Between Life and Death, There’s San Francisco: A Reading List

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

They came in the tens of thousands, pushing baby carriages and packing roller skates. All in all, an estimated 200,000 pedestrians crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on May 27, 1937, its first day in business. The bridge was already a San Francisco landmark—a flaming, burnt-orange beacon conceived a decade earlier by Leon Moisseiff, who had engineered the Manhattan Bridge. It was a graceful design, but suspension bridges still weren’t entirely safe—the engineer’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge would fail spectacularly only a few months after it opened in 1940.

The Golden Gate also has a dark side. To afford a view of the city, the bridge has a low barrier that is easy to scale. (In “Jumpers,” the New Yorker’s Tad Friend meditates on the bridge’s reputation for death—for the families and friends of those who succeed in their jumps, it’s an indelible monument to their loved ones’ pain.) This month, city workers will finally begin the installation of a new barrier, a grey netting that will blend into the water without obscuring the view. Officials hope it will finally reduce suicide rates on the deadly bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge has long embodied the contradictions of the city it overlooks: ambition, connection, innovation, a beginning and an end. San Francisco has always held those contradictions—a deep tension between life and death, old and new— and here some of our favorite stories about a changing city and the resilience of those who call it home.

1. “Death by Gentrification: The Killing That Shamed San Francisco” by Rebecca Solnit (The Guardian, March 2016)

Alejandro Nieto, a 28-year-old man murdered by policemen who claimed he was trying to taser them, died in part because of changes in neighborhood he’d lived in his entire life. Solnit argues that Nieto’s death was caused by the clashes that happen when a city’s new and old residents square off during periods of explosive growth.

San Francisco was never anti-newcomer: Until recently, it had always been a place where new people arrived to reinvent themselves. When they arrive in a trickle, they integrate and contribute to the ongoing transformation. When they arrive in a flood, as they have during economic booms since the 19th-century gold rush, including the dotcom surge of the late 1990s and the current tech tsunami, they scour out what was there before. By 2012 the incursion of tech workers had gone from steady stream to deluge, and more and more people and institutions— bookstores, churches, social services, bars, small businesses—began to be evicted.

San Francisco had been a place where some people came out of idealism or stayed to realize an ideal: to work for social justice or teach the disabled, to write poetry or practice alternative medicine—to be part of something larger than themselves that was not a corporation, to live for something more than money. That was becoming less and less possible as rent and sale prices for homes spiraled upward. What the old-timers were afraid of losing, many of the newcomers seemed unable to recognize.

2. “San Francisco is Dead. Long Live San Francisco” by Gary Kamiya (San Francisco Magazine, April 2014)

Is San Francisco dying? It’s a question that’s become a kind of parlor game for city residents and journalists like Kamiya, who calls the city’s war against itself “The Change.” That change is sweeping through the city as it becomes richer. But could it end up rebirthing the city?

The Change is an unconquerable force of nature, like death. And much of the reaction to it recalls the first three stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving: a combination of denial, anger, and bargaining. If we yell and rage loudly enough, if we find someone to blame, if we replace reason with hyperbole—Solnit memorably compared newly-arrived techies to ivory collectors in China—then somehow the city we know will come back…

But cities are also always being reborn. And as I wander through our new city, I find myself open to it. I’m not convinced that it is really going to become a soulless simulacrum of Manhattan (or worse, Atherton). I’m curious to know what San Francisco in 2025 or 2050 will look and feel like. I’m interested in the young people who are pouring in. When I wander through Dolores Park on a hot Saturday afternoon and watch the throngs hanging out, talking, drinking wine, smoking weed, and listening to music, I don’t examine them suspiciously, trying to figure out which ones are the bad techies and which ones are the good baristas (except for the people playing that inane toss-the-beanbag game—they gotta go). As I walk through Nob Hill or the Mission or mid-Market and see the fancy single-family homes or the sleek high-rise apartments that are sprouting up here and there, I don’t inwardly groan (except with real estate envy). Mostly, I view them with equanimity, as if they’re seedlings growing in the forest.

