I MISS MY UGLY CITY

I moved to New York on September 1st, 2013. I often get asked, by people both here and in California, whether or not I like it. And I feel like I should be completely sure how to answer them, but I’m not.

My coworkers, my parents, or my friends back in California (many of whom I still text or Gchat with on a near-daily basis, one of the few plus-sides of contemporary tech-communication norms) usually pose this question as well-meaning small talk, but I’ve yet to come up with a confident answer. I feel 100-percent sure that I needed to move here at some point my life, and 110-percent sure that I chose the perfect time to do it. But whether I think that New York is patently better to live in than San Francisco or any other decent metropolis? Well, I’m just not sure about that, no matter how many people tell me that the colloquial Big Apple is the best city in the world. There’s so much to it, I know, but it lacks trees (especially of the palm variety), decently priced avocados, and underdog charm (something that’s rapidly and violently being sucked out of my beloved San Francisco).

bernal hill, the beautiful

The house that I left behind was at the base of Bernal Hill. I would take 6-minute hikes from my front door to its peak, where I could ogle all of the Australian Shepherds in the city as they chased each other in circles around its slopes. Once, some local do-gooder mischief-makers dragged a stand-up piano up to the top of it, and people would play concertos and shit while others would sit in circles around them like hungry first-graders. Another time, someone made an expansive crop circle at its base out of red rocks. It was magical.

I moved to the three-way border of the Mission, the Excelsior, and Bernal Heights in January 2010 when I was 23, a refugee from the even more sickeningly gentrified neighborhood Hayes Valley. That same month, that particular stretch south of Cesar Chavez, then a bit of a no-man’s land, was dubbed “La Lengua” by local blog Burrito Justice, named for its tongue-like shape and high concentration of pupusa restaurants. At the time, it was considered slightly peripheral, almost an outskirt, a place for lesbians and musicians and Latino families. The primary attractions for my demographic were a very affordable spaghetti restaurant (love you forever, Emmy’s), a fantastic late-night taqueria (Cancun, obviously), and a dive bar with a superb $2 photo booth (love you too, Knockout). We had friends who wouldn’t come over because we lived “too far,” even though we were less than 10 blocks from many of their favorite bars. There was no Rock Bar or El Amigo or Virgil’s Sea Room or Ichi (in their places were two Mexican pool bars, the infamous Nap’s 3 (RIP), and an admittedly mediocre sushi spot that no one really misses). Even just four years ago, it was a great neighborhood because it was an actual neighborhood, not yet a bloated, price-inflated, new-condo strip mall.

This year, it got voted the Hottest Neighborhood in the Country, something that I’m sure the Mission was awarded shortly before it started getting soul-sucked by Google Bus riders. How quickly things have changed.

My dad was born and raised in the Sunset District, and my grandfather was brought to San Francisco by his Russian immigrant parents. Both became restaurateurs—it was truly the family business, and probably a huge influence on my eventual foray into food writing and media. Before my dad joined my grandfather, however, he was a bail bondsman, with most of his clients being Vietnam draft dodgers and other hippie types. (Now, in his state of full brainwashed addiction to Fox News, I sigh at the thought of this.) He also owned nightclubs and comedy clubs, the Old Waldorf, The Matrix, X’s, and the Punchline. In the ’70s and early ’80s, there was a vibrant, dirty music scene in San Francisco, a thirst for culture and subculture and drugs and grime and leather jackets, that week by week since has been replaced with untucked polo shirts and Google Glasses and people who think that Tartine bread could somehow be objectively better than a fresh Oaxaquena torta.

My grandfather owned Tommy’s Joynt, a still-standing no-bullshit corned beef sandwich dive on Geary and Van Ness. He died in 1999, but sometimes I read the Yelp reviews anyway. They’re peppered with rants from entitled self-identified foodies who don’t understand why anyone would want something non-artisan, served on a tray, palatable for the working class and for people who don’t give a shit about quinoa or kombucha, and reviews from people who gave one star because their drunk friend brought in outside food and had to throw it away when anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows that this is against the law.

Maybe that’s one of the things that really burns about San Francisco’s class war; the giant influx of new residents who have never and will never work a service job, or know what it’s like to have to wipe down a table when someone has drunkenly soaked it in their own interpretation of an Irish car bomb, or hang back up a pile of two dozen dresses that someone left in a dressing room instead of bringing it out for you to sort on a rack. Like most people who grew up in the area that I did, I was born with some kind of silver spoon in my mouth and undeniable privilege. But I’m glad that my parents never raised me to be above working at a record store or a restaurant, because that is when you see people’s true nature. When you are there simply to serve them, to assure that they have a good time, and they really have nothing to gain from being kind to you. They also feel like they have nothing to lose by yelling at you for taking too long to refill their water. And in spite of that, even though now I’m sitting at a desk in an office with free Lara Bars and soda, I still feel the urge to bus people’s tables whenever I’m at a restaurant.

San Francisco was once a place where people in the service industry could afford to live. And other non-white-collar people too; performance artists, drummers, political writers, radio show hosts. You’ll find them on the next ferry to Oakland, if they’re not there already.

I miss San Francisco. When I left, it felt like a languid, gap-toothed lover that I kept getting wine-drunk with over and over, each time ending up on the same couch giggling and eating the same quesadilla. I felt overly contented, uncomfortably comfortable. It’s hard to remember sometimes that that can be a bad thing, but it’s the same reason that if you wear leggings every day, you’ll get fucking fat. Resistance can be very valuable.

