attracted the artists and radicals. Though the $1.75 dinners of Gold’s era have been replaced with $3 cappuccinos, the city’s peculiar other-worldliness and generosity in offering easy recognition continues to draw radicals and marginals: from a burnt-out acid head, to the hopeful lounge singer; from Berlin, to Berkeley’s notorious “Hate Man” (the former New York Times reporter who chucked it all in to sport loud and garish clothes, push around a shopping cart he called Gilda, and greet passersby by saying: “I hate you”).
The area’s flair for the extreme, however, raises a question that Gold toyed with, as to whether San Francisco (and many of its environs) has become a “bohemia theme park”, where characters who find themselves in San Francisco, feel compelled to do as San Franciscans do; as in the aforementioned “steal the Haight-Ashbury street sign”.
The Bay Area’s bohemian veneer starting cracking with the arrival of the dot-com millionaires whose money-driven motivations overshadowed the city’s hip, bohemian culture. Whopping rent increases spelled doom for a slew of artists, and as the Associated Press reported, the Bay Area “is struggling to hang on to its good soul and bold artists . . . The dot-com boom transforming parts of San Francisco is displacing nonprofits arts and social service groups.” But fear not: the death knell for all that is and was hip in San Francisco hasn’t been rung yet. The glory days of the dot-com boom have ended, and although the Bay Area still hums a serious tech-savvy tune, its long-standing artistic and socially-conscious reputation keeps on marching to its own drummer.
The dichotomy of tech vs. hip lives on in its own sort of harmony: Palo Alto’s million-dollar homes stand in full splendor, begging the irony that only a few kilometers away, East Palo Alto ranks as one of the most dangerous, crime and drug-ridden cities in the nation. Berkeley, the bastion of vegetarian chic and People’s Park, boasts posh residences situated in its hills in which the infamous “NIMBY” (“Not In My Backyard”) liberal theorists keep a safe distance from the city’s homeless and other realities below them. Coupled with the Bay Area’s rich entertainment/events listings (the area boasts some of the most diverse and prolific film/music/arts offerings in the nation) that offer a dizzying array of future activism events, one might find: a demonstration by the Annual Ruckus Society Tech Tool Box Camp to “Stop Genetically Engineered Foods”; and a “Basil Seed Swap” designated to help sustain the collection of seed in the Ecology Center’s library. Indeed, it’s a fragmented society, comprised of varying cultural pockets that somehow coexist.
In 2001, after the dot-com crash, I prepared to leave the Bay Area and head back to the East Coast. Nostalgically glancing through the events listings, I realized I wouldn’t be attending the “Basil Seed Swap” discussion, or any other such thing, any more. I smoked a cigarette and recalled a party in San Francisco where an attractive, young man in a “Question Authority” T-shirt introduced himself as “a law student . . . but I’m in a band”. Marveling at the eclectic art collection on display at our host’s apartment, he offered long-winded analyses of each print. While he prattled on I was reminded of Robert Byrnes’s story about the anonymous entry scribbled in a guest book at a modern art show that read: “This is not art to me, all these squares and things. Real art has, you know, a madonna in it.”
Don’t get me wrong: listening to the Grateful Dead, and wearing those funky-colored Gandhi pants is, on occasion, entertaining. And reading Bukowski without attempting to slash your wrists is, well, heroic. But the angst-ridden “revolution is groovy” spiel is just so passé. San Franciscans, brace yourselves: The ‘60s are long gone, and Jim Morrison and Elvis are dead.