John Steinbeck’s lessons for a gentrifying San Francisco

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. "SFC" stands for "Sucka Free City."

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. “SFC” stands for “Sucka Free City.”

Writing about San Francisco’s changing neighborhoods — a gentrification crisis according to some, a renaissance according to others — has  become quite the fashion in recent months and weeks. I can only assume many of these journalists were inspired by my devastating analysis of census data earlier this month.

The subject has been especially popular of late, but change in San Francisco is nothing new. Even change from the tech boom(s), while reaching a fever pitch in the last couple of years, has been going on since the 1990s. And many of us who feel so pained by the loss and/or change of the City’s vibrant communities would do well to remember the variety of incarnations it has been through in the last century and a half, right up until recent decades. When my parents moved to Bernal Heights in the late 1970s, my dad remembers going to a community meeting at St. Kevin’s church on Cortland, in which some participants said they were uncomfortable that many of their new neighbors were gay. At the time, Bernal was a very ethnically mixed neighborhood, with an especially large number of Latinos. My dad reminded people at the meeting of the backlash many Latinos faced a generation before when they moved into the largely Irish Mission. The meeting took a different course at that point, he says.

Change is the only constant in San Francisco, to use an unavoidable cliché, and the City has distinguished itself by its ability to embrace it, while maintaining some sense of continuity.

Sara Brody has some interesting thoughts on this over at The Bold Italic, though I take small issue with the headline, “Don’t Let Gentrification Push You Out of SF,” since in many cases it is only the most privileged vestiges of San Francisco’s old communities that actually have a choice about “letting” gentrification push them out. Most who have moved, at least the renters, left not as a matter of taste because they couldn’t afford it any more. Involuntary movement is a tragedy, always.

That being said, though, Brody raises some excellent points, the most important one for me being the uselessness of bitterness. Bitterness about change is part of an essential paradox of San Francisco, a city more liberal and welcoming than almost any, but with a deep and almost conservative devotion to its history. This paradox is almost never resolved. I’ve met descendants of old-time Irish San Franciscans who moved out of the City in the 1960s and still lament how it will never be the same. On the other hand, there are others who stayed if they could, remained involved in the new communities, and maybe even started calling Eureka Valley the Castro. (For a good account of these diverging reactions, read The Mayor of Castro Street)

So, to get to the (damn) point of this post: I just read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the account of a 1960 cross-country trip the native northern Californian, then resident in New York, took around America with his dog. A significant section deals with his reflections on the Bay, noting what was still there, and reminiscing about what wasn’t any longer. Time and again, I found wisdom in Steinbeck’s observations that is deeply relevant — even enlightening — for considering our current times in San Francisco. He is a gentle curmudgeon, one who honors the past while accepting the inevitability of change, especially in our fast-paced times. I think he provides a model for how to relate to the changes in the City. Here are a few excerpts, mostly from his time in Northern California.

On change in mid-century America:

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, the good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.

And on returning to northern California:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California. It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world. But I find it not one thing but many–one printed over another until the whole thing blurs. What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules. They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil. Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions. That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights. The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.

And isn’t this the typical complaint? I have never resisted change, even when it has been called progress, and yet I felt resentment toward the strangers swamping what I thought of as my country with noise and clutter and the inevitable rings of junk. And of course these new people will resent newer people. I remember how when I was a child we responded to the natural dislike of the stranger. We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians, forestieri, and they, the foreigners, resented us…. And we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in their turn on the Indians. Could that be why the sequoias make folks nervous? Those natives were grown trees when a political execution took place on Golgotha. They were well toward middle age when Caesar destroyed the Roman republic in the process of saving it. To the sequoias everyone is a stranger, a barbarian.

And on returning to San Francisco:

When I was a child growing up in Salinas we called San Francisco “the City.” Of course it was the only city we knew, but I still think of it as the City, and so does everyone else who has ever associated with it. A strange and exclusive word is “city.” Besides San Francsico, only small sections of London and Rome stay in the mind as the City. New Yorkers say they are going to town. Paris has no title but Paris. Mexico City is the Capital.

Once I knew the City very well, spent my attic days there, while others were being a lost generation in Paris. I fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts. In a way I felt I owned the City as much as it owned me.