3.  “To Whom Does San Francisco’s Oldest Neighborhood Belong?”by Joe Garofoli and Carolyn Said (San Francisco Chronicle, December 2014)

The Mission is ground zero for the city’s gentrification wars, as families who have lived there for generations can no longer afford stability in their own neighborhood. In 2014, the Chronicle spent months diving deep into life in the Mission, finding that things aren’t as simple as out with the old, in with the new.

After 25 years on Valencia Street, Andrew McKinley’s Adobe Books was forced out because of high rents. His store reopened on 24th Street last year as a cooperative. “We were looked on as the gentrifiers of the old neighborhood,” McKinley said. “In the end, we (became) the victims of gentrification. Maybe now we are the gentrifiers again.”

On 24th Street, no business has earned that reputation more than Local’s Corner.

Milgrom uses “local” to refer to the food’s provenance. But to some Mission activists, “local” seems a strange choice, coming from a guy from New York.

And now they were picketing in front of his restaurant on behalf of a longtime Latina resident—a local—who was angry her party had been turned away from Local’s Corner.

After midnight, vandals attacked all four of Milgrom’s businesses. The message in the graffiti scrawls was unmistakable: “Die Yuppies.” “Get lost.” “Keep the Mission Brown.

4. “The Great West Coast Newspaper War,”by Eli Sanders (The Stranger, March 2010)

Tensions about money and legacy can play out in weird ways, like when San Francisco’s alt-weeklies went to war during the 2000s. The conflict was sordid at best, pitting the SF Weekly against its rival, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The epic battle that caused the two papers to steal one another’s delivery vans and smear each other online could be framed as one of gentrification too. (Spoiler: Three years after Sanders published this piece, the Guardian lost its battle and shuttered.)

No warm greetings from Michael G. Lacey [the executive editor and a co-owner of Village Voice Media], no kind wishes for ongoing professional relationships with everyone in the room. Instead, according to testimony in the court record, he disparaged the writing of the paper’s staff, the neighborhood in which they worked, and the product they put out. He told them things were going to improve now that he owned the place, but this would involve some big changes. No more political endorsements. (Younger readers don’t vote, he would later explain.) Less coverage of city hall. (Not what the 18-to-35 demographic wanted, he thought.) Longer investigative pieces. (To get at the “bigger picture” of San Francisco.) And a total ban on drawing inspiration from what, at the time, was unquestionably the city’s dominant alt-weekly: the Bay Guardian, founded in 1966, fascinated with the workings of city government, fond of picking fights with the local power structure, stamped each week with the motto “Print the news and raise hell,” and long a tribune for a certain strand of crusading West Coast liberalism.

To make clear his point about the changing frame of reference, Lacey grabbed a copy of the Bay Guardian off one of the desks in the room, threw it to the ground, and stomped on it. People who were at the meeting recall Lacey saying, “We don’t want to just compete with the Bay Guardian; we want to put the Bay Guardian out of business” and “We want to be the only game in town” and “We’re going to bury the Guardian.”

6. “Suddenly That Summer,”by Sheila Weber (Vanity Fair, June 2012)

Clashes between old and new, local and outsider, are part and parcel of San Francisco life, and they always have been: The city was born in the cradle of the Gold Rush, withstood generations of immigration, and is still in the throes of transformation. As radical as 1967’s Summer of Love wanted to be, it also was a movement with a foot firmly planted in the past:

What was unique was happening across town, where a group of young artists, musicians, and San Francisco State College students became besotted with the city’s past. “There was a huge romanticism around the idea of the Barbary Coast, about San Francisco as a lawless, vigilante, late-19th-century town,” says Rock Scully, one of those who rented cheap Victorian houses in a run-down neighborhood called Haight-Ashbury. They dressed, he says, “in old, stiff-collared shirts with pins, and riding coats and long jackets.” […]

More and more young people were flooding the Haight, including four beautiful girls from Antioch College, in Ohio. A sexy anarchist movement, the Diggers, had sprung up, and the girls joined in. One day two of them, Cindy Read and Phyllis Wilner, “were walking down Haight Street,” Cindy recalls, “and Phyllis said, ‘Isn’t this how you thought the world would be, except it wasn’t? But now, for us, it is!’ ”