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.