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold–rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south, the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I’ve never seen her more lovely. When I was a child and we were going to the City, I couldn’t sleep for several nights before, out of bursting excitement. She leaves a mark.

And my favorite of all, as we wrap our heads around a city that will be changing, no matter what:

It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency.

One thought on “John Steinbeck’s lessons for a gentrifying San Francisco

  1. Good thoughts on a city I’ve visited dozens of times, where two of my kids live (actually, Marin), where my future wife lived when I tricked her into coming to LA to live with me in 1980. SF is my favorite city — a Pittsburgh of the West, I like to call it. But I’m a tough critic of all cities. I especially detest the political idiots who have run (and often ruined) them for the last half century. Steinbeck’s great descriptions of SF and Northern California in “Charley,” plus his wise ruminations on change, are some of the best writing in an otherwise deeply flawed and dishonest book. I’ve documented “Charley” fictions and fibs, to death, in my ebook “Dogging Steinbeck,” which is part literary expose and part travel book. My book includes my libertarian opinions about SF 1960 vs. SF 2010 (plus other stuff about what Steinbeck did in SF in the fall of 1960 but didn’t mention in “Charley”), which readers of this blog might find interesting:

    16 – Fun in San Francisco

    San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay, from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold – rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this golden white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which could never have existed.
    – “Travels With Charley”

    Steinbeck Timeline
    Wednesday, Oct. 26 to Oct. 30, 1960 – San Francisco
    According to city columnist Herb Caen, the Steinbecks arrived in San Francisco on Wednesday evening, Oct. 26, 1960. They socialized with John’s friends and stayed at the posh St. Francis Hotel downtown through Sunday. He was interviewed in his suite on Oct. 28 by Curt Gentry, a freelancer for the San Francisco Chronicle’s book section.
    Steinbeck Hearts ‘The City’
    San Francisco did nothing special to seduce John Steinbeck. She has put on the same lovely show he described so well in “Travels With Charley” for millions of people who were not already in love with her, as Steinbeck was. Thousands of tourists, day-trippers, photographers, hikers and bicyclists from around the world enjoy the sight of San Francisco from the hills above the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge every day.
    While I killed a week in the Bay Area revisiting Steinbeck sites and watching the Giants play the Rangers in the World Series, I went to the top of the Marin Headlands. I had been there at least 20 times since 1974. It was always a treat and never the same. Details of light and color differ wildly from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour, depending on the whims of clouds, fog, wind and rain. Sometimes you can hear the hum of the bridge traffic far below, sometimes you can’t even see the bridge. It’s an absurd panorama, a superior example of man and nature showing off their greatest engineering works and collaborating at their best – at least until the same tectonic violence that created all that natural beauty destroys it.

