Last month, I was in a bar in San Francisco's eclectic Bernal Heights neighborhood, an area with a reputation for being relatively untouched by the '90s yuppie invasion. The bartenders live in a nearby warehouse where I usually sleep during my monthly San Francisco visits, and the first hard cider was on the house. A variety show of magicians and comedians had the rapt attention of about 50 customers. At least half of the crowd, like me, were pals with the emcee, each other, the owner, or the bartenders. It's a vibrant scene that typifies the sort of small-scale, offbeat, community-based cultural scene for which San Francisco is famous.
Soon, though, the bartenders will be leaving the warehouse around the corner and heading deep into the away-from-the-action East Bay in search of more—and more affordable—space. It's uncertain how long the warehouse's owner will ignore the income opportunities from tossing out his current tenants for folks willing to pay top-dollar rent.
In leaving the city, my bartender friends are hardly exceptional. By last call, I was deep into a conversation with a friend about how many of the people she used to care about were already gone, how the places where she used to hang out are now unfamiliar to her.
When I don't flop at the warehouse, I stay in another living space of questionable legality, in a neighborhood I won't name. The people who live there—artists, performers, and sculptors—call their lair The Alamo: the last stronghold of the independent underground arts within the city limits. Over the five years I've been spending time in San Francisco, I've seen many venues, spaces, and people disappear, some for the East Bay, some for the East Coast. My San Francisco is dying.
So I came to Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, by Rebecca Solnit with copious photographs by Susan Schwartzenberg (Verso), with much emotional sympathy. People, places, and scenes I love have been hit by the "crisis" about which Solnit writes. The influx of dot-com millions, she laments, has caused soaring rents and housing prices, and waves of newcomers have killed the old feel of neighborhoods; bohemians and many of the lower and working classes now find the city unaffordable or uncongenial. Her book is an extended cri de coeur—intelligent, deeply felt, with flashes of wit—on what has happened to the arty, progressive, multicultural San Francisco that she loved through the '80s and '90s.
To her considerable credit, Solnit offers an honest historical perspective that undercuts the anger behind her elegy. She takes passing swipes at politicians for abandoning the housing market to "laissez faire," and drops an ominous hint at the end that the uprising of angry people who feel aggrieved by the recent influx of rich dot-commers will have shocking results. Like many progressives these days, she can't really articulate a viable political or economic solution to the problems she laments.
Indeed, Solnit seems to understand that her topic is not political. Rather, she's writing a tragedy of history made personal. In her own words, she's writing about "the melancholy of displacement of an individual." This melancholy is real, and it hurts. But everyone is culpable and no one is to blame. The San Francisco that she loves and lost was itself the result of constant change, some triggered by government-mandated urban renewal, some by Central Americans fleeing war and privation, and lots by the cumulative individual decisions of artists, hipsters, ethnic families, and progressives to move to a city and to neighborhoods where life seemed easygoing and cheap, if not quite free.
"In 1960," Solnit writes, marking the rapidity of some of those changes, the city "was 78 percent white, but by 1980 whites were less than 50 percent…and it was the nation's most ethnically diverse large city…since the 1950s San Francisco has been mutating from a blue-collar port city of manual labor and material goods to a white-collar center of finance, administration, tourism, and, now, the 'knowledge industries.'" She relates the ever-changing history and feel of neighborhoods like South of Market and the Mission and she acknowledges implicitly that constant change is the very nature of a thriving city. (One older book about San Francisco is titled Neighborhoods in Transition.) She writes about white bohemians such as Kevin Keating, the poster artist behind the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project, who react angrily to the people who move in after them, but she isn't entirely sympathetic to them. Keating, for instance, has a confused, deeply personal message of contempt for the late arrivers, invoking fine distinctions only he can discern between acceptable sushi restaurants and ones that are simply fronts for yuppie colonization.
For the moment at least, the pace of change in urban centers may be slowing down along with the national economy. Certainly in tech-heavy San Francisco, there are already signs that soaring rents may be stabilizing as the dot-com boom continues to bust. Ironically—but predictably—Solnit's book is already showing its age. "For San Francisco to become a place that just provides opportunities to buy pet food online is…a decline whose effects will be felt far away," writes Solnit, referring to Pets.com, which went out of business in the gap between when Solnit wrote her book and its January publication. Indeed, the next wave of change is already upon the city. Some young dot-commer may be having the time of her life, and will soon be lamenting the passing of her favorite hangout (perhaps a theme bar or sushi joint that folks like Keating advocate destroying) and the unique, irreplaceable crowd of bright young people gathered in that magic city of San Francisco.
All of us live, love, drink, eat, carouse, and sleep atop the corpses of the past, a past that someone loves and misses. The city is dead, long live the city.