In 1920, the San Francisco Bulletin, which was then one of the city’s major newspapers, published a poem by George Sterling, a figure in the city’s Bohemian arts circles. It read in part:
The winds of the Future wait
At the iron walls of her Gate,
And the western ocean breaks in thunder,
And the western stars go slowly under,
And her gaze is ever West
In the dream of her young unrest.
Her sea is a voice that calls,
And her star a voice above,
And her wind a voice on her walls—
My cool, grey city of love.
Another section of the poem appears on a plaque in a park atop Russian Hill in San Francisco. That’s where Salon.com co-founder Gary Kamiya first discovered the piece, and he went on to borrow the last line for the title of his book Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, which came out this August. Kamiya says he saw the poem as an invitation to recapture his childhood love of San Francisco; for him it conveyed “that sense that redemption is attainable simply by opening one’s eyes.”
Today I want to go back to another phrase from the Sterling poem—“the winds of the future.” I like it not only for its reference to the city’s aeolian climate, but because it speaks to the spirit that makes San Francisco a world capital of cultural and technological innovation. There’s something in the very air of San Francisco that emboldens people to take chances, to become something closer to who they really are, and I want to smell it out a bit.
I read Kamiya’s marvelous book right after finishing Season of the Witch, a related but darker volume by Salon.com’s other co-founder, David Talbot. Cool Gray City of Love is a series of literary postcards, revisiting historical San Francisco through the lens of specific locations like the Presidio or Telegraph Hill. Season of the Witch is a political and cultural history of the most tumultuous period in the city’s biography: from the counterculture revolution of the late 1960s, through the violence and assassinations of the 1970s, up to the HIV-AIDS catastrophe of the early 1980s. Both authors clearly love the city; one chooses to highlight its quirks and splendors, the other its divides and dysfunctions. The two books deserve to be read as a pair.
Coincidentally, while I was making my way through the two volumes, a blog post entitled 10 Things I Hate About You: San Francisco Edition appeared on the Evan Williams-backed blogging platform Medium. The post’s author, Peter Shih, co-founder of a startup called Celery, railed against San Francisco’s fickle weather, its public transportation system, its excess of geeks and bicyclists, its homeless population, its crime rates, and its cost of living, among other perceived flaws. The essay’s bitter, impolitic, even vicious tone drew widespread criticism from the tech community, and Shih later removed it and apologized. But no one ever really stepped forward to systematically refute Shih’s points. He’d been penalized for a violation of form, not content.
I think San Francisco deserves some defending. So, following in the footsteps of Kamiya and Talbot (and Rebecca Solnit, Armistead Maupin, Herb Caen, and a long line of other San Francisco-based writers), I’d like to dwell on a few of the things that make The City such a remarkable place to live, work, and create. Many regions around the world have tried to copy the Bay Area’s culture of innovation. They’ll never succeed, at least not in the same way. In no other place could you possibly assemble all the things that spell San Francisco—this blessed plot, the envy of less happy lands.
1. It’s a city built on risky gambles and cycles of boom and bust.
The very first immigrants to the place that became San Francisco, the Spanish explorers and missionaries, thought they could civilize the local Ohlone people and build a vast and profitable agricultural colony. They couldn’t; their slave practices and European germs wound up killing most of the native population. Later came the 49ers, who poured through the muddy port village on their way to the Sierra Nevada gold mines; the saloon owners and prostitutes; the tens of thousands of Chinese laborers; and the bankers and politicians and property speculators and railroad barons. Fortune-seekers, all.
In the 20th century, San Francisco and environs absorbed waves of shipbuilding laborers and other wartime workers fleeing the Dust Bowl or the segregationist South; writers and artists and homosexuals; students and castoffs and runaways; and finally, in the 1990s, Internet entrepreneurs.
My point is that San Francisco is a magnet for misfits and dreamers and hustlers, which means that on top of the regular rounds of growth and depression affecting the rest of the country, it manufactures its own epicycles of social and economic drama. The ambition and avarice and “young unrest” that make people unsuitable for rural or small-town life are standard here—and are key accelerants for high-risk, high-growth innovation.
2. No city iterates on itself faster.
“Rapid iteration” may be the new secret of success in the software business, but the planners, builders, and businesspeople of San Francisco virtually invented the idea—with an occasional nudge from the San Andreas Fault.
The muddy tent city of the 1850s had, by the turn of the 20th century, given way to a busy Victorian downtown. That San Francisco was destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906, and almost instantly replaced by a beautiful new Beaux-Arts version inspired by architect Daniel Burnham’s White City at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Soon development stretched all the way to Ocean Beach (with the glorious exception of Golden Gate Park, which is 25 percent larger than Central Park).
Then the bridge and highway builders took over—but only for a time. The much-despised Embarcadero Freeway, completed in 1959, disappeared only 32 years later, after the 1989 earthquake damaged it just enough to give Mayor Art Agnos an excuse to demolish it. Which makes you wonder: is the occasional, modest quake just the thing for cleaning the urban slate?
Today, the transformations continue. The seismically unsound eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has finally been taken out of service, replaced by a beautiful new suspension bridge. The rotting old piers along the Embarcadero are gradually being retrofitted for high-tech tenants like the Exploratorium and Autodesk’s new fabrication lab. Big parts of the waterfront were fixed up for the just-completed America’s Cup, and there are projects underway to build a basketball arena for the Golden State Warriors at Pier 30-32 and to turn the old shipyards at Pier 70 into a mixed-use innovation district. An enormous new Transbay Transit Center, intended as the end point for the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco High Speed Rail line, is under construction in the heart of the South of Market district; its signature skyscraper, the 1,070-foot Transbay Tower, will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi.
Each of these efforts has attracted the usual assortment of not-in-my-back-yard complainers, but thankfully, they don’t seem to be slowing things down much. San Francisco is never quite the way you remember it, because it’s always reinventing itself, clearing the way for new experiments.
3. San Francisco is attached to the mainland, but it feels like an island.
San Francisco occupies the seven-by-seven-mile patch at the top of the San Francisco Peninsula. To the east, the west, and the north, there’s nothing but water. So you might think that the city’s southern boundary would be coursing with commerce and traffic. It is not. Thanks to the San Bruno Mountains, which straddle the peninsula, the city is hemmed in there too. In fact, just three slender threads comprise San Francisco’s overland connections to the rest of the continent: Highway 101, Highway 280, and the Caltrain tracks. (I’m not counting the mesh of residential streets on the San Francisco-Daly City border, because, well, who ever goes to Daly City?)
Because it’s so compact and self-enclosed—just 46.9 square miles—San Francisco is relatively easy to load into your mental Google Map, unlike, say, New York or London. You can run from one side to the other in an hour. You can bike the whole perimeter in a single afternoon. Yet at the same time, the city is big enough to have … Next Page »