Sunday, May 05, 2019

Lost in Translation

The Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island from the Ferry Building

We just got back from San Francisco. As reported on these pages more than once, The City (please note that San Francisco is referred to as THE CITY in the Bay Area just as Manhattan is THE CITY if you live in an outer borough and even though Oakland across the bay is the larger entity it will never be THE CITY. And, further, San Francisco may never be called Frisco unless you’re a rube) has been one of my favorite places in the world since I started visiting there as little more than a tot in the mid- forties. It was the scene of my first ballet, first foreign film, first musical theatre, my first Welsh Rarebit at Townsend’s Restaurant and first high tea at the City of Paris Department Store. My mother took me to Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and to midnight mass at Saint Mary’s Church. I got my first Ivy League threads from a haberdasher on Market Street. The pants even had the superflous buckle in the back.

Saint Mary's Church and the entrance to Chinatown

Even after we moved to Arizona in 1952, we came back to San Francisco for vacations especially at Christmas. There’s nothing like a real city during the holidays. And San Francisco is a world city.

The ballet was Swan Lake and the play was The Prince and the Showgirl with a young Shirley MacLaine and Francis Lederer at The Curran Theatre near Union Square. The theatre was home to the San Francisco Light Opera at the time. The film version of the play starred Marilyn Monroe. The aforementioned film was a heist flick named The Lavendar Hill Mob with Alec Guiness and Stanley Holloway. The year was 1951. Quiz later.

I’d give the city by the bay mixed reviews on this seventieth (more or less) anniversary visit. At its best, like the Embarcadero on the sunny afternoon or Crissy Field shrouded in fog San Francisco thrills like no other. Yet the absurdly high costs of existing there and the unavoidable blight of homelessness detract greatly from what may be the most beautiful city in the country.

Homeless on Turk Street in the heart of the Tenderloin

At the turn of the new century Lawrence Ferlinghetti observed. “I certainly was surprised to be named the Poet Laureate of this far-out city on the left side of the world, and I gratefully accept, for as I told the mayor, I’d rather be the Poet Laureate of San Francisco than anywhere because this city has always been a poetic center, a frontier for free poetic life, with perhaps more poets and more poetry readers than any city in the world.

But we are in danger of losing it. In fact, we are in danger of more than that. All that made this City so unique in the first place seems to be going down the tube at an alarming rate.”

Then he quotes a Bay Guardian survey that “reveals a city undergoing a radical transformation – from a diverse metropolis that welcomed immigrants and refugees from around the world to a homogeneous, wealthy enclave.”

He concluded in 2001 that “The gap between the rich and the poor in San Francisco has increased more than forty percent in just two years recently.”

Even the prescient Ferlinghetti, now 100, could not have predicted that the trajectory he saw in 2001 would accelerate and San Francisco “may become the first fully gentrified city in America.”

He further quoted Daniel Zoll of the Guardian. “Now it’s becoming impossible for lot of people who have made this such a world class city - people who have been the heart and soul of the city for decades – from the fishers and pasta makers and blue collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others – to exist here anymore. And when you’ve lost that part of the city, you’ve lost San Francisco.”

Gesticulating wildly at the corner of Geary and Powell, Union Square

Pretty close. Set against the postcard backdrop of The City and the wrenching contrast of moneyed millennials to the huddled homeless is a city at odds with itself. It’s a city, it seems to me, too full of itself and its good fortune. The Emperor’s New Clothes is afoot in the too perfect, too wonderful city of my dreams. The home of the $35.00 breakfast and $140.00 plus tip Thai dinner at Kin Khao believes its own press. You are special San Francisco but not that special. Get over yourself.


Terry T. said...

Good post Steve. It has been a long time since our annual trip to the Bay Area has included a visit to San Francisco. Something about the crowds and high costs just seem to keep us at a distance compared to when we lived in the Bay Area prior to '01. I agree with your ending, The City needs to remember what it used to be and find a way back to those values.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks, Terry. Definitely a love hate thing with SFO.

Blacks Crossing said...

A lovely blog, Steve, with great photographs. Terry's comment couldn't have been better. Getting over it? Yes, that needs to happen, and yet, everyone who has been there constantly feels the city's pull. It is a powerful one, despite the numerous problems. Through high times and low, earthquakes and fires, water under the bridges. it is still there, providing that abiding love/hate thing, as you said Steve, and calling us back.

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