Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Other San Francisco

San Francisco is known for doing some oddball stuff, especially politically. The fact that Speaker Nancy Pelosi comes from San Francisco doesn't always help or that Mayor Gavin Newsom seems to be more interested in pandering to the latest special interest group than in governing wisely or well. Still, I read people's reactions, especially in the conservative blogs, and I marvel at their descriptions of The City. They often bear no resemblance to what I see and experience every day.

When I arrive at the Embarcadero BART station every morning, I'm greeted with music--good music. The genre varies every day: mariachi, steel drum, saxophone, clarinet, banjo, mandolin, Peruvian pipes. Occasionally, a string quartet is there, playing classical music. At street level, there's a flower stand in the shape of a trolley car. The homeless guy--one of the regulars--smiles at me if he's aware enough, gently shaking his empty paper coffee cup. I can see the Bay down the street.

Last Friday, Hubs and two of the kids joined me after work for the lighting of the Embarcadero Center and the Christmas tree (and, yes, they call it a "Christmas" tree--not a "holiday" tree) in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. There were performances, including the High School Jazz Honor Band and the Pacific Mozart Choir (who sang Christmas carols, a Capella), and an ice show. The owner of the management group for the Center presented a check to the guests of honor--the Marine Corps, for their fund to help wounded marines readjust to civilian life. No one booed. No one spit. There was lots of applause and cheers.

And then there was fireworks.

Most of the streets I walk every day do not smell like piss and a fairly free of trash. The homeless I pass do not harass me. Most say "hello" and "God bless," especially if I look them in the eye and smile.

The German restaurant near work has Friday evening polka nights. This is so popular, there's a cover charge. Up the street, the pub owners are Cal alumni, so the "Straw Hat" band (a subset of the full Cal Band) comes to perform before major football and basketball games. The Italian cafe features a tenor and a soprano singing arias during lunch hour.

On nice days working folk and families with kids--or nannies with kids--sit by the Bay, eating lunch, watching the boats and the seagulls. There's a sign announcing a new passenger terminal to be built, but the Port can't until they figure out to do with Red's Java House, a beat up burger-and-beer joint, reminiscent of the blue-collar roots of the waterfront. The Hills Brothers Coffee warehouse and roaster is now a plaza with offices and restaurants, but the statue of the Arab in turban and robes, drinking a cup of coffee is still on display. The plaza is also home to a day care center. And the Embarcadero YMCA, dedicated to sailors and Marines, runs day camps during summer and school vacation.

And besides the cable cars, there are the historic street cars, from cities all over the world: Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, New Orleans (yes, the streetcar is named "Desire"), Osaka, Milan, Stockholm. They travel up and down Market Street on to Fisherman's Wharf and are a better bargain, at $1.50/adults, $0.50 for children and seniors, than the cable cars ($5.00).

There are the "dark" areas, especially around City Hall and the UN Plaza. The homeless, the down-and-outers are more edgy. There are also more police on foot or on bikes, especially during the holiday season. I am more alert here, more aware of my surroundings. The most difficult part is explaining to my children why: why these people might be here, why they might chose to live this way, why they might have to live this way.

Physically, San Francisco is small, so only a few blocks separate "safe" from "not-so-safe," "gay" from "straight," "financial" from "shopping," ocean from bay. It's a City and a County, with the Mayor elected at-large and the Supervisors elected by district, so there is constant tension between what is good for the City as a whole versus the special interests/needs of the districts. (When the Supervisors were also elected "at large" the politics were not quite so off-the-rails.)

San Francisco is not quite Sodom or Gomorrah. It is an example of the "Balkanizing" effect that special interest politics has on a city--or a state or a country--and how common sense is often the victim