Recently a friend came to join us to watch the Blue Angels perform over the skies of San Francisco. We talked about San Francisco, the changes we've seen, and a book I was currently reading, Cool Gray City of Love, by Gary Kamiya.
Since then he has asked me about my feelings about San Francisco, my "history" with the City, for my thoughts about the present day.
His questions deserved a thoughtful answer, so it took me a while to carve out the time to answer. Here's what I told him:
I’m glad you’re reading Cool Gray City of Love – it’s a great book, written with feeling and historically researched in depth. I checked it out from the library, then bought a copy to give away, now am planning to keep that and buy a second copy. This is one I want in my home library.
My memories of San Francisco date back to the 1950s. My grandmother owned a small apartment building near Mission Dolores, and my brothers and I often took turns on a Saturday going over with my Dad when he would do some maintenance and janitorial chores. I loved going, and seeing how different life was in the city compared to Orinda, where I grew up.
I remember helping sweep and clean the hallways and common areas; not infrequently a tenant would invite me up for milk and cookies—I remember thinking the laundry line on a reel stretching from her apartment to the next wall, over the light well, was really cool! And then I’d visit the corner store and buy a pickle from the pickle barrel – yes, really!
After chores were done, Dad would often take me (I begged a lot!) to Playland at the Beach to ride the roller coaster, something my mother thought I was much too young to do! And visit the fun house (never did like Laughing Sal) to try to master walking through the rolling barrel, and staying on the spinning disk I remember the Sutro Baths (building was there with exhibits, skating rink and miniature golf, if memory serves.) I don’t know why we never went to Fleishhacker Pool – something I wish I could have experienced.
I also remember Christmastime journeys on the Key System trains with Mom and my brothers, going from our school in downtown Oakland to SF, enjoying the roof garden rides at the Emporium on Market Street, walking to Union Square and Maiden Lane to eye the amazingly lavish Christmas decorations, then going out for dinner somewhere – Omar Khayyams, or Bernsteins’s Fish Grotto on Powell or some other place – dining out was a rare treat.
Those early experiences probably started my fascination and love for San Francisco. I first lived here in 1969-1970 when I returned to the Bay Area after enjoying a year working in Honolulu. I found a studio apartment not far from where we live now, at 1515 Broadway (between Polk and Van Ness.) It was a real slum, with a crazy, alcoholic landlady to boot, but I didn’t care – I had a bay window, and it was what I could afford. When one is 22 years old, life is a grand adventure.
Later I moved into an apartment with a girl friend from Hawaii days—that was on Bush at Powell. I’d start my commute to work at SF General Hospital by jumping on the cable car, standing on the runner (it was only a few short years before that women were allowed to stand –a different life!) Even at that age I remember thinking how lucky I was to commute by cable car!! Then 2 Muni buses would take me to my destination. In the evening I’d generally just walk up the hill since tourist lines would be long at the cable car turnaround. During this period I discovered Sterling Park on Russian Hill (still a special place to me), would go to the Chinatown Branch library –my branch; would walk to North Beach on a weekend day to bat tennis balls against the wall at Joe DiMaggio Playground.
Life took me to the Peninsula when I got married in the early 1970s, and that was a fine place for me to raise kids. Somewhere along the line after we got married, Gene and I started thinking about moving to San Francisco, and here we are.
The City is definitely not the same as it was, but life isn’t. 2014 is not 1954, nor would I wish it to be. Some of the changes are definitely for the better—Crissey Field, the Presidio open for us all to enjoy and explore, the Embarcadero is full of life with the freeway down; the neighborhoods are vibrant (definitely Polk Street is more enjoyable now than it was in 1969.) The homeless problem is worse. My biggest concern is the disparity between “haves” and “have nots.” It is strikingly apparent here in San Francisco, but is by no means is it a San Francisco problem—the same holds true on the Peninsula, and I suspect in your area as well. In San Francisco it is more visible, but the City cares, and also tries, whether successfully or not is debatable, to address it—the social service programs are large and diverse, rent control, below-market-rate-rentals and condo, having corporations donate time, talent and money to help those neighbors whose needs are so great. Some of our wealthiest residents are generous beyond belief.
My basic feeling is that San Francisco still has heart; cares and wants to keep the diversity that has always made the city unique, and will muddle through the Google Buses, the hipsters, the buildup of downtown.
We love being a part of the city, and look forward to ways to help keep it the caring, fun-loving city it has always been, a unique mix of urban in a glorious natural setting, rich and poor, old and young (lots of young!) Becoming involved with neighborhood groups like the Mid-Polk Neighborhood Association, supporting social service groups like Compass Family Services, Up on Top and many others, getting to know the shopkeepers and store owners, the yoga teachers and artists. Complacency is probably the biggest danger, and San Francisco isn’t a complacent city. Life evolves, and San Francisco with it."
If you're curious about the book which sparked this conversation, I highly recommend you read, The Cool Gray City of Love, by Gary Kamiya.