Bohemia lost

I turn my back on a city that turned my head and then broke my heart.

Published August 8, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to live in San Francisco.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I thought of San Francisco as a magical place. We'd drive up there for vacations. The houses were old and funny and there were hippies wandering around. People wrote songs about the place and called it "The City." The sunshine had this different look to it, more delicate somehow, though I wouldn't have stated it that way at the age of 8. You'd get cold in July.

San Francisco had Divisadero and the Embarcadero and North Beach and Mission Dolores, places that sounded so much like San Francisco they couldn't be anywhere else. Even the name of the city itself, in block letters across the shirt of a hated Giants batter on the Game of the Week, looked fantastic, endlessly more exciting than any number of what should have been equally exotic place names closer to home: Santa Monica, San Fernando, San Pedro.

I did it. I got close when I went to college in Berkeley, and eventually made it across the bay to a series of apartments in the Western Addition and the Mission District. I've lived there for half of what so far has been my life, and the love affair I carried on with Baghdad by the Bay, with the City That Knows How, with Frisco, San Fran, the City, little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars, was as intense and all-encompassing as anything experienced by Romeo and Juliet, Heathcliff and Catherine, Tristan and Isolde, Brad and Jennifer.

Which is why my friends looked so shocked when I told them I was moving to St. Louis, the Gateway City, a town that defines itself as a historical jumping-off point to somewhere else, a city in which, according to an essay in the anthology "Seeking St. Louis" by Philadelphia transplant Gerald Early, "there is a tendency for at least a certain class of its citizens to apologize for having what appears to them the bland misfortune of living here."

On a family trip here a few years ago, my dad gestured at the people surrounding us and said, "These are the descendants of the people who said, 'Eh, this is far enough.'"

So what brings me here? How could I leave the only place I could ever imagine living? What kind of West Coast boy travels east and stops before hitting an ocean?

One whose love affair was dashed by cellphone-talking, SUV-driving, Frappuccino-drinking dot-com yuppies.

As these things so often, so tragically do, my affair with San Francisco ended. The City That Knows How became the Internet cash cow. I won't lie to you: I got a raise out of the deal. But there was a price.

Cheap places to live and eat and drink and listen to (and play) music vanished, and with them, a whole culture began to dry up. Every day brought news of some scruffy dance troupe or band rehearsal place or community group or nightclub being evicted to make way for the ubiquitous and corruptly named "live-work spaces," so called not because anybody works in them but to exploit a zoning loophole.

For most of its history, people have gone to San Francisco for its wildness, its tolerance, its eccentricity and its beauty. They went there and became instant natives, jingoists, fierce defenders of the city's agreed-upon status as, in the words of one TV station's commercials, "the best place on earth." One hipster bar captured the dynamic perfectly with ads in the free weeklies bragging that it had been serving good, cheap drinks "since before you moved here."

Suddenly, in the dot-com era, people were moving to San Francisco for high-paying jobs, the same reason people moved to places like Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix. They didn't care about San Francisco's loopy culture, about its thriving bohemian world, even about its physical beauty. They were there to work and make money. They came in and wiped out the things that made my adopted hometown so lovable like loggers wiping out old-growth forest. And I suspect that, like old-growth forest, those things won't just sprout back now that the dot-commers are flowing out again -- a month ago USA Today quoted local moving companies saying that outbound moves in the Bay Area had skyrocketed, up from 39 percent of all moves to 53 percent at United Van Lines, from 20 percent to 60 percent at a local affiliate of Allied.

While they were there -- and make no mistake, most of them are still there -- the yuppies wanted things San Franciscans had never made a priority, like convenience and quiet, the things you can get in any number of suburban towns or small cities across the country. Some of those places are lovely, but there are a lot of them.

There was only one San Francisco, and it was turning into all those other places. Walking down Valencia Street, not long ago the hippest street in the Mission, the hippest part of town, I came to feel like I could be in the reasonably hip part of pretty much any city in America with a population of half a million or more. I was living in Middle America, but paying San Francisco prices, which were going nuts.

In 1995 I moved up in the world from a big, beautiful $575-a-month studio -- a studio so big my friends used to ask me to let them use it for their parties -- to a one-bedroom apartment for $750. That was a nice deal, but not spectacular. At the time, the average asking rent for a vacant one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco was $889, according to Rent Tech, a local listings service. Two years later, when my girlfriend and I decided to move in together, we discovered that, even combining our incomes, we couldn't afford a decent place in the city. The average rent for a one-bedroom had gone up 37 percent, to $1,220.

We squeezed into my one-bedroom, and eventually got a little more space by moving to Oakland and paying quite a bit more for a two-bedroom, but still only about half of what we would have paid for the same place in San Francisco. The average asking rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city at the end of June was $1,802, Rent Tech says, down from a high of $1,895 last year. Inflation alone would have pushed that apartment that was $889 in '95 only up to about $995.

