I just came back from a 10-day visit to my hometown, San Francisco. There’s a lot I want to write about San Francisco. And by a lot, I mean a book’s worth.
But while I struggle to form my Grand Theory of San Francisco, I’ll settle for a collection of tidbits, which sometimes are the best way to describe an unquantifiable entity. Here’s one: an enduring discussion about whether or not “Frisco” is a legit nickname.
Common knowledge says that it’s off limits. Herb Caen, San Francisco’s most famous columnist, published a book called Don’t Call it Frisco in 1953, which Wikipedia says was taken from a 1918 San Francisco Examiner article. The subject has been on steady rotation in local media for years — especially since San Francisco street culture has resurrected the term. (Read more about the whole debate in this 2003 Chronicle article, whose author seems to have read this San Francisco State publication’s article from 1997.)
The issue recently came up on Sparkletack, the excellent blog of the San Francisco history podcast, which links to a nice post on Frisco Vista from a couple of years ago. I agree much with the latter’s conclusion that attempts to control how SF’s inhabitants refer to their city are stodgy and insecure.
The “issue” fascinates me because it’s such a flimsy one, but still manages to be an emotional one for San Franciscans. Tied up in the emotion are, I believe, questions about San Francisco’s identity — issues about class and change. Here’s a telling 1995 quote from Caen, who apparently was flexible in his opinion about the nickname:
“The toughest guys on the old SF waterfront, neither rubes nor tourists, called it Frisco, and no effete journalist would have tried to correct them.”
“Frisco,” it seems, has long been a tough-guy way to talk about The City. See, for example, the Cellski/Andre Nickatina song Frisco (warning: it has bad language and terribly violence-glorifying lyrics, which I only link to to prove a point, not celebrate).
It’s undeniably cheesy for San Francisco ears to hear Midwesterners, out-of-state news anchors and Hollywood characters call our city “Frisco.” It’s like a stranger using a term of endearment for someone close to you. It sounds either presumptuous or corny.
But it also seems possible that an effort to keep “Frisco” taboo is an effort to keep The City classy — a symptom of chafing against the riffraff’s lack of sophistication, and an impulse to try to control what The City represents. Of course, just about every community in the consolidated city and county is guilty of a similar impulse in some way. According to the rap song linked above, for example, San Francisco is the “land of homicide;” but for lots of other people it’s the land of Priuses, community gardens and medical marijuana; for others, it’s a place to enjoy the good life of world-class wines and fancy restaurants. All are partly true, depending on how you experience The City. They’re also all fantasies, as they are totally incomplete.
The anti-Frisco bandwagon smacks just a teensy bit of elitism — perhaps born of an old-time insecurity about just how fine of a city it is. This is a touchy subject in a city that is losing working class neighborhoods like a bad habit.
To me, “Frisco” is a rusted truck sitting under some eucalyptus trees in the September sun, against a backdrop of yellow grass and sun-bleached wooden houses.* It’s the weeds in the Caltrain tracks off Visitacion Valley. It’s kids drinking beer on hilltop parks at night, after all the dog-owners have gone home. It’s the orange lights of projects in the Alemany “wind tunnel,” next to a freeway that roars along on an old creek bed where, 150 years ago, water once gurgled. It’s the Beach Chalet bushes, barnacle-clad rotting pilings in green water, abandoned shipyards. It’s that street on the far side of Potrero Hill that you never walked down. It can be quite scratchy around the edges, but it’s a real and often beautiful part of The City.
Of course, in the end, San Franciscans will call their community whatever they want — in fact, we’ve got a long track record of doing whatever we want, anyway. From H.P. to the Castro, we’ve pretty much proved that by now.
*Hat Tip AR.