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Cool Gray City of Love

No culture in the Sun?

In France not long ago, a French professor of literature wore a bemused expression when I told him that California was my home, though I was teaching American literature in Belgium for a year. “You have plenty of sunshine don't you in California? Too bad, you can't have culture in the sun.” He was serious. He had never been to California, though he had watched movies set in California and he had drawn his own conclusions about the place that's called “The Golden State.” I've always thought the appellation had more to do with gold and the gold rush, than the hours of sunlight in a day. 

At the time, I regarded the French professor as a snob and an idiot. Of course, there's culture in the sun! There is sun and culture in California and in the South of France where Parisians go on vacation and sometimes look down on the locals as provincial, though there's plenty of culture in Provence and Midi-Pyrenees. I have cultured French friends who live outside Toulouse and who publish books at Les Fondeur Brique. 

I understand the French academic now that I call my home San Francisco, the place that the bohemian poet, George Sterling, defined as ”the cool gray city of love.” Gary Kamiya borrowed that phrase for his brilliant book about the city that’s titled, “49 Views of San Francisco.” I say “city,” but I think of San Francisco as a town with many different fiefdoms where localism thrives. Its problems, including inequality, are much the same problems as elsewhere in the U.S.

It's gray today at Ocean Beach, also known as the Outer Sunset, where I'm living and where the Pacific is a two-minute walk from the front door — which is painted red — to my one-bedroom apartment that has a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom and medium sized dining room/living room. There's a backyard and places to sit in the sun if there were sun. My brother, who is a private investigator or PI in the tradition of Sam Spade, is upstairs with his Mexican-born wife who came to the U.S. as a girl but didn't become a citizen until 9/11. She decided it was the prudent thing to do and a safeguard against deportation as un-American. 

A Bit of History

I lived in San Francisco for six months in 1974, in the Mission District where the sun shines more frequently than at Ocean Beach. By then the counterculture had seeped into the working classes; carpenters wore ponytails, waitresses wore beads and both wore tie-dyed T-shirts, many of them homemade. Tillie Olsen, the author of Tell Me a Riddleand Yonnondio from the Thirties, regaled me with tales of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike that tied up most of the city. Tillie also lambasted American lefties who used the word “proletarian” and insisted: “there's nothing wrong with the word “workers.” Her favorite word was “solidarity” which she used every time I left her apartment.

In 1974, I was thirty-four and an ex-New Yorker squatting in a ramshackle building with several other ex-New Yorkers. The Sixties were still alive in San Francisco, though they were rapidly coming to a close. I did not own a car or a typewriter, which had been my two most valuable possessions in New York. I took public transportation everywhere in the Bay Area, and, when I left for Mexico City where I worked for a year, all my belongings fit into one small suitcase. Traveling light was the name of the game. Back in California in 1976, I began to accumulate possessions, including cars, typewriters, computers, clothes, shoes, furniture, artwork, carpets and much more, most of which I gave away when I moved from the room I was renting in Sonoma County to my apartment in the city. 

When George Sterling, Jack London's pal, called San Francisco “cool” I think he was referring to the temperature, not to its hipness or its bohemians, who were already a vital presence in the city during his lifetime. Bohemians gathered at the Bohemian Club before millionaires and celebrities — no women members allowed — took it over. They turned it into what author, John Van der Zee, describes as The Greatest Men's Party on Earth, an expose of the rituals and the antics that have taken place every year at the Bohemian Grove, two hours or so north of the city.

After Sterling's day, the Beats gave birth to themselves in North Beach, once an Italian enclave, now increasingly Chinese. Then, at the end of the 1950s, came the “Beatniks” — Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined the word in the aftermath of Sputnik — who were a generation or so younger than Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published their work soon after he founded City Lights Bookstore in 1953. He made it the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S. The North Beach he first knew had largely disappeared by the time he died in 2021 at the age of 101. BMWs dotted the steep hillsides.

Hollow? Infinite? 

As for “love,” San Francisco has long had a reputation as a city for lovers, and well before the 1967 “Summer of Love,” which brought droves of young people to the Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood with old Victorians and inexpensive rents where the hippies were born. They soon degenerated from utopian love and peace to heroin and teenage homelessness. The Diggers held a funeral for the hippies, complete with a coffin which they carried through the streets. “I left my heart in San Francisco,” crooner Tony Bennett sang a zillion times and endeared himself to the city's loyal citizens and its PR industry that promotes SF as superior to LA and New York. 

Journalist and historian David Talbot called his book about San Francisco, from the 1960s to the 1980s, Season of the Witch. Talbot recounts the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and supervisor and gay activist, Harvey Milk who were shot and killed by Dan White, a cop and a supervisor who didn't like the gay men who poured into his city and made the Castro District their playground until HIV/AIDS struck, the bathhouses closed and the party fizzled. 

