The City in My Mind

Sharon Mizota
Image by Anne Maloney at

Wherever you're standing, your sense of 'place' is largely a state of mind; it's meaning a construct of culture with connotations that change over time, because you change over time. In Mizota's case, living between two major US cities has caused an overlap in geography, a fusion of two separate cities into one that is a little of both, but not fully either place.

Ever since I returned to San Francisco from New York City two years ago, I have been experiencing random geographic displacements. I'm physically in San Francisco, but subconsciously in New York. I store geographic and sensory memories in an intuitive fashion; I remember the way things look and feel much better than I remember street names or addresses. For this reason, when giving directions, I often find myself naming the wrong streets; I think that Church Street (San Francisco) is actually Christopher Street (Manhattan). Or when I have lunch in mind, I think my favorite French café, Le Gamin, is right around the corner, when it's actually 3,000 miles away. Somewhere between that coast and this, my wires got crossed.

Most of these lapses last only a second or two; it's not like I go about my daily routine thinking I live in another city. But when I first arrived in San Francisco, I was struck by the frequency and the naturalness with which these short-outs in my synapses occurred. In between New York and San Francisco, I had spent six months at my parents' house in the oh-so-quiet suburbs of Danville (an hour's drive east of San Francisco), without experiencing any such feeling of displacement. Row upon row of neatly manicured, single-family tract homes, each ensconced in its own patch of green, did little to remind me of the dense, vertical sprawl of New York. So I was not the least bit confused about where I was when I made my way to the grocery store, or went for a run in the park.

But San Francisco and New York don't have much more in common with each other than Danville and New York, either. New York is all muscle: vibrant, pulsing, always just about to explode into violence or revelry. San Francisco, by contrast, has good bones. Relaxed and refined, it gets by on its looks and a laissez-faire spirit: anything is possible here.

When I first arrived in San Francisco, I was annoyed by its "anything goes" mentality. It seemed lazy and self-indulgent compared to the aggressive, fast-paced New York attitude to which I had grown accustomed. Of San Francisco I thought, where are the standards of quality? the arbiters of taste like the New York trendsetters and style mavens who always make the news? In New York, there are a million things to do, a million opinions on how to do them, and only one "right" way. In the eternal churn and burn of capital, the cream (or the illusion of cream) always rises to the top. San Francisco, by contrast, is too small, too casual, too slow and pokey to whip up anything but the foam for your latte. I expected a real, bustling, cosmopolitan city in San Francisco, not a backwater cow town. During those first days, I walked everywhere and was outraged, in this environmentally conscious town, to find myself nearly alone on the sidewalks. When I had to drive, I routinely cursed drivers who paused too long after the light turned green. While dining out, I turned up my nose at slow and incompetent wait staff and then found myself booted out of the restaurants at 10pm!

But gradually, San Francisco and New York began to seem more similar. Or rather, the two cities became fused in my mind, so that New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal had somehow magically transformed into the TransBay Bus Terminal in San Francisco. And downtown Brooklyn's main artery, pulsing, commerce-laden, Dekalb Avenue, was now Duboce Street, a busy four-lane divider between the Mission, a trendy, historically Latino enclave, and South of Market (SOMA), a gentrifying, post-industrial neighborhood that was once the epicenter of the dotcom boom.

This fusion of cities occurs because San Francisco and New York, despite their differences, occupy the same niche in my mind: "city". Such "niches" succinctly organize broad concepts. For example, in college, on a whim, I took a workshop in Japanese dance. The class was conducted in Japanese, and although I didn't understand a word the instructor was saying, I had to stifle an urge to address him in French, the language I was studying at the time. In my brain, on some basic level, there was only one area called "foreign language" into which all non-English tongues fell.

Similarly, it appears there is room for only one definition of "city" in my mind. When I was a teenager, growing up in Danville, San Francisco was "The City". When someone planned the hour-long trek into San Francisco, they said, simply, "I'm going into the city". No matter that there are a host of other cities within that same hours' radius — Oakland, Berkeley, Fremont, San Mateo — all viable, perfectly respectable cities in their own right. San Francisco was the pinnacle, the quintessence of city-hood.

