Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Zeitgeist Like Mercury

I moved to San Francisco in February 1992. In the years I've lived here, with a hiatus over the millennium of a few years in the Pacific Northwest and Japan, there has always been the same raging debate about "gentrification."
Properly speaking, "gentrification" implies "gentry," which are landowners. The focus in the debate in San Francisco, though, isn't really to do with landowners, or homeowners even, but cultural shifts that have always washed across this Gold Rush town. To hear it, you'd think The Mission has always been poor and Latino, never middle-class and Irish, say, or working-class and aspiring to eventually leave the neighborhood for better digs. The historical amnesia of folks who claim that in this barely-born city (your Great Grandparents could have been founding mothers & fathers --we're very young by world city standards) is astonishing and harmful. The Mission is historically an immigrants neighborhood, a revolving door for those who come here and move on to other districts, other cities. It is not entirely "settled" in the sense that its culture is stable, continuous, assured.
The Streets of San Francisco Act IV
It's time to consider that The Mission is fluid, as the entire City is fluid, like mercury moving with the zeitgeist, one day its over here & hot and the next its over there & cool.
Today, I read a piece on another blog that claimed, for the umpteenth time, The Mission is Dead. All the "cool" people (or that loathesome 50s-ism "hipsters") have moved on to West Oakland, where they are doing there what they supposedly did here: drive out the natives. The implication is that West Oaklanders are "square," not in-the-know, certainly not "hipsters," because how could one be black or Latino AND stylish AND bohemian or whatever today's criteria for that category happen to be. I call BS on this idea. The myopia of those whose HQ is The Mission seem hardly able to imagine that cultural moments shift, that zeitgeist moves, again, like mercury. To note, snidely, that The Richmond District is filling up with "fixies" (like a contemporary mark of The Gentry, what BMW's where to Yuppies in the 80s, I suppose) is to have no understanding of that urban flux. Of course The Richmond attracts young, energetic, artsy people because it's in The City, and is relatively affordable and undiscovered. I'd venture to say it's more ethnically mixed than The Mission and has every advantage to become a magnet for The Moment. North Beach had its moment and that has passed. It could come again. The Castro is today's Famous Gay Enclave, but before that it was Polk Street, and before that North Beach, where The Black Cat Saloon and a number of other clubs pioneered the gay bar as queer social space, but you wouldn't know it reading the Gay Press or talking to your average Gay Joe on the street who could easily believe no one came out before Harvey Milk at the Camera Shop on Castro in the early 1970s. Hardly.
I live in Chinatown, which is beginning to see a small wave of artists and fresh energy. The fact that San Francisco does not have the children it needs to replenish itself means that we must be doors-wide-open to immigrants, both domestic and foreign, to reinvigorate our neighborhoods. Chinatown is, by demographics, the oldest population in San Francisco. It is already a shadow of its former self -- the one that went out to Chinese nightclubs and mingled with The Beats of nearby North Beach. I consider myself part of that renewal, as well as someone in a long history of newcomers who embrace the neighborhood and want to be part of it no matter what the place is "supposed" to be like.
For a City so young, ossified thoughts about the nature of neighborhoods and a death wish to keep anything from changing is tragic. To see that it is young people who believe they are the fresh wave driving this stasis is alarming.

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