In her first book about San Francisco, the prodigiously creative author, Rebecca Solnit, calls it a “hollow” city and the place where, she suggests, astute social observers could see the outlines of the emerging future of monopoly capitalism that took on a much darker shade than gray. In her second book, Infinite City, also about San Francisco, Solnit changed her mind. It was, she decided, a progressive place of protests against banks, bombs and corporations like Google and Amazon and the straightjacket imposed by technology. 

San Francisco invites paradox and contradiction. One day it can seem hollow and the next never day infinite. San Francisco and its citizens tend to regard themselves as superior to inhabitants in the rest of the nation, and as the place where innovation occurs and then moves East. In part that’s true, but American innovation is born in New York, Alabama, New Mexico and elsewhere. No town or city has a monopoly on innovation. Organic farming might be said to have started with Rodale in Pennsylvania. The modern civil rights movement began in Montgomery with a bus boycott. In the age of the Internet it’s hard to pinpoint the rise of all kinds of movements, causes and products. 

All in the Family & Beyond

I have moved to San Francisco from sunnier, warmer Sonoma County, a land of vineyards, farms, ranches and suburbs, not because it's a cool gray city, or because of its cultural and literary history, but rather because most of my family lives here and works here. Or did work here for decades. Some family members have retired. Others are too young to work. They're just now in pre-school. I suppose you could say that I'm here for love, though not the hippie variety and certainly not for any repeat of the season of the witch. Home is the place where they have to take you in, Robert Frost said. It’s true for me. Family means as much to me as anything else and my family happens to be in SF and South of the city.

Later this year, the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library will host an exhibit of photos by my friend and collaborator, Jeanne Hansen who documented the punk scene in the 1980s, a decade that was awash in live music, performance art at clubs like Attitude, protests against landlords and nearly everything about the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who seemed like they were made for one another. Four decades after Hansen took her photos, I interviewed the women and men she had known. Their words will be part of the exhibit, along with black-and-white pictures of them in the streets, and on stage performing, often wearing black leather and spiked hair. 

All of the punks that Hansen photographed are still alive, and they're still mostly true to their younger selves, though after the 1980s they went on to find employment and became upstanding citizens who paid their taxes and voted on Election Day. Most of them are not native to San Francisco, but came here from Florida, New York, Michigan and elsewhere because they thought that they could be themselves in a city with a history of bohemians, Beats and hippies. To that list they added punk and gave it a distinctive California flavor. For the past 60 or so years, San Francisco has been created by outsiders and outliers like Ferlinghetti and like most of the Beats.

It still has the allure as a locus of freedom and innovation. This morning a demonstration with a jazz band took place right outside my front door. The protesters wanted to close down, permanently, the Great Highway, a major artery on the edge of the city and make it a park for the people who have used it all through the pandemic. That’s okay with me. Less noise, less traffic, and more safe places for cyclists and pedestrians.

Five blocks from my apartment, Other Avenues, a worker-owned co-op sells organic vegetables and organic fruits such as papaya, plantain and guava. The Java Beach Cafe sits half-a-block away. The N-Judah Streetcar stops on the corner and takes passengers downtown and all the way to the stadium along San Francisco Bay, where the Giants play baseball. Just five minutes away, Golden Gate Park waits.

It's hard to get away from something that's “golden” in the cool gray city of love, whether it's Golden Gate Transit or Chinese restaurants like “Golden Coast.” 

The Chinese have as much right to the word as anyone else and maybe more so. In the nineteenth-century they called California “Gold Mountain,” and, while they hoped to strike it rich, they mostly didn't and were physically assaulted, a fairly common occurrence that Mark Twain described in print as a young journalist who was outraged by the behavior of white mobs. Anti Asian attacks still take place in the Bay Area. A badge of shame. My two nephews who live in these parts married Asian women and have children with Asian names and who look Asian. Not surprisingly, they’re worried. 

On a Sunday, at about two p.m. Pacific time, the clouds lifted, the sky turned blue and the sun shone brightly. I walked to the beach and watched the waves come in and go out. Pelicans flew in formation, barefoot joggers jogged, kites vied for a space above and kids played in the sand. Ocean Beach felt like a place I could love. What was especially striking to me as a fugitive from Sonoma County was the presence of African-Americans. The city wasn't all white, though real estate prices favored whites. By four p.m. the wind had blown the clouds to the East. The sun and the blue vanished and the white caps broke on the shore. It was another perfect San Francisco summer day. The French academic who felt sorry for me when I said I made California my home would surely feel sorry for me all over again.


  1. j william grimes May 29, 2021

    Delighted to read Jonah Raskin’s evocative valentine to SF and his life travelogue. Good writing.

  2. Jonah Raskin May 29, 2021

    Thank you for the comment.

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