By JOE DAVID
For many years, I have been travelling west to pay homage to San Francisco and to close members of the family who still insist on living in the Bay Area. Sadly, I discovered during my recent trip that the grande dame on the Pacific Coast is rapidly losing its distinctive beauty. That once chic town in which catchy songs were written is getting a botched face-lift. Political mistakes over the years have finally caught up with the city. Men and women alike are no longer dressing to the nines and flaunting their status with aristocratic haughtiness. Those residents who have it are only revealing discrete touches of it – a little gold here and a splash of Hermès there – during public strolls.
Valuables are locked up in vaults, where they remain on hold for private occasions. What you see in public are the tasteless signs of a classless society mannerlessly pushing aside others in today’s era of TJ Maxx originals and boorish behavior. The new look is stretch jeans, backpacks, unruly hair, overly designed and wordy T-shirts screaming cryptic or vulgar messages and much, much more. That moneyed look and that bourgeois need for refinement have become déclassé. Those who still cling to the expensive mannequin-runway look are saving it for their visits to smart restaurants, scandalously expensive hotels or restricted private clubs and charity events.
I blame this change on those economic egalitarianists who are strangling the city with their avant-garde attempts to rob the middle class through taxation, and those criminals who are taking advantage of a California law (Prop 47), which permits them to steal with impunity (provided the item costs less than $950).
I will leave the why this is happening to those “brilliant” academics, politicians, and social critics who claim to have all the right answers. I am sure they have many profound thoughts on the social conditions ripping apart American cities. I, in the meantime, will shed a tear for what was – and what may never be again – a multi-layered society with a diverse citizenry who once behaved civilly and individualistically with respect to good taste and human decency. In short, the world I once knew and enjoyed in San Francisco.
Today, a radioactive fog hovers over San Francisco. Surgically masked clean-up crews wash away the waste from the previous day in preparation for a new day of activity. In some areas, tents and questionable behavior blanket the community 24/7. Downtown, visitors are greeted by drifters stretched out comfortably on park benches, doorways and Bart stations. These drifters, when on the move, can be seen almost anywhere with their black plastic garbage bags over their shoulder, weaving aimlessly through the crowds, pausing only long enough to beg or pick through garbage. In a city that claims to ooze human love, it seems that love has been abandoned by our leaders. Crime, syringes, reckless government spending (and corruption), homeless encampments in public areas, and animal and human defecation on the sidewalks have become visible signs of their failure.
Fortunately, the natural beauty of the hills overlooking the Bay hasn’t been totally eclipsed by the vulgarisation of the city. Riding the cable cars and enjoying the carnival atmosphere at the Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Building (Embarcadero) are still popular attractions. Despite what appears to have become a planned disfigurement by social planners and politicians of a Great American City for nefarious reasons, San Francisco still manages to cling to some of its golden-age charm.
The cable cars are still clanking up and down the hills, the Golden Gate Bridge is still photographable, and those frequently visited Victorian homes (on Steiner Street and elsewhere) are still as handsome as ever. For food lovers, eating is a huge pleasure. There are many places to go, such as the Ferry Building Market (especially Cap’n Mike’s Holy Smoke on Saturday mornings), Mollie Stone’s Grocery Store, Mara’s pastries (North Beach), Boudin Bakery Café (the king of sourdough bread), Le Central, Café de la Presse, and many high-end restaurants like Le Panisse (in Berkeley). A few popular places like Sears Fine Food (at Union Square) somehow still survive, even though their once remarkable Swedish pancakes are no longer remarkable. See’s and Ghirardelli chocolates are everywhere, but those quality chocolates from the Swiss Chocolatier Teuscher’s are hidden from sight on Sutter Street near Grant Avenue.
On the flip side, the City of Paris Department Store is long gone, but its iconic building still exists (occupied today by Neiman Marcus). Tom Sweeney (the veteran doorman in Beefeater’s costume who greeted everyone at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel for years), Jeremiah Towers Star’s Restaurant, René Verdon’s Le Trianon, and a host of other places and people are today only lingering memories.
To stay in competition with all the 21st Century changes nationally, the city’s skyline has been noticeably altered at the cost of some very quaint neighborhoods. Rumours on the street, though, indicate that the city is facing serious problems, as businesses are relocating to other states to avoid the “privilege” of generously supporting through heavy taxation a crumbling system.
Despite this shake-up of businesses, famous stores like Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Williams-Sonoma, Gump’s (what’s left of it) still maintain residence downtown, supported well in many cases by the parvenu Silicon-Valley crowd, spendthrift visitors and some of the wealthy, old-line families. This also applies to the private clubs like The Metropolitan, California Tennis, Pacific-Union Clubs, and that forever “respectable” Bohemian Club, which those with enough pedigree, position, and/or money may join.
Finally, we must never forget the trendy population that enjoys flaunting their fantasies in your face. Today, that crowd no longer confines its behaviour to bars and cabarets in remote areas of the city, but instead they have spilled out into the streets.
If you haven’t recently seen the city, you must hurry there before it is too unsafe and too unsanitary to tolerate. And while you are visiting this 21st Century Sodom and Gomorrah, you should keep in mind that it sits on a temperamental fault that likes to shake things up from time to time, so do visit the circus before 1906 or 1989 repeats itself. The next shake-up may be the last one.
Joe David is the author of six books including two controversial novels (The Fire Within, about education, and The Infidels, about the genocide in the Middle East) and numerous articles for magazines, newsletters, and websites. He is currently working on a seventh book.