Starting Again In San Francisco

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I know of only two remainders of the Spanish colony. One is the army post the soldiers built across the lake from Anza’s camp and down the hill. It is still an army post, and it still retains its lovely Spanish name, Presidio, although there is only one building from its colonial beginnings—a small adobe structure, totally submerged in reinforced concrete and whitewashed stucco; it is used as an officers’ club. I do not approve of what has happened to the walls of sun-dried brick, and my imagination is not powerful enough to reconstruct the one-story house where a succession of Spanish and Mexican commanders lived until the day in 1846 when the American naval captain for whom Montgomery Street is named sailed into the bay and issued an ungrammatical announcement that he was taking charge. The other Spanish relic is the Mission of San Francisco de Asi’s, a tile-roofed chapel with painted beams and squatty columns, in the sheltered valley that is now Dolores Street. Anza’s chief lieutenant, José Moraga, is buried here, as are three victims of the Committee of Vigilance and more than five thousand Indian victims of diseases brought to California by the Europeans. The New World was not brave enough to withstand smallpox and syphilis.

The neighborhoods around the Spanish mission are, by coincidence, the most Hispanic in the city, but the majority of Spanish-speaking San Franciscans, like the rest of us, are relatively new arrivals. Historically San Francisco is about as Spanish as New York is Dutch.

As for the city of the gold rush, that too has disappeared. Lawyers, interior decorators, and advertising agencies have seized upon a few square blocks around Jackson and Montgomery streets that inexplicably escaped the earthquake and fire. Restorers have given the bricks and cast-iron doors a good scrubbing and put in plumbing. It is pleasant to walk under the Indian laurel fig trees, appraising the furniture in the windows and reading the brass plaques on the doors, but it does not feel as though you’re caught up in the scramble to the mother lode.

In the ravines of the financial district, San Francisco looks (and is) about nine years old. At the Civic Center it appears to be slightly more mature, offering up a show of grandeur from the early twentieth century, when cities could afford Beaux-Arts designs and copper domes. And even the old-fashioned neighborhoods, where creaking black cypresses and monkey-tail trees shadow the narrow gardens of so-called Victorians, hold barely a century of memories. Like most American cities, this is a youngish place, with a characteristic American enthusiasm for tearing things down and starting over.

Why is it invariably said, then, that San Francisco is “historic”? Why are we San Franciscans so self-assured about the historical importance of our city?

Some of this egocentricity, this almost Athenian parochialism, grew out of isolation. A hundred years ago, when California was (as it is now) by far the most populous region west of the Rockies, San Francisco had two-fifths of the population of the entire state. Not only did San Francisco rule California politically and economically, it also supplied much of the capital, the energy, and even the cast of characters for the development of other parts of the Far West.

We are still a city of immigrants, puffed up with converts’ zeal.

Throughout the century the disproportionate stature of San Francisco has been melting. San Francisco now has something less than 3 percent of the population of California. Not only have we lost ground, so to speak, to Southern California, but we must share our bay with upstart towns like Oakland and San Jose. Nostalgia overcomes us. We look back with longing to the days when we were small and strong, lonely and unique.

Then, too, there is the courtship of new arrivals, the ever-sustaining gold rush, the ever-renewing promise of a new life. We are a city of immigrants, puffed up with converts’ zeal. I know this because 1 am an immigrant myself, born and raised in the rivalrous city of Oakland, across the bay, where children of my generation were taught in public schools to look on San Francisco as a crowded, clammy, treeless place that dominated the rest of the Bay Area because of a regrettable mistake in urban planning. Ignoring this, I chose to live in the mislocated city. I had a job here, and I wanted to make some changes of my own. I found that San Francisco allows, even invites instant possession, immediate affection. Practically everything that matters has been swept away by time and fire and carpentry, yet the spirit that infused the gold rush infests the city like the fleas in a miner’s blanket.