[musings on the nature of the culture of a city that feels devoid from the perspective of a recent transplant. I was inspired to write this after a semi-related exchange between Zain and Kanjun that got me thinking.]
Similarly true for LA, London, and a few other places - Rio, Shanghai, Berlin, Amman, Queenstown, Hong Kong, Nairobi.
I think about this constantly as a result of travel. One component of the theory of community that my housemates in my 20-person commune and others have talked about is this idea of transients being harmful to the culture of a house. I believe this is true on the city scale as well. The result of which is so all-encompassingly grand that you don't really notice in daily life - like the frog in the boiling water - except for a latent air of sadness/hope/vibrance. And in the case of SF, if you spend any time outside an intentional community, neurotic emptiness.
Paradoxically, I think it's hard to observe if you travel with intention - specifically with rigid intention. In a way this mode of travel is emotional cheating, in that your mind is at home or at work or in your own myopic expectations with the world around you set to 'mute'. Or if you like frogs (what's up with philosophers and frogs??? Is this some ancient philosopher meme) the frog in the well. Mindfulness, maybe, but the form, the reach, the purity of that word doesn't quite capture this. The Japanese idea of "ichi-go, ichi-e" has been a helpful lens for me, but I still haven't quite found the right set of words to describe this. Maybe atmosphere.
I like the shape of the word atmosphere, or at least it feels like it clicks into place with the satisfying sound of an airplane seatbelt buckle.
Another tool that I've found helpful is the frame of source, catalyst, and sink. With the catalyst being the optimal draw point. Ideally a city would be all three. This is true for New York. SF is just a catalyst. An incredibly powerful one, but still just a catalyst.
Which means - the importance, stature, vibrance, and meaning of SF that we may hold personally is not systematic in nature, it's transient just like its residents and may actually exist in a vacuum. It's ephemeral and reactive; it will change and wilt and bloom with the decades as each wave of people moves through. Interestingly enough, it does seem that the latent initial conditions of each cultural iteration of the city in our collective American consciousness does get passed down from generation to generation. It's the specific expression that is fragile.
San Francisco started in a gold rush. It was the embodiment of the American Dream in its most virulently self-serving form: the reinvention of the self, manifest destiny, make yourself rich with your own two hands. Each generation here has fully deconstructed old pillars of culture that serve no functional purpose in their subjective eyes and built entirely new pillars, but while their specific flavor of interpretation has blossomed differently, the platonic form of San Francisco has remained the same. This held true across the gold rush, the railroad era, the hippie era, the first tech era, the second tech rush.
At peak, the benefits of this to those who are in the mode are obvious. With a little effort we can see it all around us, every day. But the nature of these specific initial conditions has bugs, imperfections that seem to have reliably led to seismic shifts in culture, a steady, rapid rotation of transients, and a continuous lack of long-term soul. San Francisco is not a source or a sink, it's merely a catalyst. And I don't see that changing anytime soon. Most who move here will move away, primarily to New York or Los Angeles. Those who stay - rather, who have the privilege of choosing to stay - more often than not retreat to Marin in a large house, a walled garden, and a mental bubble of isolation in fear of the invisible, insidious, inevitable shift, until they're completely out of touch with the rest of the world. Nimbyism is rampant here.
I don't think culture, in the most liberal interpretation of the concept, will ever exist as immutable at a scale of n>10,000. But we seem to rarely notice this, perhaps because our own human-intrinsic event horizon exists somewhere along the lines of 10 years? Which is half of a generation, where a generation point five is what I would guess with nothing but anecdotal evidence as the unit of cultural shift.
Living in SF, I think these unquantifiable intangibles are often too early dismissed. It seems like culture is treated as something that we have absolute power over, something that we easily conjure with impunity through will, the assumption of foresight (the assumption of accurate foresight), and sometimes-meticulous intention. I do think that this is true if you assign no units and no scale - that is to say, yes. You can create any culture in a vacuum sealed freezer bag with an expiration date of now point zero. This isn't a value judgement per se, and it's often a great exercise that has led to a wealth of unpredictable insight. But in the broader context of our collective generational experience, culture is the living intangible sky under which we operate. Not something that can be stitched together in a vacuum with impunity, but something to be given the space to be noticed, nurtured, called out, taken apart, repaired, shared, celebrated, exchanged broadly, and passed on appropriately.
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