San Francisco has been compared to many cities. At the turn of the century, her governors hoped to mould her into the “Paris of the West.” She is often compared -normally favourably but occasionally not – with the much bigger, hotter and more dangerous Los Angeles more than 500KM to the South. We South Africans are fond of comparing her to Cape Town. In reality though, she is not much like any of these. San Francisco is gloriously, stubbornly, sometimes imprudently unique.
The physical comparisons to Cape Town are obvious. Both are ports, both are crammed onto narrow peninsulae, surrounded on three sides by sea, and both are clustered around the hills and mountains that dominate the centres of their peninsulae. This gives both of them the kind of changeable, maritime climate and year round fresh air that people from smog bound cities like Los Angeles and Johannesburg deride and envy in equal measure.
But though Cape Town is renowned for being cultured, environmentally conscious, gay friendly and cosmopolitan, San Francisco is simply in another league. They have a public transport system that puts many European cities to shame, and are busy making it even more difficult to drive a car into their inner city districts. They are relentless recyclers – confronting you with not two but three different classes of bin. Everything is “compostable” – even disposable knives and forks.
Many in America’s vast hinterland scoff at what they see as affectation. But San Franciscans have something very rare in this country of rugged (and often deeply selfish) individualists – a real sense of public good and active citizenship. They care about their city, about the ocean it abuts, about the state and country in which it sits, and about the planet to which we all cling.
Hipper than thou
Another trait they seem to have in endless supply is good taste – in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Most American architecture ranges from bland to eye wateringly dire, but San Francisco is full of truly beautiful buildings. From the rows of Victorian houses that survived the great quake and fire of 1906 to more modern structures like their Museum of Modern Art, San Franciscans care about the buildings in which they work and live.
They also care deeply about what they put into their bodies. The food is some of the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere in the world. We ate food from every corner of the globe – China, India, France, Greece, and (of course) the USA – and didn’t have one bad meal in our entire nine days in the city.
The people, too, have an easy sense of style. This is hipster central, so there is no shortage of handlebar mustaches and bushy beards, of neckerchiefs and pork pie hats and plaid pants. But when San Franciscans order their artisanal beer and unpasteurized cheese on organic sourdough bread, they aren’t doing it self consciously. Here it isn’t affectation – they aren’t imitating anyone. The rest of the world is imitating them.
We were lucky enough to find an amazing apartment on the edge of the Castro – a district famous for being the first openly gay neighborhood in the city, the country and (quite possibly) the world. Amanda and I batted around ideas about why San Francisco, in particular, has always been so permissive, open and tolerant.
We decided it was probably the result of several different factors. One major factor was the cities initial remoteness – at the very Western edge of a vast continent, at first reachable more easily by sea than by land.
This made it a multicultural hub, much like New York, from its earliest beginnings. Pioneers, sailors, Chinese railway workers, gold rushers, vagabonds and misfits of all kinds ended up here, collected at the edge of the country as though shaken loose and swept together to get them out of the way.
And so, at the end of World War 2, when the US Navy dishonorably discharged thousands of sailors for being gay and dumped them in this convenient port, many of them found the city beautiful, tolerant and cheap and decided to stay. And so the now world famous Castro was born.
Two decades later another wave of misfits, the hippies, descended on the city to squat in the many empty Victorian houses of the Haight. Their culture and their music sought to change the world forever, and elevate the city into a gleaming mecca of a new age of peace and love.
Alas the more feverish of the hippy’s dreams never came true, but 50 years on the city is still the most loving, open, creative and inspiring place I have ever been. Everywhere you go, people are trying their best to do something great – whether it’s a great cup of coffee, a great piece of software, a great charity, a great painting or just a great tour of the city.
Of course all this tolerance and openness can be a bit startling at times. Homeless people flock to San Francisco – cities like Reno are rumored to provide free one way bus tickets to their indigents. Here they are tolerated, accepted and taken care of, just as all the other misfits have been. And so their panhandling isn’t a bashful exercise so much as an entrepreneurial one. “Give me a dollar, I want to buy a slice of pizza.” Well… ok… sure. At least you’re honest.
The Castro can also be a bit hair raising for WASPy types like us at times. There’s a nude sunbathing area at the junction of two very main streets – Castro and Market. The sunbathers aren’t any more bashful than the panhandlers – it all hangs out, all day long. Walking home one night, Amanda and I came upon a couple of fellows strolling stark naked down Castro, with no one even giving them a second glance. The only thing funnier was how inexplicably grumpy both of them seemed.
Come on summer, come on!
There are plenty of bad things about San Francisco, of course. It’s fiendishly expensive, relentlessly snobbish, militantly eco-friendly and never much warmer than 20°C. Blue collar San Franciscans complain that they are slowly being pushed out of the city itself by an unending tide of hipsters and internet millionaires who are the only ones who can afford to rent or buy property. And, like any city, it has crime and grime, problems and irritations. The Metro is wonderful until rush hour, and then… not so much.
But in the end this is a truly great city – a city that acts like a grown up, unlike so many of its compatriots in this great but hugely wasteful and selfish country. It’s an inspiring and enlivening city – a city that makes you believe you can live better while helping the planet at the same time. It’s a city of healthy aspirations and balanced life. I may have left my heart here after all.