The Winds of the Future: 5 Ways San Francisco Stays Innovative

Xconomy National — 

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 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’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 more than 100 recognized neighborhoods, not to mention a dozen distinct microclimates. And because several huge freeways planned in the 1950s were never built, you have to take surface streets to get anywhere, which slows the pace of travel and makes the city feel bigger than it is.

It’s all very much like life on an island. And just like other islanders, San Franciscans spend a lot of time focusing inward, on our own problems and opportunities. We bling out our bridges with LEDs, and argue about composting and recycling, and shop at outrageously priced farmer’s markets, and rhapsodize to anyone who will listen about the wonders of San Francisco (guilty as charged). We assume that the way of life we’ve invented is the same one everyone else would want, if they could have it.

And all of that gives San Franciscans the arrogance required to invent cool new things. Things that no one will understand at first, but that will eventually come to be loved, like Howl and sexual liberation and the Grateful Dead and the WELL and Twitter and Instagram.

Being stuck on an island together, people in San Francisco have also figured out how to tolerate one another—a feat that seems out of reach for the nation as a whole. I’m not saying the city is a model of integration and cooperation; it definitely isn’t. But there’s little racial violence here. The city’s political leadership is ethnically diverse, four of our 11 county supervisors (and both of our senators) are women, and gays are part of the power structure (and can finally marry each other). In technology, the executive ranks are still largely male—partly a legacy of the way engineering education works—but there are many Asian-American and Indian-American faces.

Mostly, San Francisco is about voluntary community. People come here because they want to be here. They’re welcomed, and everyone gets down to work.

4. San Francisco is a living storybook.

There’s no humble way to put this: nature has given San Francisco a stage unlike any other, and if you spend much time here, you start to feel like you’re a player in the drama.

Sure, other cities can boast about their spectacular physical locations—I think of Hong Kong or Capetown, both built against mountains. But San Francisco has it all: the ocean, the hills, the Bay, the bridges, the fog, the cable cars, the vistas, and the light—always, the golden light.

That’s why it’s one of the world’s best shooting locations for movies and TV shows, from Dirty Harry and Harold and Maude to Monk and Star Trek. In fact, I fell in love with San Francisco long before I ever considered moving here, the first time I saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And I remember being stunned when I finally learned that Fort Point, with the Golden Gate Bridge soaring overhead, where Madeleine throws herself into the Bay, is a real place—not the special effect that I’d assumed it must be.

Everywhere you turn, the imagined San Francisco and the real San Francisco overlap and intermingle. Who can visit Macondray Lane without thinking of Mary Ann and Michael Mouse and Mrs. Madrigal in Tales of the City, or walk around Russian Hill without imagining Steve McQueen flying through intersections in his ’68 Mustang, or drive over the Golden Gate Bridge without recalling how many times it’s been blown up in science-fiction movies?

All I’m saying is this: Every environment gives a certain shape and flavor to the imaginations of its inhabitants. You can’t imagine Woody Allen’s films without New York, or James Joyce’s books without Dublin. In San Francisco, people dream big because the city itself is dreamlike. That’s probably why Tony Kushner wrote, in Angels in America, that “heaven is a city much like San Francisco.”

Even the weather conditions here—those winds of the future—are like a stage effect designed to egg on San Franciscans’ creativity. It’s never truly frigid, almost never sweltering, and often magically entertaining, at least to a Midwesterner like me. I recently attended a performance of Macbeth at Fort Point, and the fog swirled down as if the three witches had conjured it up especially for the play. Kamiya captures the conditions perfectly: “Cool and fresh, constantly cleansed by the sea, it is walking weather, thinking weather, alert weather.”

5. San Francisco is a city of endings, and beginnings.

For a nation whose “gaze is ever West,” San Francisco is the edge of the world, the last stop on the road trip, as Kerouac and his friends discovered. Either you get on a boat or a plane and keep going west, or you stay here and invent a life for yourself.

Many weren’t allowed to choose: San Francisco was the port of departure for most of the sailors and soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater in World War II, as well as Korea. But for the lucky ones, it was also the place they came back to when it was all over. Kamiya quotes newspaperman Harold Gilliam, who was watching from Fort Point in the early 1950s as a troop ship brought soldiers home from Korea: “The vessel was half a mile away, but the moment it passed under the bridge we were startled to hear a shout that rose from hundreds of throats and echoed across the water from the cliffs beyond. This was the place and the symbol every man aboard had been dreaming of during the months and years of exile, and it resulted in a spontaneous upwelling of sentiment and sound—a soldiers’ chorus of total exuberance.”

Most of those men got on trains and went home. A few—the misfits and hustlers—probably stayed, and added their own stories to the story of the city. That’s how it has always worked. Lucky for us, though, every new story makes a difference. The city is still young; its history, like its geology, is close to the surface. On the Embarcadero, the bones of old ships lie just below the street. In the Mission district, the fire hydrants that stopped the 1906 conflagration still run. The very peninsula scrapes and slides against the neighboring tectonic plate (which you can visit by driving to Point Reyes). If you live here, you never forget that you’re part of something big.

Yet Peter Shih was not completely wrong. San Francisco gives any thinking person plenty to fret about, like rampant economic inequality and a history of misguided “urban renewal” efforts that end up extinguishing whole neighborhoods. Sometimes, the growth comes so fast that there’s scant time for contemplation or compassion. “I think of it as frontierism,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually, and people are ground underfoot equally casually.”

That’s probably accurate, but I think a frontier can soften. The people who stay develop attachments, not least to the marvelous city itself; look at the role Twitter is playing in the revitalization of the Central Market district. You just need people to breathe the air for a while.