The California I most deeply reside in is the California of personal imprint—generations of it. It’s the stuff of absorbed histories—the weight and heft of personal adaptations, language, and traditions. You brought a little of your past with you—how to string beans or devein shrimp or how to make a roux; you brought a lullaby; you brought coming-of-age rituals. You compared and shared with your neighbors because you were creating a community. All was integrated into the rhythm and space of your new environs. You brought your pride and joy along with your cleverness or itch for adventure. You brought what was road-worthy, meaningful, something worth handing down.
That ability to “make do,” or improvise, applied in many ways. “Placemaking” is the work of the mind as well as the hands. Living in California has often meant that you have to become familiar with and conversant in both the mythic place and the real place, and know where they come together—that seam where the extrapolation and the real meet.
As I moved out of my teens and into my twenties, I understood that seam—this place—as negative space, that area between two visible knowns. It was a trick of perception, in a sense it became an empty room to fill. If what has been promised doesn’t exist, or what my forebears came to find fell short, then what did they encounter? What is it that we celebrate, what is that we think of as home?
“Many of them have chosen to live here and just don’t know how to make a connection,” James Lin, Glide’s senior director of mission and social justice, tells me—they have a neighborhood, in other words, but scarcely know their neighbors. Enter Glide. The church had both the cred and the networks to facilitate an introduction between its oldest and newest residents. As cofounder and minister of liberation, Williams has stood astride poverty and fame for half a century; he marched in Selma, he’s counted the Mandelas and Obamas and Oprahs and Bonos of the world as friends. A newly arrived company looking for an ally on these blocks, or perhaps a broker, could do far worse.
To Felicia Horowitz, wife of tech luminary Ben Horowitz and a devoted Glide supporter, the tech industry has to work extra hard for community acceptance—even as far more insidious local industries mostly escape public reprobation. Chirag Bhakta didn’t mutter about predatory lending bros ruining the neighborhood. At the center, Horowitz sees an abiding tech truth. “We’re outsiders. That’s what it comes down to. We always have been,” Horowitz told me.
“He wanted to know if there was such a thing as a ‘Fart Chart’ of different kinds of beans,” McGee said. “And if he used a different kind of beans, could he maybe eat a couple more servings? He also wondered if there was something he could do to the beans ahead of time.”
The next day, McGee went looking for answers. At the Yale biology library, he discovered that plenty of food-science research had been published by and for the food manufacturing and packaging industries, but little of it had been shared with chefs or home cooks.
“I spent hours in that library because I had never seen anything like it,” McGee told me. “Poultry science and agricultural and food chemistry. I would just flip through random volumes and see microscopic studies of things I eat every day. It seemed so cool and unexpected. It took more than a day to home in on the right sources about beans, but not only did I find out what’s in them and what you can do about it, but there is a fart chart and there are things you can do to lessen your suffering. Most of the research in the field of flatulence was funded by NASA. If you think about it, it makes good sense — these were still the days of capsules.”
When I woke up on January 1st of 2012, I resolved not to drown. At 24 years old, I still lacked a crucial survival skill that most American children pick up before finishing elementary school.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. As a toddler my parents enrolled me in classes at a local YMCA; while I did develop an electromagnetic poolside grip, I did not successfully learn to swim. Later, I took a few lessons at a neighbor’s pool until those ended abruptly following rumors that another neighbor was threatening to alert the authorities to the unlicensed swimming business. In high school, during a harrowing water-treading test, my gym teacher hovered nervously over me as I flailed my gangly limbs to keep my face just above the water’s surface, and when I looked up I saw in his eyes my own terror reflected back. Knowing that he wouldn’t want to be responsible for a kid drowning in his gym class, I was certain he’d happily let me switch to the more terrestrial bowling/tennis/golf PE track that term. After high school I went to a college that had a somewhat absurd but rather practical requirement that in order to graduate, you had to be able to swim two pool lengths. I passed by back-floating across; no one seemed to mind that it took me nearly a half hour to “swim” a total of 50 yards.
Being in the water terrified me, evoking the kind of primal fear that our ancestors learned, generally, to heed. But I rarely told anyone; I was too embarrassed to admit I couldn’t swim. Attending an outdoorsy college with more riverside ropes to swing on and cliffs to jump off than I cared for meant that I often found myself in the water hoping and praying that I could thrash my way to some semblance of dry land before swallowing too much water–or before a fate worse than death to my idiotic college-addled brain: to have to be saved from drowning by a peer.
So on New Year’s Day that year, I promised myself one final chance to figure the damn thing out before resigning myself to a lifetime in fear of three quarters of the Earth’s surface. Read more…
Gentrification isn’t simply the process of urban change through the rise in property values. It involves power dynamics between people in control and people at their mercy, and often between the white majority and working-class minorities. One group affected by gentrification is artists. In Radio Silence, Ian S. Port writes about the way musicians continue to get squeezed out of cities like San Francisco, Paris and New York, about how their departure changes the character and economy of the cities that benefited from their cultural contributions, and about the impermanence of bohemia. Complicating the picture is the fact that artists and bohemians are often gentrifiers themselves, moving into lower-income neighborhoods early in the cycle in order to capitalize off of low rent. Not everyone sympathizes with ousted musicians, yet many of us who listen to music benefit from their ability to create it. Port’s piece originally appeared in April, 2015. The magazine says it’s their most talked about story.
