Reading Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities and feeling humble and grateful, again. San Francisco really is remarkable, and not only for the oligarchic Pacific Union Clubbers and habitues of Bohemian Grove. Jacobs talks a lot about what makes neighborhoods work – a mix of businesses that draw people throughout the day and into the evening, for example.
As I read I found myself thinking, not of Cortland Avenue, which is what you tend to think of when you think of Bernal as a neighborhood, but of my stretch of Mission. Cortland still has some gems: the library and playground, Wild Side West; but it’s gentrifying fast. I really love Chloe’s Closet and Liberty Cafe, but some of the newer places… eh, not so much. Quinn and I took the toddlers to a yuppie restaurant there this evening, and got some glares that made my skin melt off my bones. I get it, I really do, and I hate it when other people’s hyperactive kids put me off my potato and leek filo, but I’m a city girl; eating at home every night makes baby Rachel cry.
Mission between Cesar Chavez and Cortland is another matter altogether. No fairy lights on the trees, no expensive boutiques or vegan ice cream stores, just a manky Walgreens and Safeway, the estimable Cole Hardware, several dozen hole-in-the-wall restaurants representing a substantial fraction of the United Nations (Indian, Cambodian, Thai, Cantonese, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Salvadorean, Peruvian), more nail salons than you’d believe possible (Cortland has them too, now that I mention it), too much traffic, too many buses, dirt and noise.
I love it. More to the point, it loves Claire. I can take her to eat at Angkor Borei, Fortune Cookie or Mi Lindo Peru and not only the proprietors but the other customers will give a very creditable impression of being pleased to see us and amused rather than appalled by Claire’s antics. The food’s fantastic, too. I can catch any three of the five buses and be at work in fifteen minutes. We can take Muni to Dolores Park or the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. I can pick up my meds, Claire’s bubble bath, organic raisins and three bottles of Martinelli’s and be home in little more than an ad break.
How incredibly scary, then, to reflect that if the good citizens of SF had lost the Freeway Revolt back in the 1950s and 60s, my stretch of Mission would be a freeway. My house, 98 years old, probably wouldn’t be here at all. My neighborhood would have all the charm of SF General or the Dogpatch – pockets of Victorians cut off from real urbanity by concrete, steel and blight.
(Sydney had its own practical experiment in this when it undergrounded the through traffic up and down Bourke Street. The decaying terraces suddenly became hot property when they were no longer caked with black crap. It’s a shame the need to save money prevented a proper tunnel under South Dowling Street, where pedestrian bridges and a big box mall don’t entirely solve the problem of Redfern being cut off from Moore Park and Fox Studios.)
Back to California: thank you, unknown heroes. Thank you for the Panhandle, for Ocean Boulevard, for my beloved stretch of darkest Mission, for Polk all the way up the Tenderloin. Thank you for the Embarcadero and for Octavia Boulevard. Thank you, quite seriously, for San Francisco’s painful traffic and parking situation, and for the fact that it can take forty minutes to drive the seven miles from the GG Bridge to my house. It’s totally worth it. Unusually in the world, almost unheard-of in the United States, this is still a city for people, for pedestrians, and not for cars.