San Francisco: Introduction

  • © regina65,

    © regina65,


No matter how innovative, artistic, entrepreneurial and technically expert San Franciscans might be – anybody who tries to be super cool and calls their home town ‘Frisco’ should not be surprised if this is met with a look of contempt. In spite of all their progress, there is one thing the city dwellers have not thrown overboard: the pride in their city that has defiantly withstood dramatic events such as wars, earthquakes and politicians being murdered in City Hall since it became an independent community in 1850.

In addition, San Francisco – okay, you can call it ‘San Fran’ or ‘The City’ – is not just any old place but the fourth biggest city in California and, after New York, the city with the second-highest population density in the USA. And, it is also very beautiful: with its hilly streets, Victorian houses and cable cars that seem to look down condescendingly on their modern colleagues the hybrid-powered buses.

The city covers an area of 30,000 acres, extending over 50 hills that are frequently so steep that cars are only allowed to park at tight angles to the slope. But, almost every ascent is rewarded with a view of the Bay shimmering a dark blue in the soft Californian light – except in summer, when the fog creeps into the city. You have a fine view over San Francisco from the Coit Tower: to the south, you can see the cluster of skyscrapers in the centre of town; to the west, the russet Golden Gate Bridge glowing in the sunlight, while the dazzling steel Bay Bridge leading over the East Bay to Berkeley and Oakland shines to the east. 

San Francisco: an open-air theatre

San Francisco is nothing but an open-air theatre with a great number of sights. But, if you walk through the city, you will soon realise that it has an absolutely  unique atmosphere. Keep your eyes wide open when you are strolling around town, open all your senses and let the everyday life and the great variety of characters in San Francisco work their charm on you. 

There are now more and more digital displays at stops showing when the next bus or train should arrive but they have not been able to do away with record delays. You often wait for half an hour and then three buses arrive at the same time. But that is part of the appeal of San Francisco: the city does not function perfectly but it has developed a special lifestyle of its own where everything flows – you only need plenty of time and patience. 

Freethinkers cultivate alternative lifestyles

The city still lives from the image of the creative-political beat generation around Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s and the legendary ‘Summer of Love’ whose 45th anniversary will be celebrated in 2012. 1967 marked the birth of the hippie movement, with tens of thousands of flower children, dropouts and musicians, love, liberty and unity – drugs and sexual excess included. Today, many free-thinkers still live their alternative lifestyles in San Francisco. Many people from outside call the hippie district Haight-Ashbury, but here, people just refer to it as The Haight – even though the Haight-Asbury intersection has lost a lot of the magic it had in former times. It has been years since flower children could be seen sitting on the pavements. 

Talking about pavements: even in tolerant San Francisco, some things are simply too much for the citizens and business people. Young ‘bohemians’ with savage dogs were causing so much trouble to the shop owners and people who lived on Haight Street that they decided to do something about it. The result: in spite of strong resistance from most councillors, the majority of San Franciscans came out in favour of legislation in 2010 forbidding loitering between 7am and 11pm. Whether anything will change is another question.

There is an even more oddball story. In mid-2010, an increasing number of ticket inspectors were put on the busses to stop people travelling without paying. However, a number of illegal immigrants thought that these controls were being made by the US migration authorities and complained to City Hall that they had been terrified by this. The end of the drama – an official apology from the transport department for its behaviour!

Despite all the progress made since then, San Francisco has managed to preserve something of the lifestyle of the 1969 generation, namely the feeling that San Francisco is always tolerant and progressive. One in ten people living here states openly that he or she is homosexual. The mayor, Gavin Newsom, broke the law at the beginning of 2004 when he made it possible for 4000 gay and lesbian couples to marry – since then, the city, the state and its inhabitants have been quarrelling fiercely about legalising homosexual marriages. A district court in North California decided in favour of a suit made by supporters of homosexual marriages; however, the judgement was not executed due to objections raised by the court of appeal. The next referendum could take place in 2012 and it is possible that the US Constitutional Court will become involved.

There are approximately 1000 various ethnic groups in San Francisco and they all want to eat and live traditionally. It is often the case that individual districts have become the home of a certain group. In Chinatown, which stretches over Telegraph, Russian and Nob Hills, all of the signs are written in Chinese; only one block away to the north, you will find the best pizza in town in the Italian North Beach district; the Mission district in the northwest is dominated by Latinos and the rainbow flag of the gay movement flutters with pride over the Castro district.

Anything goes in San Francisco. Changes are accepted easily and difficulties quickly become challenges. This attitude has its origin in the Gold Rush days of the 19th century. The risk of earthquakes has also formed the collective psyche of being prepared to start anew. There were particularly strong rumblings in 1906 and 1989 and parts of the city had to be reconstructed. At the moment, the assumption is that there is about a 63 percent certainty that a big one will come before the year 2036. 

The spirit of permanent change can be seen throughout the city
The spirit of permanent change can also be recognised in the cityscape. In 1960 San Francisco was still mainly a harbour city and around 70 percent of the population were white, middle-class workers. Twenty years latter, the harbour complex had fallen into disrepair and the skyscrapers of the banks and enterprises in the service sector shot up. The cheap hotels for workers in the centre were flattened and the Moscone and Yerba Buena exhibition and culture complexes erected in their place. After heated discussions, most of the urban motorways that had been severely damaged in the 1989 earthquake were demolished. This was no loss. Today, the locals and tourists jog or stroll from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Ferry Building and enjoy spectacular views of the city and Bay. 

Successful start-ups emerge from South of Market

And the change continues. The San Francisco Stock Exchange is now home to a fitness studio, and an architect lives and works in the Mission Police Station – he helped transform what was once a very proper, white exterior into a colourful collection of political protest posters. In the mid 1990s, the South of Market (SoMa) area developed into the epicentre of the dotcom revolution. Not only the prices of Victorian houses that are so typical of San Francisco rocketed. Young entrepreneurs, graphic designers and programmers, lured by quick money, moved in where Mexican families, old hippies and pensioners used to live.

In spite of the internet bubble that burst in 2001, successful new start-ups such as Twitter and Dogster – a kind of Facebook for dogs – have come out of SoMa. In Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook and YouTube tinker with Web 2.0, while Apple develops a never-ending flow of new iPads, iPods, iPhones and Macs. The tourism sector suffered severe setbacks after the attacks in New York in September 2001 but now tourists are once again flocking to the city where TV programmes and cinema films are also being shot almost every week.

Like the rest of the state and the USA as a whole, San Francisco is still fighting with the aftermath of the economic crisis. More than a dozen shops on three blocks of Geary Street, the best location in the inner city, are empty. Bus services are being cut back, social expenditure reduced and schools closed. Families are moving out of the, still extremely expensive, city to the South and East Bay. The daily San Francisco Chronicle is struggling to survive, supermarkets are closing – in spite of annual profits running into the millions – to make room for owner-occupied flats. The city seems to be developing more and more into a kind of amusement park that the workers disappear from in the evening to make way for the tourists. But, despite everything, San Francisco is – and will remain – one of the world’s most beautiful cities and its inhabitants will brave this and all future crises.

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