the one and only truly amazing katster (katster) wrote,
the one and only truly amazing katster

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historical memory

San Franciscans acquire a lost city as soon as they've stayed long enough to remember what used to be in this niche in their neighborhood or that former industrial site South of Market. Then they join the locals whose hallmarks are nostalgia and suspicion of change, maybe because the city changes so much and much is lost in the endless transitions. Or maybe because we love the ghosts, the used-to-bes and if-you-were-here-thens.

News in the simplest sense is the sudden event -- the fire, the murder, the war -- but there are other stories to report, of the long slow metamorphoses that alter our lives and worlds as radically in the end.

In 1960, San Francisco was a 72 percent white, blue-collar port city with a bustling waterfront. By 1980, the waterfront was half-abandoned, downtown had mushroomed, and San Francisco was the most ethnically diverse city in the United States.

A decade later, whites were a minority, and the city was a capital of white-collar jobs in information management. In two or three decades, everything shifted, and not in a predictable way.

The change continues -- not at the breakneck speed of the dot-com era, but still, every year, there's a little more distance between the new San Francisco and the more affordable, scruffy, provincial town I remember from my childhood, and there are a few more ghosts.

The Chronicle has done a wonderful series on nostalgia and the city that used to be. There are five articles in the series. The first, linked in the first quote above is the introduction, but each article takes a different peek at that city that was and the city that will be. Following are four quotes, each taken from the four different articles. Together, they make a powerful reflection on just who we were and who we are, and who we might be as we peer into the haze of the future.


Playland was located at Ocean Beach, just north of Golden Gate Park, below the point where the land rises to Sutro Heights. The attractions in this corner of the city had the added novelty of being where Western civilization meets the Pacific Ocean -- in a way, at the end of the world.


The layers of political issues accumulating on his wall are like newspapers stacking up or leaves falling on a forest floor, forming a rich loam of history and a record of changing times, Tomb says. He says he considers himself a gardener of sorts who "tends the conversations sprouting" on it.

There are too few venues in San Francisco for artistic and political expression, Tomb says. And yes, he admits, he is a transplant to the Mission, and his home has angered some residents.

"It's human nature to not want change. As an architect, I've experienced that -- people fight it," Tomb says. "But ironically, that's what makes a city vital. If it's a jewel box, if it's a museum, it's dead."


Jody takes me to the yoga and Pilates room, which has a floor so polished that even the most sour-spirited person would want to slide across it in a pair of cotton socks. At one time, financial markets seemed swaddled in ticker tape, with trading floors constantly covered in tiny scraps of paper. Stock trading hasn't been much of a confetti toss for a while now. Blame technology.

The exchange was founded in 1862, as the San Francisco Stock & Bond Exchange. Far away, soldiers suffered gashing bayonet wounds on the battlefields of the Civil War. In a basement on California Street, men gathered at an appointed time as part of, essentially, a betting club on mining.


In a city that made a mall out of a chocolate factory and lines its historic fishery with wax museums, Pier 70 is perhaps the best place to see the old San Francisco -- the blue-collar port town left to die, but still breathing.

Between the high-tech, half-built glass structures of Mission Bay and the toxic, closed-down military base at Hunters Point, the bay shore makes a slow curve. Here, at the base of Potrero Hill, the new economy of biotechnology and baristas almost touches what remains of the world of giant industrial ships and machinists.


Change happens. And sometimes, historians are the only ones who remember. You really ought to read all the articles in the series, they're a fascinating glimpse at the San Fransisco that was and is. It is this struggle with change that defines truly what it means to be human and to be alive, I suspect, and this vast struggle between what was and what is and what we want things to be. The series is doubly interesting because it takes place here in California, at the far end of Western Civilization, the place where the wave running west across the world flounders and dies on the shoals of the Pacific.

I once wrote an essay for my California history class that wasn't well received because I strayed off topic, but now I count it as probably one of the most interesting essays I wrote. It's weak in places, but it stands as a manifesto of why I studied history.

Nor, for that matter, is humanity friendly to preserving historical memory. One minute, there's a dry vacant field that you and your friends used to play in when you were growing up. A minute later in the grand scheme of things, it is a strip mall where your kids always want to hang out. Nothing ever stays the same; nothing stays static. It rotates, a twisting kaleidoscope that threatens to take everything you remember and everything you once cherished and throw it into the dumpster of time. Nothing ever lasts a hundred years.

Who we are *does* matter, I believe. And to understand who we are, we have to remember who we were and what we hope to be. Stories like the five cited above help us to remember.
Tags: history, san francisco, who i am

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