What Does It Mean to Be “So San Francisco”?

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I recently saw a photo making the rounds in my social media outlets. “Is This the Most San Francisco Photo Ever Taken?” blared the headlines on SFist. The image was very hip, to be sure, right down to the Dolores Park locale, Google Glass, and empty Blue Bottle cup on the grass. But to be a hipster doesn’t represent all of what it means to be a San Franciscan, and it’s time we stopped talking like it does. One of the comments on the photo echoed a thought that had crept into my mind:  

“You guys need to get out of the Mission more.” 

The photo is very “San Francisco” – that is, if you are a certain kind of San Franciscan. Young, for one. Someone who recently moved here. Well-off enough to live in the most up-and-coming parts of the city, to afford a Google Glass and Blue Bottle Coffee and a day off in Dolores Park.  

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To be in San Francisco is to be surrounded by a rich history of ethnicities and foods and professions and curiosities. There is a subset of these things that, yes, can be called hip – but it’s important to be careful not to conflate “hipster” and “San Francisco.”  

This is a city with so many neighborhoods and cultures, and I think we do a disservice to ourselves when we associate San Francisco with young (mostly) white people who listen to the same music and drink the same beer and are subject to the same trends.

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Seven by Seventy

My husband's grandmother, Marilyn Blaisdell, is a San Francisco historian, a career she picked up later in life. She spent years raising six children at her home in St. Francis Wood. She and her husband, Bill, live now at the edge of the city, across from Ocean Beach, with a view that extends to the Farallon Islands on the clearest of days. She collects art and photographs of the Sutro Baths and Golden Gate Park. She's written a book on Woodward's Gardens, an amusement park that occupied space at what now is Mission between 13th and 14th Streets in the late nineteenth century. And she and Bill, married over 60 years, celebrate their milestone anniversaries with five o'clock dinners at the Cliff House or pizza at Gaspare's on Geary.

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It is important to know her San Francisco – a city with history that extends back centuries before I got here, before Bi-Rite started selling salted caramel ice cream. I want to know the city that she still occupies, the restaurants and postage-stamp museums and chilly afternoons at the Japanese Tea Garden. I want to know how Bayview and Hunters Point, areas once reserved for shipyards and slaughterhouses and radiological decontamination, became the most economically marginalized parts of the city. I want to know because I want to live here as a whole person, not just as one part of one small demographic.

If we stay in our own San Francisco, we will never get the whole picture. We will eat at Delfina and Tartine, drink wine at Dolores Park, share rides on Lyft, walk to yoga. We are in constant danger of consuming the San Francisco that is comfortable and familiar on our terms without ever getting to know the city on its terms. And isn't the best part of living in an urban environment that not everyone is like you? Free from tract homes and subdivisions, what a gift it is that we get to inhabit one of the country's most diverse cities! But diversity is meaningless if we stick to our tribes of young, white, 20-somethings.  

I want to argue, I guess, for the expansion of our definition of San Francisco – we can include hipsters, for sure, but we need to know the horizon does not end with the tapered ankle of a skinny jean. The City by the Bay stretches out far to the west and north and east and south of where the trend conscious might normally venture, and there is much to see and much to learn outside of our sunny environs.

There is a San Francisco outside of the Mission; a world where cheap beer is enjoyed unironically and the sun sometimes shines on the open ocean and no one wears glasses without a prescription.

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Conformist Borders 

Any map of happenings in SF – eateries, corporate parties, dog parades – will invariably lean east-heavy. With North Beach stacked on top of the FiDi on top of SoMa on top of the Mission (and this area’s unique accessibility to BART and public transit), it’s easy to live your entire San Francisco life in one slim corridor of the city’s 49 square miles, and to interact only with other people who do the same. It’s how we get what I like to call the “hipster blinders,” those attractive but perilous set of beliefs about what really constitutes San Francisco and the unbridgeable gap between Us and Them. Part of the irony of the existence of the young and hip is that they are universally alike in their nonconformism, and conformity is anathema to the life of a great city.

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Earlier this year, a blogger for Indian Vogue wrote a profile of life in San Francisco. Her opening paragraph reveals much of the insider bias of the lifestyles of the young and the tech-rich:

"Living in San Francisco is an enviable lifestyle. Everyone with an idea and a smartphone wants to be strolling along the hilly sidewalks of this tiny glimmering city with perfect weather on the westernmost tip of Americana. If you don’t believe it, ask the city’s real estate agents. There's demand."

Aside from the laughable part about our "perfect weather," this is an entirely descriptive look at the story of cultural exceptionalism we San Franciscans tell ourselves. Except that the exceptional San Francisco lifestyle has boundaries – Divisadero to the west; the 280 to the south and east. Outside this cradle of creativity, the lifestyle is less enviable and less desirable. If you don't believe it, ask the city's real estate agents. San Francisco is the only major city in the country where the real estate is cheaper the closer you get to the ocean.

The primary benefit of being in a city – beyond, or perhaps inclusive of, the public transportation and great food – is that you are guaranteed to live in a place where the majority of people are not like you. They do not come from your hometown, do not work in your industry, are not the same age as you, and don’t share your anxieties. It would be a terribly sad thing and a failure of what it means to inhabit a city well if I spent all of my time only with the small sliver of the population who think the same way I do.

It is very easy to frequent the same coffee shops, talk to the same people, and never venture far beyond the neighborhoods we find ourselves in. But because of Marilyn Blaisdell and people like her, there is a vision of a San Francisco we can see more of and know more about. To be “San Franciscan” is not to be a hipster – in fact, if someone had shown the SFist photo to Marilyn, she would likely have shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s not the San Francisco I know.”

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Published on August 12, 2013, 2013

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