The Mission, recently
Heritage conservation is about place even more than buildings, which are large and important but not exclusive constituents of place. “If these walls could talk” is also true of streets (I did a course for over a decade called “If These Streets Could Talk”) and sidewalks and trees and mountains and streams and streetlamps benches and on and on…. You also have certain places that have an enduring character despite the passing of decades and technologies, these places just seem to imbue activity in a similar way over time, causing us to assign that “character” to place.
This street talks in English and in Chinese
San Francisco is that kind of place where history and character suffuse a surfeit of sites, and despite everything (true) you have heard about its insane gentrification and “Die Techie Scum!” graffiti there is an enduring heritage quality to the place. And that heritage is often about the cutting edge of cultural change. Which is to say, Eros.
In San Francisco this is about LOVE. I don’t think it would read the same way elsewhere..
I first visited the city forty years ago and there was a drought and the Governor was Jerry Brown so when I lived there again for three years there was a certain cultural and climate continuity. This is a city whose built fabric is as old as most of the MIdwest but it is also the place where, when you tip the country, everything loose falls off and lands in SF.
It was always a place where you could be different because it collected people from every corner of the world, from China and from all over the U.S. during the Gold Rush and it was one of the first places where it was okay to be gay or trans or sexually liberated – or at least it was more okay here than anywhere else.
The Castro, recently
The city was founded by the Spanish 240 years ago this week and has always been a place on the edge, a city of Good Herb (Yerba Buena) that had its first growth spurt during the chaos of the Gold Rush and has pretty consistently been known as a den of iniquity (One of the presenting Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Golden Gate Park yesterday was Sister Dana Van Equity).
A different event in Golden Gate Park, not long ago
From Mark Twain to Herb Caen takes us from the Barbary Coast to Beirut by the Bay and maybe the melody changed from honky tonk piano to electric guitar but I swear that bass line was there in ’06 when the city burned and sixty years later when it got all hot and not-so-bothered in the Summer of Love. And then they tripped back down 100 miles to Monterey for the Pop and the Who and Jimi and Janis and it is hard to talk about the cultural somersault of the 1960s without saying San Francisco.
Love Tours in a Love Bus! Very recently – less than a month ago
San Francisco has a fabulous history – I finished reading Donna Graves and Shayne Watson’s LGBTQ historic context statement for the City (see last blog) and it is clear the city had a national presence in the movement to insure equal human rights for the LGBTQ community. It also has a national presence in the 1960s counterculture, from the Merry Pranksters and the Diggers to the Human Be-In and the Fillmore and of course the Haight.
The Haight, recently.
There is always something a little off-kilter about San Francisco, and they tend to celebrate the off-kilter, whether in the bacchanalic Bay to Breakers race that is more costume and consumption than physical activity; where major Easter events include not only the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (founded in San Francisco 37 years ago – now that is history, or herstory) in Golden Gate Park but the world’s largest Big Wheel race, which is a mere 15 years old but how long does something have to go on to be part of culture, especially in a town where National Historic Landmarks can’t even stay still but are rolling through the streets and up and down those hills everyday?
Union Square, recently
I like the fact that San Francisco’s Weird History is actually really deep – it is actual heritage, part of the deep character of the place, the kind of heritage that insinuates itself into the character of those who live there. Now thanks to rapid real estate rocketing rents in the Age of the Technology Startup San Francisco is losing Legacy Businesses despite their best efforts and becoming even more unaffordable than any other patch between the Atlantic and the Pacific. (Yes, Manhattan, that includes you!)
Even their most famous skyscraper is uniquely fabulous.
But these present problems don’t make the history go away and more important they don’t make the character go away, because it is still there everyday and no city has more characters than San Francisco.