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April 1, 2002—San Francisco Passing

San Francisco Once Again.  We are resending last week’s Global Province Letter, which seems to have become lost in the virtual ether.  As near as we can tell its disappearance had something to do with the phone company or our ISP (a horrible abbreviation for the computer people who link us to the Internet).  At any rate, we are sorry we did not reach you.

Incidentally, we are going to send these letters less frequently anyway, but we will always provide updates so you will know what’s new on the Global Province website.  When the Global Province started, the Internet was still novel, and your email mailboxes were not stuffed with endless messages.  Thus, in order to help alleviate the email crush, we will exercise even more rigorously our already deep belief in quality over quantity.

The Late Fifties.  The San Francisco we first visited in the late 1950s has absolutely no connection with SF circa 2002.  Then it had grand hotels with customers who dressed for the part.  Herb Caen's column told us of innumerable visits to the bar at the Clift Hotel, where you were rejected out of hand for long hair or the lack of a suitcoat.  Cars stopped on a dime when pedestrians stepped into the street.  Then San Francisco's proud banking community was led by the Bank of America—currently a subsidiary of North Carolina—and its home-grown boutique investment bankers later reigned over high tech financing, at least on the West Coast.  All of that is gone now, and the action has moved from Union Square (now disappearing as part of a “civic” improvement) and Montgomery Street to the other side of Market as the town becomes a convention center and shopping mall.  Today you need a car (perhaps the Yellow Cougar from the cops-and-robbers show Nash Bridges) to get around a San Francisco that is no longer compact, no longer a walking city.  The late, fun Chronicle (we remember a banner headline in the 60s saying, “San Francisco Coffee is Swill”) once wrapped a little news around comedic columnists and the paper's core—Herb Caen's gossip column.  All the fizz has gone out of the newspapers, and USA Today is more lively than the local rags.

San Fran Vaporizes.  The beauty of this ingrained transience is that it can make for terrific originality.  A host of things have been conceived in the Bay Area, only to go elsewhere to ripen into significance.  There was a Fillmore West before there was a Fillmore East.  Birth control got its wheels down the Peninsula at a company called Syntex, and the first pushes for a transcontinental railroad seem to have come from Northern California.  The nation's pre-eminent major integrated health system—Kaiser Permanente—is headquartered in Oakland.

Here and down the Peninsula, fog and sun mix to make magic.  Since the past dissolves and disappears forever, inventors easily spin new dreams that come fully to life elsewhere.  No stubborn old images stand in the way of new fantasies.  The stillborn dotcom revolution half-happened in San Francisco, even if the substantial fruits of the E-conomy are picked elsewhere.  And so when dotcom is over locally, San Francisco moves on to the next thing, whatever that is.

Pie Squared.  The surrounding areas (Marin, East Bay, the Peninsula) like to think they are very different from San Francisco, but they are probably even more extreme examples of the same phenomenon.  Malvina Reynolds, the Berkeley folksong grandmother, wrote about the green and yellow little boxes the working classes lived in south of San Francisco (e.g. “Little Boxes”).  Her song captured, she felt, the essence of the cookie cutter houses where a tipsy householder more than once wandered home to the wrong dwelling, since it was so hard to tell them apart.  This sameness of everything also describes the towns, the hotels, and, most-of-all, the offices on the Peninsula.  All the buildings look alike, inside and out.

This probably has been good for the engineers in Siliconville.  The walls are blank, the flip charts are empty, and the decoration is non-existent.  Any business could move out tomorrow, and nobody would know it had ever been there.  Silicon Valley is a giant tabula rasa where engineers can think big thoughts untroubled by distracting niceties which might take them away from their calculators.  Transience and evanescence, greater exponentially than in fleeting San Francisco, free hands to draw lines in the sand and circuits in the sky.

Gourmet San Francisco.  Under new editor Ruth Reichl, Gourmet Magazine is undergoing something of a revival.  A very successful recent issue was devoted to San Francisco (March 2002), a town where all aspects of cooking absorb a determined percentage of the citizenry.  Strangely, the designer food, even in the most noted restaurants, is often quite bland, although it is presented quite prettily, all in keeping with a City that is conspicuously decorative at every turn.  Things are often picture perfect on the outside, but sometimes a little hollow at the core. 

However, it is a side article that is the most intriguing aspect of the whole issue.  Writer Michael Chabon, who has lived everywhere, essays on why he loves and lives in Berkeley.  As for the Berkeley state of mind, Chabon says, "As for neurosis, you can pretty much start at my house and work your way out in any direction....  If neuroses were swimming pools, one might ... steer a course from my house to the city limits and never touch dry land."

For a host of reasons, San Francisco and its environs seem spiritually askew and more than a little neurotic.  Originality has been flattened, as the inhabitants become more and more self-absorbed.  The town needs a renaissance:  the spirit of the place needs a resurrection.

Earthquakes.  In 1906, the year of the great earthquake, the region came together and came alive.  Not far behind was the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, a celebration of San Francisco looking beyond itself—a city with purpose and with aspiration for all kinds of progress.

It's had earthquakes since.  And it has guaranteed major seismic happenings in its future.  The kind that shake complacency.  Maybe its resurrection demands an earthquake, something to wake up the Grateful Dead.  But revival does come in other forms.

The China Trade In the distant past, the China Trade lent meaning and purpose to San Francisco.  Once upon a time, too, the town's most wonderful store, Gump's, sported endless Chinese artifacts and furniture.  Gump’s, now across the street, has withered on the vine.

A China Revival might bring this town back to life.  By this, we do not mean a return to the physical movement of goods, for the port has long since ceded its historic role to Los Angeles.  But it might become an information portal to Asia, particularly China, by fashioning itself into the node through which ideas and culture bounce from East to West, and West to East. 

At the margin, one detects some of this going on today as we meet, for instance, entrepreneurs of various stripes who are much better known in China than they are in the United States.  Can San Francisco, we ask, turn the corner and seize the China Moment?  The San Francisco Bay Area has demonstrated a chameleon-like ability to change its colors with ease.  Can it change a little more purposefully? 

P.S.  Whether San Francisco remakes itself or not, companies are well advised to stage their assault on both Asia and China from San Francisco.  Sure enough, just the other day, we saw a new outlet for a hamburger chain from the Philippines, Jollibee, south of Market, yet another indication of the portal nature of San Francisco.  In this view, San Francsisco’s bible should be F.S.C. Northrop’s Meeting of East and West.


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