I was at a party earlier this year and a group of us were talking about the soaring prices. "Remember when you could move?" one woman said wistfully. "Remember when you could just decide, 'I don't like my apartment anymore. I think I'll move'?"

My girlfriend had since become my wife. She never really liked California. A Midwesterner, she hated the pace and the traffic and the pretentiousness and the lack of seasons. It had been a source of conflict in our marriage. But now I was starting to come around. Remember when you could move? What kind of place had this become? And here's a better question: What was I still doing here?

We decided on St. Louis for a variety of reasons. It's big enough for me, manageable enough for the wife and we both have some family here. Plus, we liked the place. Its small physical area and distinct neighborhoods remind me a little of the city of my lost love.

In St. Louis, if you can afford $1,800 a month, the cost of that average vacant one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, you can rent a big house in a tony suburb. It does not appear from the local classifieds that you could pay $1,800 rent in the city even if you wanted to.

We bought a nice old house in a city neighborhood called Dogtown -- owning a house is something I honestly thought I would never do in my life -- for an amount of money that, as far as I know, cannot make you a homeowner in the Bay Area.

Between the time we bought the house and the day we moved, it became a form of pornography for my San Francisco friends to ask me what we paid for the house. They'd hunker themselves up as though they were about to be punched, and say, "OK, tell me what you paid for it. No! Wait!" More hunkering. "OK, now. Go ahead." I'd tell them and they'd go, "OOOOHHHHHHohohoh." One friend shouted, "No!" as her knees actually buckled. She grabbed my shoulders for support. "Do you have any idea what I just paid for my house?" she asked. I did. Not quite five times as much as we paid for ours, for a house half the size (but nice!).

When I called to set up phone service, the operator at Southwestern Bell said, "So you're leaving California for St. Louis weather? I would say that's a bad choice." I laughed and said, "Well, we're leaving the traffic."

"We have traffic here," she said, and I said, "No, you don't," and I was right.

Two St. Louis scenes:

Scene 1: The wife and I are going to a street fair called "A Taste of the Central West End." The Central West End is the neighborhood most like the old hometown to me, the bourgeois bohemian, chichi part of town. There are gay people and interesting restaurants and high prices and a punk rock fashion store, and it's hard to park. But see if you can spot the things that wouldn't have happened in San Francisco in the following sequence. We'll review afterward.

One long block from the central intersection of the street fair, I see a parking space. I make a quick U-turn to get to it, and as I approach it I notice a man getting into a car just behind the open space. I decide to sit and wait for him to pull out, and then just front my way into the two-space hole when he leaves. After a moment, just as he's starting to pull away, I realize that I'd been mistaken. There's a car between the open space and the leaving man, so, deciding to just grab the open space, I pull forward. As I begin to roll away the man quickly lowers his window and yells, "You can park here! You can park!"

Here are the things that wouldn't have happened in San Francisco: 1) I see a parking space one block from where we're going. 2) I have time to make a U-turn without the parking space disappearing. 3) Someone is leaving, thus creating a second parking space. 4) The man takes only a moment before he's ready to leave the parking space. 5) The man thinks that I've concluded that he's not leaving, thus indicating that he's noticed another human being populating the world. 6) The man takes an interest in my situation, trying to tell me the parking space is indeed becoming available.

Scene 2: The wife and I are meeting friends at a popular restaurant in the city's Italian district, the Hill. When we arrive, I walk in to see if our friends are already there. As soon as I walk in the door, the hostess says, "You're looking for Phil, right?" I point at her like the game show host I secretly am and say, "That is incorrect!" She laughs and says, "You're kidding, right?" I say, "No, really. I'm not looking for Phil. I'm looking for the Granicks." She says, "Oh, well, the guy said 'young guy with a goatee,' so I figured it was you."

In St. Louis, you can actually say "young guy with a goatee" and people will accept that as a reasonable description of a person they might then recognize. In San Francisco, saying "young guy with a goatee" is like saying "biped."

There are other differences I'm getting used to. People seem to drive in the middle of the street here. If a car's coming at you on a residential street and there are cars parked along both curbs, one of you is going to have to pull over, even if there is room for two cars, because the other driver is straddling the middle of the road. Something to do with St. Louis being on the Mississippi, the traditional, if not actual, midway point of the country? A healthy berth given to people potentially exiting parked vehicles? I don't know.

Also, St. Louis has the longest red lights and the shortest green lights I've ever seen. I can't explain and will not listen to scientific evidence of its impossibility. And of course, there's the weather, hot and sticky now, soon enough to turn bitter cold, both new to me. So far I'm doing fine with the heat, much to my surprise after two decades of enjoying the weather in a city that once supposedly saw the headline "77 Again Today -- No Relief in Sight." I'm loving the hot Midwestern nights. I bought a barbecue the other day, though I betrayed myself as a Californian by grilling fish on its maiden voyage.

