Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bay Area Post #1: The Unbearable Lightness of Being from There

I went back home to the San Francisco Bay Area recently. I hadn't been there in ages. While visiting, when I was driven anywhere, I spent most my time staring out the window and trying to figure out what used to be there, deciphering remodeled facades, re-learning how to get from A to B, the usual you-can't-go-home-again nonsense. That saying is true, but it helps you understand it when people bulldoze things you remember.

One of the consequences of returning to anywhere you used to live is that friends and family who'd rather have you back try to sell the old place to you. It's nice of them, an oblique and emotionally non-confrontational way of saying, "We miss you and wish you'd do something about that." But taken on its own, the gesture oversells. It's hard not to already feel a yearning to go home, so any pitch beyond your own fond live-action reminiscence seems like piling on.

This time, one refrain emerged from dozens of conversations and several people:

"There's no place like the Bay Area."

Now, obviously, this is true, for two reasons.

1. There is no place like any other place. Try your hardest to replicate another town, and you'll fail. Each city or region is helplessly unique despite whatever manufactured effort it might make. This is one of those realities so totally self-evident that naturally it can't be what people actually mean.

2. The San Francisco Bay Area has a startling uniqueness in almost every way. You can drive 25 minutes on a freeway in any direction and almost wind up in a different biome, looking left to the sea and right to snow-capped mountains while enjoying 60º weather. There are hiking trails running through unblemished hillside from San Francisco to San Jose, and little lakes along a major fault line. There are millions of people there, speaking probably 100 different languages. It has the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, six major sports teams, two great universities, amazing food, Pier 39, Jack London Square, hipsters in the Mission, Italians in North Beach and techies everywhere. It's the cradle of the internet. Almost everything technological that's changed how we work and recreate in the last 20 years emerged from there. Slice it off the continent, and it'd be an island nation in the top 25 in terms of GDP and coolness. It has earthquakes and a couple cool bridges. The fog is awesome; so is the food. What more can you say?

If you're the people I was talking to, a lot. By which I mean: repeat, "There's no place like the Bay Area!" at every opportunity, often for very vague reasons. Frankly, it's a little bizarre. If you think about it, the two points above are self-evident. Not only is it unique the way all different places are, simply walking around it for a day hammers home what an irreplaceable part of the world it is.

Still, I was getting this line from family and friends and even people I'd just met, and it's something I remember from when I used to live out there. In a way that strangely manages to own all those clichés about fruity Northern California touchy-feeliness, it sounds like a regional affirmation, like Stuart Smalley and Rand McNally switched jobs. The regional impulse seems to be that, when in groups of fellow Bay Area residents who are clearly having fun, one confirms for them that they could only be having this fun where they are. All is well. Just by being here, you have already come out ahead.

There really isn't any part of the country that does this in the same way. Sure, New Yorkers will tell ya, "ONLY IN NEW YORK," and frankly, they should. New York is incredible. No place in the world is like New York, in ways even lifelong residents probably don't even fully know. It's the straw that stirs the drink. If they want to brag, let 'em. The worst thing they do is take it too far and make themselves look bad, which is fine, for all kinds of reasons (not the least of which is, "Fuck the Yankees"). When the most artfully planned massive terror attack in history singles you out, you're pretty much king of the mountain. They came at you. Those Al-Qaida jackoffs weren't taking aim at Baltimore. Okay, bad example, because the citizens of Baltimore already do that. But do you think those guys even looked at Philly? Fuck no.

The only other place that tries to claim national or international supremacy is LA; but that's because LA is a hellhole, and nobody is from there. Everyone who lives there automatically joins a regional partnership to help justify why each of them moved there in the first place. Sure, there are a few locals — themselves the descendants of those who moved out to a godforsaken place for cash — but largely everyone is trapped in the mutual polite fiction that they wouldn't rather have moved to any other part of the country for whatever career it was that pulled them into LA's miles of dusty, smogged, jammed and alienating crudscape.

Those are the only two that come to mind. The rest of America doesn't even bother with the discussion. Boston thumps that "Cradle of the Revolution" thing, but they never try to be the standard for the nation. And Chicago — hell, they call themselves the Second City. People can't wait to leave Pittsburgh; Detroit looks like an Axis industrial center from 1945; Seattle just wants you to stop making rain jokes; and the temperature and women are too hot in Miami to give a shit about anything else. And so on.

Northern Californians seems to be the only people to live in a place that's objectively cool as hell yet feel an insecurity about it so palpable that they have to convince you of the superiority of their life decisions. It even extends past affirmation and into specific behavior. While I was there, a relative of mine started rattling off statistics about how many people lived around the bay, how many languages were spoken, etc., and I kept up a running commentary in my head of how little it differed from my allegedly inferior Florida bay.

I mean, sure, maybe we don't have thousands of Hmong people living here, but I bet you there are some Hmong here, even more people who speak the language and waaaay more who know how to pronounce the name correctly in the first place. And if you're not Hmong, at what point does it actually make a difference to you to have x amount of Hmong in your region? Are you really that civically committed to having some kind of Hmong-Off? Think about the things you had to choose in life to arrive at a point where this mattered.

