Friday, November 20, 2015

San Francisco: A Jekill and Hyde City

I am flying back home to Boston, after a two-week stay in the Golden City. The weather is perfect and from my window seat, I watch the scenery roll by. Snow capped mountains make way for desert as far as the eye can see. Dried up river beds meander through hazy valleys and metamorphose into a quilt of fields of every imaginable shade of green.

Then, the landscape is suddenly pockmarked with fracking pads, indiscriminately encroaching on the pristine wilderness, like a giant circuit board. The landscape changes constantly. Now we are flying over a collection of small lakes connected with hair thin filaments that are probably turbulent rivers up close. I can never get enough of flying cross country. The sheer size of this continent boggles the mind, and while my co-passengers prefer to close their window shade to take a nap, I spend these cross-continental flights with my face glued to the glass, cranking my neck until it hurts.

As the distance between me and San Francisco increases, the monotonous drone of the engine slowly washes away the images of this morning's walk from my hotel room on Van Ness to the coffee shop on Polk Street. The early morning sun accentuates the trash, the dirt on the pavement and the leathery skin of a homeless man sitting against the wall. He is not sleeping or begging, just hugging his knees, his head hidden in his folded arms, as if he wants to disappear from the world. On my way back, I look for him and spot him from a distance. As I pass him, I look for a cup, but there is none, so I gently slide my folded dollar bill between his fingers, but he doesn't react. Like a statue, he has become part of the fixture of the city. He knows it doesn't matter, whether he is alive or not, whether he moves or not. He knows nobody cares and neither does he.

On the way to the airport, I try to count them from the window of my taxi. How many bums on one block? Sometimes one, sometimes five. Young, old, lying in corners to find refuge from the wind. Sometimes in groups, exchanging money or cigarettes, smiling their toothless smiles when they recognize someone. Their pants are held up with a string, their jackets stiff with dirt, they move jerkily, often with a limp. At a traffic light, I see a young, suntanned girl with a big tattoo on her right shoulder, rummaging through a garbage can. She has no shoes on. She is well-proportioned and when she turns I see that she is a man. Her feet are small and I wonder how she manages to avoid broken glass. Maybe she doesn't mind the cuts.

As we pass Haight street, a naked man with a backpack crosses the intersection. His penis, neatly wrapped in a little white bag, dangles back and forth to the rhythm of his walk. He is balding, but his face looks youthful. He seems completely at ease without clothes.

We stop at a traffic light across the entrance to Golden Gate Park, where a collection of young 'street kids' with dreadlocks and suntanned, dirty faces are gathered on the grass. Their belongings are bulging out of plastic garbage bags, hanging from shopping carts. Their dogs play fight or roll in the grass and a whiff of pot enters the taxi as we drive away.

The Park is their favorite hangout, but you see them all along the Haight, smoking, making fun of the tourists. They all seem to know each other, greeting a newcomer by name. They have their day planned out, going from one meeting point to another. The world outside their circle doesn't exist, except for an occasional half-hearted attempt at panhandling.

On the bus, a woman wearing a long black skirt and a matching jacket with a hood drawn low over her face, maneuvers her shopping cart down the aisle. She sits down and begins a lively conversation with the person inside her head. Her voice is melodious, expressive. She must have established a strong relationship with her imaginary friend, because she starts an argument, like an old married couple: 'I know you didn't mean it. But you didn't have to push me so hard!' she says loudly. Everyone on the bus pretend-ignores her. She has chosen a seat right behind me and I cannot see her, but I feel her breathing on my neck. Should I move? Should I turn around? Should I get off the bus? Mental illness frightens me and there is an abundance of it wherever I turn.

On my way to the financial district, I pass the Fillmore and a row of low-income housing. A black man is gesticulating, his muscular, bare chest glistening with perspiration. He has worked himself into a frenzy, but his audience, unperturbed, is seemingly in sync with his loud monologue, making one think that they are used to this show of extravagance.

Although San Francisco is not at the top of the homelessness ladder nationwide (my hometown of Boston boasts that privilege), it is climbing that ladder fast. The weather and the absence of 'no loitering' laws, generous social services and the remnants of a sixties mentality, all have contributed to San Francisco's transformation.

I know, cities are where you are supposed to feel the heartbeat of a nation, where humanity is at its best and at its worst. Amsterdam, London, Tokyo. Don't they all have their own ugly underbelly? What's so special about San Francisco? Are these just rants of a middle-aged suburban housewife who has lost touch with urban living? Or is this a sign of a much darker reality? Are cities rotting away, like Rome once did, after its hay day. Slowly, the citizens of Rome began to starve, riot, steal and loot. As the Empire grew at its borders, the core began to rot. Is this what I witness in real time when I walk down the streets of this still so vibrant city?

I walk up the street and pass the famous Fillmore Theatre, but the Jazz scene of long ago is now gone. A handful of 'city planners' successfully destroyed an entire black community during the 'Urban Renewal Project' of the 50s. All that's left are a few city blocks of low income housing flanked by fast food restaurants and a 'plaza' here and there, for show.

San Francisco is both beautiful and ugly. Livable and ruthless. A city for the young, the affluent and the adventurous. It is as unpredictable as its weather, a heaven for food and art lovers, a hell for the hundreds of thousands who cannot afford to live there but cannot afford to leave. The tech industry has gentrified the city to the point where rents are no longer affordable to many. Looking to cash in, more and more San Francisco landlords are conducting “Ellis Act evictions,” which allow them to bypass rent control by kicking every last tenant out of a building. Many of these probably end up in the Park, homeless.

My impression of San Francisco is tainted with my love-hate relationship to cities. I grew up in Paris and remember the 'clochards' as I walked down the streets of the Quartier Latin, holding my mother's hand. They were holding their little dogs in one arm and a bottle in the other. What if my mother let go of my hand and I would be left amongst them? I already knew then that I didn't like poverty. During those post-war years, there was a lot of it in the streets of Paris and it left a permanent fear in me, a certainty that not much separates me from this other world of beggars and drifters.

But once I am back home, typing away in my little suburban house, I will become nostalgic for this city, its hustle and bustle, its color and excitement. You cannot have Dr. Jekill without Mr. Hyde. leave comment here