On one of my first visits to San Francisco, in the fall of 2010, I drove into town with my close friend Seth from Sacramento on a mad dash for dinner. We arrived well after dark on the Bay Bridge, not yet bedecked in its "Bay Lights" LED installation, but still illuminated. Below us, San Francisco looked like a city of glass lanterns. As we crossed the bridge, Seth put Oscar Peterson's Wandering on the car stereo. It's a bit of a syrupy song, the piano work unusually bubbly for Peterson and backed by strings. It was also the key ingredient for perfection. Reality stopped. The bridge, the night view, the soundtrack, the anticipation of a city I loved with the love of an outsider: we entered a fragment of a dream.
The moment was, of course, a pure construct of my own state of being. My emotional reaction was informed as much by perceptions of the city that I had built up from numerous sources as it was by the city we explored that night. Our itinerary proves as much. We went to a bar written about by a writer we both admired. We ate at a restaurant that critic and television personality Anthony Bourdain had visited. We drove about in search of traces of a San Francisco we had become familiar with in photographs and films.
No night, no visit to the city since then has ever been as perfect as that trip. When I moved to the Bay Area three years later, instead of being a two-hour drive, San Francisco was just a half-hour away on BART. Yet I rarely visited, and when I did make the trip, I found the city more constraining than freeing. It was more than merely the discomfort and unfamiliarity of a newcomer. The city was not the city that I had built up in my head. The beautiful towers in the night were, at their feet, a dead zone of closed businesses. The promise of culinary adventure was a mixture of overpriced tourist fare and even more overpriced fine dining. Once off the bridge, the sweeping views of the city were mostly the private possessions of luxury apartment dwellers. The streets? Too often they were the last bit of space afforded to the mentally ill, the hustlers, the homeless, the destitute, each of them angry at nobody and at everybody.
Eventually, I learned to stop looking for the perfect San Francisco because it does not exist. It exists in fiction—and maybe in the minds of those with enough wealth to build up an urban fiction around themselves, as more and more seem to be doing—but not for me.
The overwhelming sound of the city today is hammering. Hammering and plywood being dropped or smacked or drilled. The fizzy noise of welders, the hollow echoes of shouted conversations within the frame of a concrete-floored, steel-cored lattice that will one day (soon!) become yet another apartment or condominium building in San Francisco. They rise in the Mission; they grow in Hayes Valley. They have crept up Market from the edge of the Tenderloin on through to the edge of the Castro.
Recently, I decided I wanted to know more about this new San Francisco and so planned a tour of leasing offices. My goal was swag: brochures, catalogs, flyers, and anything else they were giving away. It was one of those rare but beautiful San Francisco winter days where the sun is out, the temperature warm, and everything seems fresh and clean.
My first stop was the Vara on Fifteenth in the Mission District. The as-yet unleased retail spaces had window decals announcing a leasing office around the corner, so I followed their arrows to the main entrance. A gateway gave way into a sunken inner courtyard, and presumably, I thought, the office was down on that level along with the common spaces offered by the complex which, according to their website, include a "tech room/meeting room," a "sound-proof music practice room," a "private teleconference room," a "fitness center," several forms of lounge spaces (including a private bar), and a "sunning hill." The gate, however, separated all this—along with the leasing office—from the wider world with a pair of glass doors and a keypad lock. If you don't have official business, you aren't getting into the Vara.
It struck me how little the area resembled the neighborhood depicted by the Vara's website. It's version of life at the Vara came in lavender panoramas of the Bay Bridge and the city with telescoping fragments of urbanity like fading, old advertising signs on brick walls and snippets of bicycle commuters buzzing through traffic. They did not show the groups of day workers on the sidewalk waiting for jobs. There was nothing of the decaying old Gilded Age flats, the shrinking but still vibrant immigrant community, the rootless men and women milling about near the Sixteenth Street BART station hoping for a dollar or a fix or both. There was nothing of the smell of stale cigarettes or sour weed or the waft of ammonia-laden stale urine emanating from the recessed entryways of empty storefronts. The Vara had swept all this away in their marketing material, and it and more like it may someday sweep all this from the streets, too.
Heading up to Market Street, I turned and walked west, skirting Hayes Valley and the Castro. On one corner, 8 Octavia was rising, still a skeleton of steel. 1600 Market remained shrouded in black netting, its depths issuing and receiving workers like a beehive of drones. Further up Market was 38 Dolores. I walked over to it in search of a leasing office. I found it around the corner from the building's Whole Foods Market, but the note on the door said, "leasing office is closed 100% leased."
While much of the United States is still bruised and recovering from the Great Recession, new residences in San Francisco have been selling fast. On the side streets going back from Market, there are more and more construction sites, more and more steel and lumber reaching skyward. Every day, some older part of San Francisco—perhaps loved or storied, perhaps nondescript or decrepit—is being erased from the urban fabric and replaced by the sound of hammers.
