I’m on the 45, shitty coffee in hand, looking out at the fog that threatens to make every hair on my head a frizzled, wiry tendril, and I’m thinking, “God, I used to love you.” It’s a tender thought—not the hostile, contrarian sentiments I’m usually prone to when I reflect on what went wrong between us: me and San Francisco. Usually, my thoughts on this place are more pointed and acerbic, to the tune of “San Francsico isn’t what it used to be” or “Goddamn gentrification.”
But today, heading to Cow Hollow for an overpriced haircut, I find myself softening to the void that now lingers between me and this city. Suddenly, I get it: it doesn’t really matter whether or not the tech bros have overrun the city, or that rents have surpassed Manhattan prices. The truth is, this city and I simply outgrew one another. Regardless of the specifics, I think this split was written in the stars.
It’s a picture-perfect San Francisco day, by which I mean there is a moist pewter haze hovering over everything, and it occurs to me that I could probably differentiate San Francisco fog from the fog of any other city on the planet by the taste and feel of it alone. I grew up 25 miles outside of San Francisco in an impoverished suburb and have come and gone from this city so many times. As a child, San Francisco truly was “the city,” where I would go for adventure, drinking, Pride parades and concerts. It was a place to demonstrate, to meet artists, to see weird theater, to buy drugs in the park, to take drugs in the street, to eat cheap burritos, to dress up like a disco ball or a Goth or a Deadhead or a heavy-metal unicorn. It was weird and world-class and queer, my sanctuary from the complacent constancy of the suburbs. It was the epitome of everything I thought adulthood would be—sophisticated and freaky at the same time. Growing up in its shadow, San Francisco excited me, intimidated me and always beckoned to me, a tantalizing reminder of everything I was striving to be.
By the time I started college in San Francisco, change had crept into the city as dense and swift as Pacific Coast fog, and by the time I actually relocated there in my senior year, the fabric of the city had unraveled and began to re-create itself stitch by stitch. Chalk it up to poor timing, but just as I was positioning myself to fall dreamily into its seductive embrace, San Francisco crossed its arms on me. Skyrocketing rent prices aside, the culture, the spirit and the faces of the city were changing, and in an alarmingly homogenizing fashion. I started to think I was seeing the same person everywhere—that girl in the tight jeans, bohemian scarf and leather jacket, or that dude in the salmon shorts and totally casual but obviously expensive V-neck shirt. Suddenly, you were hard pressed to find people over the age of 35 or whose palms were unstuck from their devices. Pride parades were overrun with straight girls wearing rainbow tutus and getting high on Molly; the Mission was teeming with bros; and all around town the bourgeoisie begged to be San Francisco bohemian.
My weird city, my queer city, my freak city: was it dissipating before my eyes, or had it never truly been? Was it all just a story I’d concocted in my brain, some Gatsbyian ruse to keep me always wanting more, and now the enchanted green light at the end of the dock had gone out because I’d finally reached my destination?
Sitting on the 45 with my shitty coffee, I now understand that the answer is irrelevant. No doubt my disappointment in San Francisco was borne of both mismanaged expectations and rapid gentrification. But staring out at Little Italy as my coffee goes lukewarm in my hands, I finally get that this is just what San Francisco is. THIS is the spirit of the city: it just lets people in. And new waves of people inevitably usher in change. First, it was the miscreant 49ers of the Gold Rush, then the Beats of the postwar era, then the hippies and druggies of the ’60s and ’70s, and it was and is a gay mecca, and now—it’s the Great Tech Migration. San Francisco is where you go when you want to _____.
I do not mean to say that San Francisco is the place to go if you’re looking for open arms: ethnic minorities and low-income folks would eagerly contest that. But it is the place to go when you want to try something different or build something new. I should have known that this day would come: that one day the innovators and creators who were always drawn to San Francisco would create something I did not like, something that excluded entire demographic groups, something mainstream and overpriced and homogenous. I guess when you fall in love with San Francisco, you are always playing with those odds.
So even though I feel betrayed by you, San Francisco, I forgive you. Because now I understand that it’s just your nature to change. You’re only doing what you’ve always done.
If I’m honest, I’ve forgiven San Francisco for more personal reasons too. I will always think of San Francisco as the city of my youth: of partying and shirked responsibilities and one-night stands and psychedelics and college and self-discovery. For me, San Francisco will forever be not only a place but also, perhaps more importantly, a time. And this time has finally passed—I’m not who I once was, any more than San Francisco is.
And yet, just like San Francisco, I’m still exactly who I’ve always been. So maybe this rapid change isn’t a death knell for the city after all—maybe, like me, San Francisco is just struggling with some growing pains.
As the 45 approaches my stop, I’m feeling uncharacteristically effusive. I get off the bus and throw my coffee cup in the nearest trash can. Like an old lover, I’m going to hold on to what was best about San Francisco and leave the rest for someone else.