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What Is It About San Francisco?

What Is It About San Francisco?

The strangest thing about San Francisco is that no matter what time of the day or night it is, it feels like late afternoon. The city seems to bask in the glow of that soft sunshine at all hours, in that pleasant sense of ripe beauty that lingers long after the rest of the country has fallen dark, in a kind of eternal, and somewhat melancholy, youth. It’s a feeling that seems so odd when you’re there, and haunts you after you leave.

I was at a family wedding in San Francisco over the weekend, as Breitbart California launched, and I happened to find an old coffee table book about the city laying on the nightstand of the house we rented in Bernal Heights. The book was published in 1969, at the height of San Francisco’s iconic glory, when the city was being transformed by culture and politics, and when San Francisco, in turn, changed America forever.

The book is an odd testimony from the San Francisco that came before all of that, the mature expression of the modernist ancien régime before the post-modernist revolution. Though the book was published just two years after the “Summer of Love,” there are virtually no hippies in it (one bearded man is identified as a “Bohemian”). There are shopkeepers, and fishermen, and Mexicans in the Mission, and multiracial children. But there are no gays, or radicals, or Black Panthers, or any of the people who reshaped the city’s character.

When I first visited San Francisco as a lefty college student in 1998, I was obsessed with its political history. I made a pilgrimage to People’s Park in Berkeley, and was sad to discover it so forlorn, brightened only by a heroic mural of student leader Mario Savio (“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part…”).

The city in the late 1990s was in the midst of another transformation, that of the dot-com boom, which had minted billionaires in Silicon Valley and given the bewildered rentier elites of San Francisco a new gold rush to run. The bust of 1999-2000 was a minor setback on the way to the mobile revolution, and to a new bubble that is changing the city yet again, as a new tech generation moves back to the city to huddle cozily together.

Superficially, much of the city looks the same as it did 45 years ago–the pastel-painted houses in neat little rows, the cable car packed with tourists, the (smaller, green) cars jammed against curbs on impossibly steep streets. And yet so much has changed in San Francisco, and so much has been changed by it, everywhere.

We are governed today by the disciples of the radical political movements that radiated outward from the Bay Area, and that are incubated there still. They harness the innovations of the Valley, like data mining and social media, to move their invisible revolution forward. And they, in turn, are consumed by the very movements to which they give life, which are turning inward against new inequality, new surveillance, new corruption.

San Francisco almost seems lost in a self-perpetuating radical loop, unable to tolerate, or even contemplate, alternatives. The coffee table book notes that the Spanish did not discover the Golden Gate for 200 years, despite many coastal expeditions: they could not see past the fog. Today’s San Franciscans can barely see out of it. And yet the city remains the fairest in our Union, inseparable from it–despite doubts, in both directions.

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