Anyway, eventually, this relative made me go into an an asian supermarket after having just left another supermarket he couldn't stop raving about (more on this some other time). And, look, I was probably already in a bad mood about being forced to double-dip on food shopping: there is only so much I can look at produce without getting bored or hungry. At that point, if you want me to look at fucked up radishes, I need you to do something like grab some and yell, "Tha name is DAI-KON, muthafucka!" or something like that. But literally our only reason for being there was to emphasize just how many diverse and wonderful products were available in this asian supermarket, because it was in the Bay Area. So I looked around. It had exactly the same shit in it that you can find in the asian market ten blocks up from my house in the strip mall next to the coin laundry. The same thing happened with the restaurants he pointed out. I grant that where I live doesn't have the same baseline standard of quality as Bay Area restaurants, but the good places here are all on the same level. And, Christ, at least we can manage not to fuck up a Cuban sandwich.

I don't know where the impulse to transcend celebration of the Bay Area and move directly into something like smug crowing comes from. As said, the delights of the area are self-evident once you take a walk around. Nobody needs this pointed out. Moreover, unlike other American cities, there's really no downside to the Bay Area, no ugly inadequacy to be overcome. The weather almost never fails to be perfect; you can be cool every night in summer without owning an air-conditioner, and the winters are mild. Conditions aren't cramped, but what sprawl there is manages to be significantly more historic and tasteful than other regions. Economically, the area absolutely tramples most parts of the country with its fantastic possibilities. Nobody has to crow about their regional superiority to mask a shame at sliding further into post-industrial irrelevance. So why the self-celebration?

Only two explanations come to mind.

One, the bluster seeks to mask a shame at the environmental ugliness and potential catastrophic death inherent to the area. Despite California's having the highest environmental standards of any state, the Bay Area is paved over, drilled, misshapen and exploited about as fully as anyone can think to exploit it; meanwhile San Francisco Bay is now roughly two-thirds its original size. Whole towns, like Daly City, exist on fill that was bulldozed into the bay to create insta-real-estate. Hydrologically, the region is little more than a suspended nightmare, subsisting on the tenuous integrity of delta canals and long aqueducts pumping across hundreds of miles. From just a water standpoint alone, the Bay Area should not be. It cannot be. It can't support itself. From a geological standpoint — just in terms of what land actually exists — whole towns should not be.

These conditions flow (excuse the pun) to the concept of self-congratulation as merely a deflection of the realities of incipient death. The Bay Area doesn't even need a "big one" to hit it. An earthquake that causes any significant subsidence in the delta could cause a massive backflow of seawater essentially destroying the water supply for the Bay Area and LA overnight. Both would instantly become misbegotten islands incapable of a day's survival, a trillion-dollar nightmare of unsustainable oversettlement archipelagos amidst a salted sea. And if a big one ever hits the Bay Area directly, towns like Daly City — and Highway 101, Candlestick Park, SFO's runways, massive populated littoral stretches — might disappear just as instantly due to liquefaction, a process whereby seismic waves destabilize fill land and turn them to mush. It may not sound real, so the helpful analogy to visualize liquefaction is this: take a lump of Jell-O and put it in the microwave.

So maybe that's it. Maybe it's just chutzpah, pluck, gallows humor. Maybe the specter of the ground seizing up and then collapsing under you without warning makes you feel like a bit of a badass. But that doesn't quite cover it. You can stick your chin out at vengeful Mother Earth, but that doesn't require being a dick to everyone else. I seriously doubt a real existential motive drove the creation of the Facebook Group "Where are you from? Oh, that sucks, I'm from the Bay Area."

Phenomena like that require a second explanation: that the San Francisco Bay Area is so nice and living there so sweet that residents are angry that you're not pointing it out. Sort of like acing a difficult test or buying a ridiculously great car or marrying a woman who looks like the kind of girl Greeks used to go to war with other peoples over — sure, it's the cooler thing to do to pretend that you didn't just totally crush the game of life, but you start to get mad when nobody acknowledges it for you.

Unfortunately, it's easier for the American masses to talk about the bohemian thrill of living in New York, of living in Annie Hall and Manhattan and Scorcese movies and every arty Brooklyn news profile or a fantasy of a young writer's garret apartment. Moreover, since everyone likes movies and at one point dreamt of becoming a star, it's easier for them to fantasize about moving to LA, even if they'd blanche and fly home as soon as they finally looked at it up close. And, as much as internet geeks talk about moving to the Bay Area, a lot of times they're mentioning company and brand names. Google, Apple, Sun, LucasArts, etc. Take working for certain software companies out of the picture, and less of the background cultural buzz mentions the Bay Area qua Bay Area as the place to be.

And that's no good. The Bay Area really is wonderful. But part of the point of having a great toy is that other people should want it. Even if you just grew up there and never really chose to live there, part of the pleasure of being in a place so nice is that your position is enviable. But you can't assume envy; it's an interactive form of predation that has to be proved. Being enviable is no good if nobody's affirming that for you, if nobody's letting you know, apropos of nothing, just how great you have it.

Which might be why Bay Area residents constantly affirm themselves for you: because it's so self-evidently great, they know you know how great it is. You had your chance to point out just how sweet the Bay Area life must be for everyone, and you dropped the ball. It's their turn. It's their turn at the market. It's their turn on a hike up the peninsula. It's their turn in Golden Gate Park and on a cable car. It's their turn when you see how many seasonings you can get on fries at a Giants game. They're all getting Google Cars next year, and they're gonna handle great on the Apple Freeway, and it's gonna be even sweeter then. Really, there's no place like the Bay Area.

There's no place like the Bay Area.

There's no place like the Bay Area.