But after five years living in the hurly-burly of New York, San Francisco's comparably tame city-ness seems diminished, to me. First there's the conceit, hard to shake, that New York is, indeed (really and truly), the center of the universe. Copernicus be damned, the universe revolves around one skinny island on the Eastern seaboard. Not to mention New York's sheer size and density. With eight million inhabitants, New York puts San Francisco's paltry 700,000 to shame. By these criteria, "city" has come to signify standing in long lines to see movies, jockeying for position to hail a cab, and cultivating a weave-and-bob approach on crowded sidewalks. It also means highly competitive workplaces and an impatient transit environment: everyone tries to get somewhere both faster and with more panache than their neighbors. San Francisco's comparatively laid-back esprit — easy to maneuver sidewalks, and its tiny, seven square-mile footprint — hardly compares.

It's probably terribly narrow-minded of me that there is only room for one "city" in my lexicon. But it's not entirely my fault. It's also due to the fact that the US is becoming ever smaller and more homogenous. The Barnes & Noble at 6th Avenue and 22nd Street in New York, with its standard-issue green and gold color scheme and rows of mahogany-colored bookcases, is identical to the one at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. And the fact that there's a Starbucks on every other corner in both cities doesn't stop them from all employing the same cheesy wall murals and comfy couches in a warm, "homey" color palette. As a city's unique visual and physical cues are subsumed under the genericizing influence of corporate expansion, going to the trouble of traveling to new places becomes almost irrelevant.

In some ways, traveling, or the experience of separate, distinct locales, has become les of a physical displacement than a temporal one. Although time-travel is still a sci-fi dream, the past often looks better from the vantage point of the present. There's no doubt that I'm romanticizing my time in New York to an extent that San Francisco can never hope to supersede. The notion of "place" has everything to do with time; where you live during a period of history and what you make of the world during that time of your life. San Francisco, the quintessential "city" of my past, seemed like an enticing destination when I was a child, and I continued to romanticize it even when I moved away, to New York. It seemed like a prettier, gentler, better-smelling version of the city. But when I returned, I discovered that this ideal was an illusion; it only existed in my mind.

If nothing else, this continual process of comparing San Francisco to New York forces me to look at the difference in their roots. I can't forget that San Francisco is a Western town, indeed, the definitive frontier town. Long before Los Angeles and Hollywood came to define the West Coast lifestyle, San Francisco was the destination of choice, the center of the Gold Rush and the main point of entry for immigrants from Asia. It has always been diverse and a bit kooky. Built on the wind-tossed, hilly, isolated tip of a peninsula, San Francisco is a bit dream-like: a classic city on the hill, seemingly inaccessible, yet beacon-like, attracting misfits, dreamers, entrepreneurs and idealists.

It's no wonder, then, that San Francisco is the birthplace and continued home of the counter culture. From beatniks and hippies to the Third World Strike (the militant 1969 student strike that diversified university curricula) and gay pride, San Francisco has been the epicenter of some of the most transformative movements in American culture. Despite its sleepy image, it has been every bit as influential as the financial and media conglomerates in New York. And it's the only city I know of where gay marriage was legalized by the conservative candidate for mayor. (Unfortunately, Mayor Gavin Newsom's mandate to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was struck down by the California Supreme Court after only a month).

San Francisco's birthright is an air of tolerance and possibility that the pressures of life in greater urban centers often preclude. In New York, survival often necessitates conformity; one must dress, talk, or act a certain way in order to get ahead. Competition is so fierce that people take fewer chances. Out here, on the Western frontier, the impetus is less towards greatness or fame than it is towards individuality and acceptance. And, because the spotlight is often elsewhere, it's easier to try something new, to change hairstyles, careers, genders . . .

While I still find it a bit difficult to see San Francisco as a "city" proper, I find my definition of "city" changing, again. This time, rather than being tied to any physical particulars of traffic, density, or architecture, I find the notion of "city" increasingly defined by less tangible things: attitudes, behaviors, values. I used to love living in New York because I thought its crowds and seeming chaos made me invisible, and thus free to do as I pleased; the old "one can be most anonymous in a crowd" adage. But over time, New York becomes as familiar and restrictive as any small town: you see the same people, running the same paths through the same maze, every day.

San Francisco, by contrast, may be a little too "unstructured" for my taste, but its openness means that I may actually do just as I please (within the limits of law, of course), but even that is supremely flexible in San Francisco. For example, I've routinely seen New Yorkers harassed by cops for drinking alcohol in public, even if it's disguised in a brown paper bag. In San Francisco, people walk around brazenly in broad daylight with bottles of beer in their hands, even though public drinking is also illegal here. The city I really want to live in is somewhere in between New York and San Francisco. Perhaps these odd, temporal-geographic displacements I experience are my subconscious attempt to make that perfect city a "reality" in my mind.

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