But in New York, the resistance might be excessive. A trip to Target takes a week to plan. Leaving the city is almost unheard of unless you magically befriend someone in ownership of a car, or are willing to spend $100+ to Zipcar it far enough out of city limits to feel like a real day trip. Mediocre cocktails are regularly $12 or more. But the difference is that New York knows this about itself, and shrugs. San Francisco is in the midst of an identity crisis. Is it North Beach strip clubs, or Haight Ashbury burnouts, or 24th street immigrants, or Valencia hipsters, or preening SOMA tech peacocks? And can all of the above possibly live together, fairly and happily, in a space only 7 miles by 7 miles?

What I had in San Francisco as a younger person will never be again, because I will never be 23 and devoid of responsibility again. But I carry with me literally hundreds of flashes of running down the street, barely able to breathe because I’m laughing so hard, happy that things were still kind of weird and dangerous and unpredictable.

So I don’t know if I’ll be here for a long while, or what my next frontier will look like. It’s hard to chase beauty when you find it in things that are a little bit ugly. San Francisco, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever be back for good. Maybe in six months, maybe never. But I’m not ashamed to say that I miss you, or at least my memory of you.

15 Comments

    1. Thank you so much! I love Bernalwood and used to read it all the time! (And still do sometimes, even though I don’t live there anymore.) I just kind of wrote this to clear my brain and wasn’t expecting some of my favorite local SF blogs to see it, but I’m glad that people can relate to it. 🙂

  1. What you say here is very beautiful. And yes, there is change. But the beautiful and the ugly are still present. I’d never thought about my own affection for this place in those terms — for the last 23 years, I’ve lived within a single square mile, first in the Mission, now in north Bernal — but yes, that’s why I love it here also. And ironically, I grew up in New Jersey, so we’ve traded places.

    Anyhoo, I’ll share this with the ‘Wood.

    Speaking of change, and The Change, this is a good read too, and on similar themes: http://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/san-francisco-dead-long-live-san-francisco

    1. I agree with you, and I don’t think San Francisco is a lost cause. As the article you shared above delves into, all cities go through change; there is so much inertia that it would be impossible to stop. I just hope that people see beauty in the same things I did and see as much value in the “old” SF (pre-2nd dot-com/app boom) as they do potential in its future. I also hope (hypocritically, maybe) that not all of the creative types leave because it’s unaffordable. A continued community of artists, musicians, chefs, multi-generation families, writers, and family businesses is the only way it can retain the spirit that its known for—and why many people are drawn to it in the first place.

      My dad already thought SF was dead by the time I was a teenager because he had a completely different experience there as a youth than I did. So it goes to show that maybe this happens with every generation.

      1. Without in any way downplaying the impact of change and the hardship it can cause, that’s kind of where I’ve ended up. Basically, if you end up judging SF against you memories of what it was like when you (or I) were 22, you will miss out on what is cool about about it today. The change is tough. But the alternatives are far worse.

        At the end of the day, I think I’d rather trust today’s 22 year olds, the inherent magic of this place, and the dynamism of the city than put my faith in a bunch of wooly nostalgia, failed progressive politics, and legal intervention. But hey, that’s just me. 😉

      2. Totally. I think that gentrification has many negative reverberations, not just displacement-wise but also culturally, but I also can’t really adhere to the idea that anyone “owns” San Francisco, in the same way that no one can “own” New York City, or the Earth. But, in the same way we don’t want the Earth to be deforested and polluted and stripped of all of its natural beauty and resources, we don’t want San Francisco to be deprived of its character. That’s why it’s important that SF’s interests remain in the power of its people rather than in a few choice corporations that want to set up shop here.

        Just a bid for San Francisco staying weird, and weird people staying in San Francisco. I’ve really enjoyed discussing this with you! And again, I LOVE Bernalwood!

  2. Dear Hillary

    What you wrote can only seem new from the ahistorical perspective of someone who is 23 and thinks they are the first to notice the ugly effect of gentrification. The same issues and complaints have been raised about the yuppie,boho or dot commie since at least the 1960s, here AND in NYC and London and. The halcyon days of the late 1990s you pine for were the epicenter of an obscene and rapacious destruction of an indigenous scene. Plus c’est change.

    1. I agree with you, as I mentioned elsewhere somewhere down here in the comments section. This is merely a personal reflection on what San Francisco meant to me and previously meant to my family, as well as a longing for that feeling that a city could truly be yours—fleeting as it is for all of us. I pine for nothing, merely appreciate the memories I have. It’s not even meant to be an anti-gentrification rant; just a set of observations that lead up to my decision to move and continues to be in the back of my mind even though I’m 3000 miles away. Every generation goes through this; change is inevitable in all cities of magnitude.

  3. Holy crap. I was stunned to read this because it is my EXACT experience. The only difference is I moved August instead of September. But the 6-min run to the peak, the struggle to have a confident answer about nyc vs sf, the uncomfortable comfortableness.. its identical. I used to romanticize moving here. But now I cringe at the constant scent of concrete urine and garbage, secretly reminiscing about the flower trees and nature smells.. Then hit with the reality it will never be the same there.

  4. Thank you for summing up exactly what I’ve been experiencing this past year after moving to nyc from sf. I spent the better part of my 20s in sf, and it felt like another decade could easily (too easily) pass drinking sangria in Dolores, running through golden gate park and “laughing until I couldn’t breathe” with friends in front of some late night taqueria. After a year in nyc still don’t know how to answer the question of how I’m liking it…maybe we should start a support group for sf transplants, ha!

  5. I grew up in the NYC area, so I have funny/inverse memories of my first year in SF.

    Most of all, I remember being really disoriented in time — I could never remember when events in my recent past had happened, because I’d spent my entire life measuring them by seasons. “it was cold out” or “it was hot.” SF has seasons, of course, but it takes a while to tune in to them. But for my first three years or so in SF, I felt like I was living in one giant month of May. It was a happy blur.

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