In search of San Francisco’s “lost soul”

Has San Francisco lost its soul? Yes, at least according to several recent articles (from The New Yorker, New York Times and The Guardian). Whatever a city’s soul is, or if cities even have one, it’s a common refrain of late, especially from out-of-town writers. In SF, tech-money fueled gentrification is ushering in soulless fussy restaurants and pushing housing costs beyond the affordability of all but the top earners, while worsening a homeless problem that seems more desperate than ever. And yes, it’s all true, and definitely bad.

But these forces have been in motion since at least the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. And it’s happening in cities all across the country, especially New York where two of the writers hail from. Even second-tier cities like Boise, Idaho, are feeling the effects. There was a brief reprieve after the dot-com bust and Great Recession, but now it’s barreling along like an unstoppable freight train. The only thing worse than our insane rents is the cost of a home in the city, even a crappy one. You either have to be rich, or old enough to enjoy a rent-controlled apartment, or your family bought a place decades ago. Along with the local residents, a lot of restaurants and retail can’t keep up. Colorful icons like Sinbad’s have been disappearing, replaced by expensive foodie places that all seem to go in for the same minimalist interior design (lots of metal chairs and white walls), making them feel sterile and uninviting.

Should we blame those young (and not so young) techies like the articles do? Most are working stiffs at the mercy of the same economic forces as everyone else, though some have better salaries to weather the storms and indulge their foodie whims. And whoever they are, there’s a segment out there that only seem interested in eating out, craft beer and Instagrammable backdrops. The kind of IPA note-takers Anthony Bourdain railed against on his trips here, like pod people out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They lack imagination or adventurousness, or both. For instance (screed warning), when I lived in the Inner Richmond, I would see daily lines outside Burma Superstar on Clement St., which has long been on the hip ‘to-do’ list of restaurants. Excellent place, so perfectly deserving. But, half a block away, and owned by the same people, B Star serves virtually the same food at the same quality and never has a line. (Or Burmese restaurant Mandaly a block north on California St. is equally as good, and rarely overcrowded). So I don’t know. But c’mon people! Break from the herd, forget the ‘likes’.

Okay, I’m getting off track. Or maybe not. For whatever reason, whether it’s a change in younger tastes or the pushing out (or aging out) of long-time locals, people just aren’t frequenting places like Sinbad’s (RIP) or Mr. Bing’s unless it’s featured by Bourdain (RIP) on his show. Even the writers of these articles, and the people they interview, don’t seem to know about them, or they certainly don’t mention them. Are they all just hanging out in the Mission or Soma or Hayes Valley? and so only see the most obvious and egregious examples of gentrification in the city?

Because while they may be an endangered species, there are still lots of Mr. Bing-type places around, along with the people that make San Francisco the interesting, gritty, wild, fun, eccentric, colorful ‘Bagdad by the Bay’ it’s long been known as. You just have to leave the Mission to find them.

For starters, Chinatown is a treasure, and has changed little over the decades, even less than similar places in Hong Kong or Taipei. R & G Lounge is an experience, Sam Wo’s is going strong after relocating and still open til 3am, Hunan and dim sum joints abound, and Li Po’s and Buddha Bar are uniquely San Franciscan and the type of two-fisted drinking establishments Bourdain lauded.

Cross the street to North Beach and there’s City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Café, which have barely changed since the days when Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac roamed the alley. Sure, Columbus Ave attracts lots of tourists, but there’s also a vibrant and colorful local community found at places like Café Trieste, The Saloon and Savoy Tivoli.

Even Fisherman’s Wharf isn’t the total tourist hell locals think of it as. Long-time stalwarts like The Buena Vista is there, along with the Grotto bar and restaurant, Sabella & La Torre and the Franciscan Crab Restaurant (the coolest building around!). Musee Mechanique, the Gold Dust Lounge, and some surprisingly underrated bars are also here.

In both the lower and upper Haight, where I used to live in the late ‘90s, there’s been changes, but I’m always surprised at how much is still the same whenever I visit. All my cherished haunts are still there, like the Citrus Club, Happy Donuts, the Booksmith, Amoeba Music and Aub Zam Zam.

And if you dare to cross Arguello, the Richmond and Sunset districts have seen changes (commercial rents pushing out some businesses) but the general character remains, along with some of the best dim sum and pho in the city, and real Russian bakeries and cheap Chinese produce. The people you see walking about are mostly locals, some who probably grew up here.

So my point, a lot of changes have been ongoing in San Francisco that our mostly of the sad soulless variety, but the city still has lots of its unique character to enjoy and celebrate. You just have to make the effort. And if you need some motivation, consider it an act of cultural preservation to have a mai tai at Li Po’s or margarita at Tommy’s, and help them pay the rent.

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