San Francisco Has an Evil Twin
It can be trippy to try to remember what San Francisco first looked like through your wide, virgin eyes. In trying to conjure your first impressions here, you might realize that the town has never stopped looking alien to you. If the Mission has been the center of your San Francisco universe, you may have had to mellow into a mystical “stability is change” mantra in order to not feel shaken every time a new pastry shop pops up. The speed with which businesses flare and fizzle can make a girl feel like she’s losing her mind, becoming the doomed heroine of a neighborhood-wide horror movie: “I swear the coffee shop was . . . right here! Wait – this Tex-Mex-themed restaurant with the fire pit wasn’t here yesterday!” 400Cue to a cut of raw-denim-clad zombies lumbering your way, stinking of artisanal juniper-berry cologne, wielding whimsical vintage electronics, a bit of egg from a crazy biscuit that bakery sells drooling from the corners of their mouths. They don’t want your blood, these zombies. They want something else . . . something harder to put your finger on, harder to locate – they want your cool.
Do I sound bitter? I’m actually not. I mean, I used to be, but then I realized that the Mission’s downward (or upward, depending on which side of the cultural divide you’re planted on) spiral has been doing the twist ever since I took the Valencia bus down the boulevard in 1993 to see about a vacant room on Albion Street. I remember how desolate Valencia looked. I worried briefly that someone would jump me. I’d grown up in a touchy place, but a recent stint in Tucson had softened me. I was wearing cotton sandals. If I was going to live in this place, I was going to have to invest in a pair of boots.
I heard the Mission was where the queers lived. Not the gays—they lived in the Castro. The queers. It seemed like I should be there too. I got the room on Albion, hopeful that I could make the $250-a-month rent. Some people, I heard, were paying $400! There were some cool places nearby, some of which still stand. Pancho Villa and Truly Mediterranean were my main sources of nourishment. I ducked into the back room at Dalva – a place where queer people never really hung out – and wrote for hours, undisturbed, in my notebook, while smoking copious cigarettes. The Albion is now called Delirium, but a pissoir by any other name would smell as rank. Amnesia was called The Chameleon and was ruled by poets. Red Dora’s Bearded Lady was an actual San Francisco dyke coffeehouse, and I could not believe such a thing existed. But to hear the folks who’d been in town a little longer than I had, I’d already missed everything.
See that bar there on the corner? The Elbo Room? Well, it used to be Amelia’s. A lesbian bar. And that empty storefront down the street? It used to be a feminist bookstore. Maude’s was gone too. It’s been gone so long that, although I missed it, I was in time for a screening of a documentary about it at the Roxie. Even Paula’s Clubhouse, the cool queer club that had dance parties one night and lounge acts from Justin Bond the next, closed less than a year after I kissed my first San Francisco girl in a slam pit on its dance floor. It turned into a sort of dude bar called Kilowatt.
Not only had I come too late for the heyday of bar dykery, I had just missed the best poetry scene over at Café Barbar. A gang of unruly scribes had regularly gathered there, snarling and fierce. A poetry open mic still existed. I could go and read my poem, but it just wasn’t the same, man! People had moved, or their drug habits had become too severe. Sure, other poets were slamming chairs over each other’s heads at Bucky Sinister’s Chameleon open mic, but it just wasn’t the same.
People were already talking about gentrification in the ’90s. By coming into this Mexican neighborhood looking for my queer kin, I was participating in a sinister trajectory that would end with the installation of outright theme restaurants on Valencia Street. I didn’t know what to do about it. The Mission looked like where I belonged, looked like the places where I’d always lived. A little rough, a little dangerous. Mostly people of color, some poor white people too.
Throughout the ’90s I watched the ebb and flow of businesses along Valencia. Take, for instance, the Beatles-themed restaurant that served canned oysters on actual oyster shells they washed in the dishwasher. What was it before that? Now it’s an abusively decorated mac ’n‘ cheese joint. Aunt Mary’s used to be the best place to get a Mexican breakfast, but then an enterprising gay with a uniform fetish turned it into a short-lived military-themed restaurant called Take Orders. (Man, the fact that he named the fruit bowl the “Tank Girl” really got my feminist goat!) Next, it became a rustic breakfast joint called something like Flatiron, and now it’s a different rustic breakfast joint.
When I’d return after being away each August on a long-long performance tour with Sister Spit, it became a sort of game to seek out all the new businesses upon my return. I was stunned at how quickly places were flung up and torn down. Then, I learned that the city of San Francisco is a Gemini.
Cities have astrological signs, just like people. It’s based on when a place “becomes” the place it is now – the signing of its city charter, I suppose. It will surprise no one to learn that New Orleans, with its twin obsessions of sex and death, is a Scorpio. Puritanical Boston is a Virgo. New York City, born of ethnic immigrant clans, is a Cancer. And San Francisco is a Gemini.
Gemini, a sign famous for its fickleness. Gemini, the twins. Gemini, addicted to information and ideas, the speedier the better. The thing about a good idea is, there’s always a better one right around the corner. Gemini can’t stay still, and neither can San Francisco.
Are there two San Franciscos, the way it’s claimed that every Gemini embodies a duality? There’s the San Francisco of unlimited freedom and liberty – the Barbary Coast hookers, the Summer of Love, Gay Liberation, and, later, Trans Revolution. A city that seems to really celebrate diversity, with an arts granting program – the Association for Cultural Equity – that is a model for the rest of the country for the way it prioritizes arts organizations helmed by people of color and homos, organizations historically underfunded, if not outright ignored. San Francisco, home to unionized strippers. Harvey Milk’s San Francisco, sister to Oakland’s Black Panthers just across the bay.
Or a whole world away from Oakland’s people’s revolutions. White San Francisco, pushing its black inhabitants out of the Fillmore and into toxic Bayview. Big-money San Francisco, making sweetheart deals with corporations like The Gap and, more recently, the America’s Cup, the sport of the extremely wealthy. The San Francisco that looked the other way when the first dot-com bloomed and its poor were evicted in droves, priced out of their homes. The San Francisco emerging in this new second tech bubble, seemingly more concerned with esoteric baked goods than artists, and people of color, and artists of color being driven from their homes. Again.
Understanding San Francisco as a Gemini brought some peace to my inner gentrification struggles. If the invasion of a tech moment is a quintessentially Gemini occurrence, so is its inevitable crash. As a Gemini, San Francisco has always been a place where wild ideologies have come to be put to the test. Eventually, some limits are hit. The Summer of Love’s hangover is still throbbing in the Upper Haight.
Our bewildering, fickle city is engaged in cycles too large for me to fully comprehend, with strings being pulled by powerful people I have no access to. Somewhere along the way, I decided to love San Francisco anyway. To enjoy the pastries while hating the greed of landlords. To be annoyed by newcomers who have no idea about the grave they’re dancing on, while reading Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind at a $4-a-cup coffee shop. To love living in the queerest city in America, which is also one of the most expensive. To be grateful that my fiancé has a job she loves at a tech company that treats her well (grateful that their health insurance extends to domestic partners too), while wondering, along with all the other community arts organizations, if the industry will ever extend itself to us. To not hate Valencia while I walk down its newfangled boulevard, to resist the feeling that something has been taken from me, even if it has. Fickle city. It was never mine to begin with.