I walked over to Market and Sanchez, to the doublewide trailers that serve as the sales offices for the Linea, a nearly complete nine-story condominium building two blocks away at Market and Buchanan. The sales office wasn't just equipped with brochures; it was a brochure. Behind the reception desk was a floor-to-ceiling monochrome photomural of MUNI's F-Line vintage streetcar operation on Market Street and other scenes of the city.
The receptionist greeted me, and then an agent in a suit walked over from a private office and did the same. I asked about the rates and was told the building was entirely condominium, no rental units. His voice was friendly and had a trace of accent—Italy or Spain perhaps, the kind of thing some men might fake to sound sexy. He handed me a single sheet of white paper with the condominium rates. Studios were sold out, but one-bedroom units were still available between $638,000 and $836,000, plus about $500 a month in homeowner association fees. He told me that he expected it to be fully sold by July. When I indicated that I wouldn't be moving until August or September, he made a few recommendations in Hayes Valley. I departed, the single sheet of unit sales prices tucked into my inside jacket pocket. Just having this menu of luxury living in my pocket let me hold the fiction that I might fit into the kind of world where it was natural to contemplate a home in the high six or seven figures.
Across the street from the Linea's sales offices is another new building, The Century, with one- and two-bedroom condominiums. This one had no sales or leasing office, only a website and a phone number. The building is a flatiron, its peaked end soaring jaggedly in the air. Most of the building looked empty still, yet at its feet people were sleeping against the building. In one recessed entry, a man crouched with a sleeping bag, eyes half closed, looking somewhat dazed. Further along the building were lumpy bundles, someone else's personal belongings. They sat in a small pile beside a deeply recessed fire door, an alcove that was deep and private, and one that the architects might not have realized would quickly become temporary sleeping quarters. Perhaps the developers spent too much time with their competitors' sales materials to realize the realities of Market Street.
I hopped onto one of the jelly-bean glossy streetcars of the F-Line and moved to the very back to sit in the rear window seats. Down by Tenth Street, I caught in the corner of my eye the supergraphics in the windows of the Nema building as we rolled past. The words went by fast enough that I wasn't quite sure what they said, so I alighted at the next stop and walked back. The Nema is a condo tower complex nearing completion next to Twitter's headquarters, and its latest marketing push included statements like "Tech Savvy, Not Shabby." One marketing pitch, however, struck me the most: "Amenities, Not Enemies."
What is San Francisco turning into? What was it ever? The once and future capital of the Golden State, the Pacific Coast, the New World.
There are times when San Francisco seems as if it has only been a myth—only a creation of Oscar Lewis, John Huston, John Phillips, Herb Caen; one part Barbary Coast, one part noir, one part hippie, three parts ironic self-regard. Player pianos, trench coats, roach clips. The Barbary Coast was once one of the most notorious vice districts in California, on the Pacific Coast, in the world. It was the simultaneous apex and nadir of the Gilded Age, so Rococo in its dedication to sin that it almost became art. Card rooms. Saloons. Bordellos and brothels. Cheap theaters with shows that were grotesque, absurd, and pornographic.
And where is that Barbary Coast today? Walk down Pacific Avenue, the heart of the old vice district. You won't find a trace. You may not even find people. A quieter retail street in San Francisco I have never seen. At Pacific and Montgomery is one of those seventies California lounges with open-pit fires and sleek, sophisticated seats that look lifeless even when they are packed. A fern would have a hard time surviving in the joint. The greatest life on the street? The old Hippodrome, now an art supply store. But surrounding that, the old brick storefronts have been remodeled with serene glass panels bearing the names of law offices, real estate brokers, software companies, and design firms. Down at the corner of Kearny is a coffee bar ironically offering both obscure lowbrow beer (Shinola, from Detroit) and high-quality coffee (Oakland's Blue Bottle). It's a long way from the peep shows and the saloons offering a free sandwich with your beer.
Who am I to mourn the Barbary Coast, anyway? It was gone long before I was born. I am a part of my own problem, embroidering history into legend, fact into fiction. Maybe it's not possible to know what the San Francisco of history ever really was. It's too caught up in literature and film and art to know where the real ended and the dream began. The past is argument without end today.
But there is a tangible San Francisco now. If you get on the Alameda-Oakland ferry, or step onto the BART, or cross the Bay Bridge to the city, you'll find that on the other side you can step out and set foot on firm soil. You can walk genuine streets that weren't manufactured on a back lot in Hollywood or on a computer at the Skywalker Ranch. The columns of One Market Street, once home of the Southern Pacific Railroad, are cold under the hand. The storm grates still let off odors that are half runoff, half sewage, thanks to the still-combined sewer system. On the sidewalks, you will still have to elbow through the throngs of Wisconsin tourists and the black-clothed financial class and step over the legs of beggars with cardboard signs and sympathy-inducing dogs. Somewhere off Market Street, away from the jelly-bean F-Line and the Rice-A-Roni cable cars and the long commercialized hippiedom of Haight-Ashbury, there is another city entirely, one that doesn't exist in luxury condominium brochures.
Photographs by Alexander B. Craghead