Have the lights gone down forever in the City by the Bay?
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...