In The Last Black Man In San Francisco, the main character, Jimmie, overhears two newcomers bashing the city while riding MUNI. This moment feels all too familiar these days. The indignation that old timers feel over newbie entitlement, complicated by the heart breaking reality of the extreme gentrification and economic injustice that has taken root in the city.
Jimmie’s response to the two women is perfect. “You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it,”
I wasn’t born in the city, but it took me in after my mom left my father and, in her mustard yellow Cadillac, drove us down in one go all the way from Yakima, Washington. Old Gold Mountain, as she called it in Chinese, raised me, named me, claimed me, and, likewise, let me claim it. No matter where else I’ve lived, the city of my youth, circa the 70’s and 80’s, is forever imprinted in my stories and my geography of memory: Tower Records near the Wharf, Musee Mecanique when it was still at Ocean Beach, Clown Alley on Jackson, Lazy Susan’s before Clement became the new Chinatown, and the glorious Coronet Theater, where so many of us first saw Luke look up at the twin suns.
My rootedness in San Francisco is bittersweet. The foggy Outer Richmond and its perpetual shabbiness remind me of my childhood friend, Van, who died in her 20’s. She knew the city like the back of her hand, parallel parked her manual car fearlessly on any hill, and loved shrimp and walnuts smothered in mayo from Kam’s on Balboa.
I know so many who have left San Francisco, and are still tending their broken hearts over real estate prices and the taking over of their neighborhoods by the Lululemon wearing, tech money wielding rich. I get it. Portland has a more authentic youth culture. A mansion in Houston can be had for the price of a San Francisco studio. Kids in Austin can actually walk to school.
But still. But still. There is no more beautiful place in the world to me than this severely compromised, fractured city. Even with its NIMBY politics, progressivism for consumption, and troupes of Insta-gratuitous Instagrammers.
The other night, joyously tipsy on mescal and conversation with my friend, I got on BART at 12th Street Oakland to head back home. In front of me, a shirtless young man wearing flawless purple skin turned on his boom box and performed his personal cirque du soleil of pull ups and somersaults using the standing hand rail. We city folk are taught not to watch. Because watching means inviting trouble. But on that night, as BART rumbled towards the city, this man and his dance were so luminous, we forgot we were supposed to be looking out the window. We all just watched, and shared this moment together – the old Chinese man holding pink grocery bags, the emo girls in matching eyeliner and miniskirts, the students carrying their backpacks like babies on their stomachs.
My partner says he envies me for having this deep sense of belonging, this rootedness, this certainty that no matter where I live, San Francisco lives in me. I don’t know if I’ve earned the right, as the character Jimmie says, to feel this way. I mean, does my 415 area code give me enough cred to call myself a local, despite my Hawaii drivers license and my decades away? I don’t know. I do know that I love San Francisco. And I hate San Francisco. I love/hate it so much I’m pretty sure that one day, on one of my runs past the Bison paddock at Golden Gate Park (rest in peace Brunhilda), my heart is going to burst apart and schmear every corner of these seven effing square miles.