The biggest difference between St. Louis and San Francisco, though, is attitude. In just the two weeks that I've been here, I've seen several examples of St. Louis fretting about how the world sees it.

The week we arrived the big story in town was Weeweegate, the kind of local politics cause célèbre that most towns get to enjoy from time to time. Everyone talks about it for a little while, and then it blows over. In San Francisco, for example, in the mid-'90s, the mayor, running for reelection, managed to let a couple of morning radio guys photograph him in the shower.

Weeweegate is the case of a female member of the Board of Aldermen who either did or did not urinate in a trash can during a board meeting. The alderman, Democrat Irene Smith, was filibustering against a redistricting measure that she opposed when she heard the call of nature. She asked the acting board president, James Shrewsbury, for a bathroom break. Shrewsbury, who had appointed the committee that drew up the map that Smith opposed, was not feeling charitable, bathroom break-wise. He said that if she left the room, she'd give up the floor and the measure would come to a vote.

So, according to news reports, Smith's supporters surrounded her with bedsheets (where did they get bedsheets?) and maps as she squatted over a trash can. Nobody will confirm or deny whether she actually let loose, but in any event she was cited by the police for lewd and indecent conduct for the appearance of urinating in public.

"We are the laughingstock of the country," said Mayor Francis Slay in the aftermath. But an informal poll of journalist colleagues and friends on both coasts, folks who keep up on current events, did not turn up a soul who had heard of this little set-to.

Meanwhile, the Riverfront Times, the local alternative weekly, ran a piece dissecting an article in Art in America in which a writer surveyed the St. Louis art scene. And news of a financial crisis at the St. Louis Symphony elicited an editorial in the Post-Dispatch that pointed out that "the Symphony is one St. Louis institution that actually merits the overtaxed superlative 'world-class.'" The editorial, a call to arms to support the symphony, went on to say, "The region needs reasons to feel good about itself, that it is not a has-been, a formerly great, a dinosaur."

I can't imagine San Franciscans worrying so about what people elsewhere think of them. In fact, San Franciscans -- that is, the residents of my San Francisco, the one that has melted away -- know what others think of them: They're crazy and godless. It's simply received wisdom that San Francisco is the best, the only place in the world worth settling in, and there's no point in worrying what anybody else thinks. If they don't live in San Francisco, they must be losers anyway.

So I'm adjusting to this new perspective, without having adopted it yet. I can't picture ever worrying about what people think of my new city, but if I ever become a true St. Louisan perhaps I'll take on the self-consciousness, the need to apologize, that comes from living in a city that's lost 59 percent of its population in the last half-century, that went from being the eighth largest city in America in 1950 to the 50th largest in 2000, an exodus unrivaled in American history.

In the meantime I have a long way to go to learn enough about the place to form real opinions of my own. There are racial things going on here, for example, that I may never understand, and I certainly haven't begun to. Race, in fact, is the subplot of Weeweegate, since the plan opposed by Smith, who is black, would move the ward of a black alderman from mostly black north St. Louis to mostly white south St. Louis.

I have a feeling race is a subplot of a lot of things here. When I say "mostly black" and "mostly white," I'm not talking about a few percentage points. Walk west along a street called Delmar Boulevard and almost everyone who lives to your right is black, almost everyone who lives to your left is white. Keep going and you'll reach St. Louis County, separate from the city, with a booming population that's 77 percent white, compared to 44 percent in the city, and with nothing approaching the city's poverty or crime levels.

The second week we were in town Weeweegate was replaced in the headlines and on the talk shows by a controversy over new gates at Forest Park, the giant, centerpiece park that was home to the 1904 World's Fair and is now home to many of the city's cultural institutions. The proposed gates, for six of the park's entrances, are giant abstract steel things designed by famed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The price tag would be $6 million, paid for by a private foundation.

The battle falls pretty much along the usual lines in matters of public art: Supporters of a proposed work say it's beautiful and essential and that its opponents are mouth-breathing philistines who wouldn't know good art if it bit them right through their fanny packs. Opponents say that they'll put those ugly things in over my dead body, and if they're going to spend all that money, why don't they spend it on (insert pet project here)?

I have no dog in this fight. I don't care what they do with the gates. But I did pay a sunset visit with the wife to a piece of public art that just about everyone agrees on. The Arch is the most recognizable and beloved piece of public art in the country other than the Statue of Liberty. The wife and I already love it as though we've been living with it our whole lives. From afar or from right underneath it, it's a hell of a thing, it really is.

All my life, I've lived near the water. From time to time I've stood on the beach and watched the water come toward me in waves. The other night I sat on the top step of a long stairway that leads to the base of the Arch and watched the Mississippi River. The water flowed past me, left to right. I don't know why that struck me, but if the movement of water can dig the Grand Canyon, maybe it can carve little changes in me too.

"If they're going to spend $6 million on Forest Park," I thought, "I wish they'd put in a few more water fountains that actually work."

And for the first time, I felt a little bit like a native.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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