February 21st, 2010

San Francisco: The City of [Self-]Love

San Francisco: The City of [Self-]Love


A number of months back, I found myself standing around in the Castro late one evening, attempting to pseudo-socialize with a bunch of random acquaintances-of-an-inebriated-social-butterfly-longtime-acquaintance (and whose names I was desperately trying to keep from going in one ear and out the other, sieve-style, as tends to happen when I meet multiple people in rapid succession), when one of them decided a great way to ingratiate himself to me would be to thoroughly trash the area I grew up in: "Oh, you're from Binghamton, New York? I'm sorry to hear that..." followed by a volley of negative declarations about the entire region.

I get this attitude from people here on a regular basis, and it always seems to come served with a side of half-baked assumptions that of course I'd agree, because after all, who in his right mind would be crazy enough to actually like where he's from, especially if that place is a small city in the northeast and -- more importantly -- isn't San Francisco?

Caveat/disclaimer: there are things I like about the Bay Area (and California as a whole), and I've met some good, reasonable people here; my statements do not necessarily reflect upon anybody in particular. But I have found a disproportionately pervasive tendency towards this judgmental, elitist attitude: that [San Francisco]/[the Bay Area]/[California]/[insert other applicable regional descriptor] is the best place on Earth, and if you don't agree, you must be some kind of ignorant, uncultured rube. San Francisco itself even cannibalizes the rest of the Bay Area on this matter -- I've often been looked at like I have two heads (a) for the places I've lived within the Bay Area, (b) for citing Fremont as my favorite of those places thus far, (c) because I have absolutely no desire to live in San Francisco itself, and (d) because I'm not especially sold on life in California in general. These are not views I typically even actively volunteer; they often come up as a function of me being asked, and when my answers aren't what these people are expecting, they seem to experience some kind of server crash. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

While the following may seem like nitpicking, it's actually quite revealing that within the Bay Area, San Francisco is colloquially referred to as "the city." Now, while many of the municipalities in the area are technically classified as cities, most of them are essentially suburbs, so it makes sense that San Francisco would carry precedence over them in the "cityishness" category. But no matter how you define such things, the Bay Area unquestionably has three major urban centers, and joining San Francisco in that category are Oakland and San Jose. Clearly, the San Francisco Bay Area is eponymous with San Francisco itself, but that may be more historical artifact than empirical modern equivalence: Oakland and San Jose are both physically larger, and San Jose's population is higher; in terms of economic influence, I would argue that Silicon Valley (basically San Jose and nearby) is far more iconic than San Francisco's financial district. Lucasfilm is in the Presidio? Sure, but Pixar is in Emeryville. Granted, San Francisco has more cultural "brand recognition" worldwide, but locally, such matters are relative. In short, I am factually compelled to avoid using "the city" as a euphemism for "San Francisco," and I invite people to ponder what that usage suggests about the underlying assumptions.

Everybody is entitled to his/her geographic preferences, but this regional elitism takes things way, way too far. I've discussed this matter with others like me -- people who have lived elsewhere in the US, and who never managed to fall in love with San Francisco and/or the Bay Area as a whole (yes, we do exist) -- and the consensus seems to be that even among metro areas in the upper echelons of perceived desirability (New York City also comes to mind), San Francisco stands out for its magnitude of intolerance toward those who dare proclaim that the emperor is naked. Ironic for such a celebrated bastion of wildly flagrant diversity and acceptance, don't you think?

Allow me briefly to debunk one of the wildly off-base criticisms I endured from the individual I mentioned in my lead-in: the idea that Upstate New York is "devoid of culture." While it's true that you'll find backwards thinking and a lack of diversity in the rural areas and one-stoplight small towns scattered throughout the region, you'll find precisely the same thing in analogous parts of California, or any other state for that matter, now matter how otherwise outlandish or electorally blue. On the other hand, Ithaca and some of Central/Upstate New York's other small and mid-sized cities have an overwhelming abundance of culture, for those who will simply open their eyes and realize that just because you see some trees, grass, and undisturbed hillsides, it doesn't mean the area is culturally deprived.

I'm not writing this to defend or advocate for my home area. I have my reasons for liking it, and that's good enough for me. (I'd be happy to elaborate on those reasons, but that's for another piece.) It's not even that I'm personally insulted when somebody dislikes where I'm from; I just can't stand the propagation of untruths in the name of "evidence," as part of some misattributed set of conclusions about what makes a place inherently worth living in. And I will not tolerate being belittled just because I don't happen to agree with a supposedly prevailing point of view on this -- or on anything, for that matter. The world would be a boring and impoverished place if we all shared precisely the same tastes.

Otherwise, you're left with this spirit of thought-police elitism which, for me at least, makes an already-undesirable thing even more so.