    The wide-angled view of the city and the bay and the islands and the mountains and the towering bridges that tie them together has not changed since Steinbeck took his stunning verbal snapshot. From afar San Francisco still looks like the same place. It has the same tourist attractions that made it world famous as a place where it’s simply great to be – fabulous views in every direction, the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, cable cars, terrifyingly steep streets, Coit Tower, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, fog, beaches, parks, good food and restaurants.
    But 50 years have brought dramatic changes, and they’ve not all been for the better. Republican bitching notwithstanding, it’s not because it’s become America’s most politically liberal city. Or that its percentage of gays, immigrants, Asians and Latinos is much higher than in 1960. Or even that it’s overrun with computer geeks. It’s that San Francisco exacts such a cripplingly high price on anyone who wants to live there. America’s most beautiful and visitable city is much more crowded with people and especially cars than in 1960. Its home prices and rents are obscene, beyond the reach of not only the working class but also the middle class. Its parking shortage is chronic, its parking enforcement sadistic.
    The city’s infamous Skid Row, where in Steinbeck’s day squalid flophouses provided cheap rooms for the city’s indigent and street drunks, is history, wiped out in the 1970s by urban renewal. But slum clearance, as usual, only moved the problem elsewhere. By 2010 almost 10,000 homeless and/or crazy people lived on downtown sidewalks and in shelters, an intractable civic embarrassment and tourist turnoff that cost city taxpayers $200 million a year.
    From his description, Steinbeck didn’t drive to the top of the Marin Headlands, where you can wander around the ruins of coastal defense forts, look down on container ships squeezing under the Gold Gate or risk your life peering over the grassy cliff to see the surf foaming against the shore 800 feet below your feet. Most likely, he cast his loving gaze from Vista Point, the popular scenic lookout at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Essentially level with the bridge deck’s six lanes, 200 feet above the icy bay, Vista Point was already open in 1960. Its parking lot/viewing area was like an international block party the afternoon I was there. Half my time was spent taking pictures of couples from Australia, Florida, France, Japan and Berkeley – with their own cameras – so they could prove they were together in San Francisco.
    But it didn’t really matter where Steinbeck stood. He could have described the sparkling skyline of San Francisco from memory. As he wrote in “Charley,” it’s where he spent his “attic days” struggling to become a writer. During the 1920s, while Hemingway and the other literary supernovas of his generation were losing themselves and becoming rich and famous in Paris, Steinbeck, who didn’t have the money, the desire or the Ivy League pedigree to move to France, said he “fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts.”
    Despite his fondness for San Francisco, Steinbeck had little to say about it in his book. After describing the city from the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, he wrote, “Then I crossed the great arch hung from filaments and I was in the city I knew so well. It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency. I might have stayed indefinitely, but I had to go to Monterey to send off my absentee ballot.”
    That’s it for San Francisco. Steinbeck’s next paragraph is about the politics of Monterey County, “where everyone was a Republican” including his family. But in the nonfiction world, Steinbeck had no intention of zipping past his favorite city without partaking of its pleasures. He spent four busy days downtown, staying at the handsome St. Francis Hotel in Union Square.
    Apparently, booking a room in San Francisco had been difficult even for him because of conventions. If scenes cut from the book’s first draft can be believed, Elaine made several fruitless calls ahead to hotels from roadside pay phones before they landed a suite at the St. Francis, where Caruso, Fatty Arbuckle and Hemingway had once been regulars and Steinbeck was a familiar face. In the deleted scenes, Steinbeck described arriving with Elaine via U.S. Route 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge. After getting lost for a while, he found his way to the St. Francis downtown.
    Now the Westin St. Francis, it has undergone many cosmetic changes since 1960. But in 2010, when I prowled its halls and stairways, it still had dark wood, heavy rugs, mirrored ceilings, monstrous chandeliers and a two-ton oak shoeshine stand. Everything else – the floors, the back steps, walls – was made of marble. Steinbeck wrote that he parked Rocinante at the luxury hotel’s entrance – and just left it there, where it was in the way and attracting the wrong class of attention. He went straight to his hotel room and jumped in the bathtub with a whisky and soda at his side. He really enjoyed sitting in bathtubs with whiskies and sodas.
    In the cut scenes Steinbeck purred that the spacious suite was “pure grandeur.” He was pleased to find no Formica, no plastic, no cheap ashtrays in the St. Francis, which in 1960 was already old, prestigious and, as he admitted, “outmoded” and “trapped in an ancient and primitive way of doing things.” He wasn’t complaining about the hotel’s old ways. Eating in the living room on white linen, he was pleased in his first draft to report being attacked by an army of servants – “valet, waiters, maids, pressers, housekeeper.” Apparently, after her punishing ride in Rocinante and a week’s worth of rustic resorts, Elaine was back in her idea of lodging heaven. She preferred well-staffed English country inns to the “do-it-yourself” style of the modern American motel, where you had to fetch your own ice at the end of the hall and lug your own luggage. “My lady wife was very pleased,” Steinbeck wrote.
    As he sat in his bathtub “like a sunburned Buddha,” Steinbeck wrote, the phone rang. It was the doorman. Rocinante was blocking traffic and it didn’t fit in the underground parking garage across the street under Union Square. What should be done with it? The unsightly pickup truck was moved to a parking lot and the hotel scenes end with Elaine calling the hairdresser. It’s not hard to understand why this glimpse of the Steinbecks indulging themselves on the road was purged from the book. And where was faithful Charley in these dropped scenes? His presence at the St. Francis was never mentioned. Apparently he’d already been checked into a kennel.

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