This influx of newcomers raised unsettling questions. If San Francisco was already going the way of gentrified Manhattan—as Borsook described it, “a slightly faded kosher butcher shop replaced by an Italian fusion restaurant, what was the rehearsal space for a dance troupe become a lawyer [now tech company] loft”—where would the artists go? There’s a limited supply of dense, thoroughly urban places in the United States, and only a handful of large ones west of the Mississippi. If the newfound tastes of the upper-middle class and the wealthy made it so artists couldn’t afford to dwell in those places, what then? What would happen to bohemia when artists were shunted to more sprawling and affordable cities? A spread-out burg like Los Angeles might foster its own pockets of artistic activity, but there’s a vast difference between that sort of scattered bohemia and the concentrated energy of, say, North Beach in the 1950s.
San Francisco’s dot-com boom went bust in the early 2000s, and as its wealth evaporated, the city was jolted back toward normalcy. “For Rent” signs papered the windows of apartment buildings on Geary Boulevard from the city center out to the Pacific Ocean. Some artists and musicians who had left were able to return, bolstering the bohemian community that remained. Young people still came to San Francisco to find success in creative fields. With a little searching for the right living situation, one could find a room at a price that would leave plenty of time for making art after making the rent. John Dwyer lived on Haight Street in those days, and he could be seen riding his chromed bicycle around town during the hours normal people were at work.
What happened inside the Latitude Society? In September, we featured a Longreads Original by Rick Paulas, “‘We Value Experience,’” which told the story of artist/entrepreneur Jeff Hull and his group’s attempts to build a sustainable “secret society” in the Bay Area. Paulas has shared the following postscript on what happened after his story about the group went public.
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Five days after my article went up at Longreads (“’We Value Experience’: Can A Secret Society Become a Business?”, 9/24/15), visitors to The Latitude’s website were met with the following prompt:
They have astonishingly well-paid jobs that they don’t like. Some plan to stay only until their options are vested. Then they will move on to their “actual” careers. This population of the possessed waiting to be dispossessed spends an inordinate amount of time comparing the gourmet kitchens of different website headquarters. The top digital companies in the Bay Area are famed for putting on lavish buffets and encouraging employees to invite friends from rival firms to join the feasts. The company cafeteria has arguably become the preeminent battleground in local corporate bragging rights. For many young workers in the internet industry, San Francisco is a salaried vacation between college and their careers, a well-earned break before starting their adult lives. So what do they do with their free time during this purgatory? They eat.
—Theodore Gioia writing in Virginia Quarterly Review about the food culture that has emerged in San Francisco, fueled by tech money, youth, a sense of transiency and free time, and built on the foundation of conscious-eating laid by people like Alice Waters.
Leah Rose | Longreads | August 2015 | 12 minutes (2,876 words)
On a Saturday afternoon in February, a group of 15 men stood chatting on the back patio of the Eagle, a leather-themed gay bar on 12th Street in San Francisco. The lone female of the group, 55-year-old Donna Merlino, known as Downtown Donna, untangled a heap of heavy extension cords and powered up a Crock Pot full of lamb stew. Wearing a black leather vest and sturdy black boots, Donna set up two tables of food for the guys, who sipped pints of beer surrounded by paintings of pantless Freddie Mercury lookalikes with enormous genitalia.Read more…
After his wife died in a car accident in 1973, bisexual writer and activist Steve Abbott moved with his two-year-old daughter Alysia to San Francisco, a city bustling with gay men in search of liberation. Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father is that daughter’s story—a paean to the poet father who raised her as a single, openly gay man, and a vivid memoir of a singular and at times otherworldly girlhood. As noted in The New Yorker, the memoir, which vividly recalls San Francisco in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, “doubles as a portrait of a city and a community at a crucial point in history.” Our thanks to Abbott for allowing us to reprint this excerpt here.
I called him Eddie Body. At four years old, language was my playground. “Eddie Body’s not anybody! Eddie Body’s not anybody!” I’d repeat, relishing the near symmetry of the sounds. Eddie Body was Dad’s new boyfriend, his first serious relationship after our move to San Francisco in 1974. There’d been different men—good-looking men, funny-looking men, almost always tall and skinny and young—that I found in Dad’s bed in the mornings. But it was different with Ed. He was the only one with whom I became close. He is the only one I can remember. We spent six months living with Eddie Body. I loved him.
A twenty-two-year-old kid from upstate New York, Eddie Body had moved to San Francisco to get away from his pregnant wife, Mary Ann. He’d made a pass at my dad one afternoon over a game of chess in the Panhandle Park. Soon after, Ed moved into our apartment, a four-bedroom Victorian located a few blocks from Haight Street.
Haight-Ashbury’s “Summer of Love” had ended in 1968 with the arrival of heroin and petty crime. For years the neighborhood was dominated by bars, liquor stores, and boarded-up storefronts. But rent was cheap and soon my father, along with scores of other like-minded searchers, moved in, setting up haphazard households in the dilapidated Victorian flats that lined Oak and Page streets. Many of these new residents, if not hippies themselves, shared an ethos of experimentation and free expression. Many also happened to be gay. Read more…