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October 3, 2000

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Thoughts on a City

"Thereís a destination a little up the road from the habitations and the towns we know."

-- Beck

by Travis Merrigan

Thereís probably not a city in the States that is more different from Mobile than San Francisco. Socially, economically and politically they are polar opposites. Perhaps better than anywhere else, San Francisco has shed the ugly shawl of bigotry, ignorance and prejudice that cloaks so many other places in this nation.

The standard blueprint for a western city is all about space, which, if you have ever been to the west, is plentiful. The idea is to move the city outward so every working stiff can have a cookie-cutter house on 1.5 acres and sill have enough room to lay down huge parking lots around strip malls. The result is urban sprawl. Western cities are laced with enormous freeways, which are the only way of getting around and which necessitate more parking lots and bigger freeways. Houston, Los Angles and Atlanta are good (bad?) examples of this.

SF is different in that space is in short supply. The City is on a peninsula that is only 9 miles by 9 miles but has a population of 750,000, the second most densely populated city in the nation. This makes parking a bitch and urban sprawl an impossibility. The result, however, is that SF is one of the most walkable cities in the United States. Instead of vast freeways, The City is connected with a wonderful system of public transportation that tens of thousands of people use each day. I had my car there all summer, but only used it when I needed to leave the city.

Distinct neighborhoods, each with their own special flavor, exist within walking distance from each other. Each holds an essential and eclectic piece of the most diverse city in the nation. Walk from the Sunset, by the Castro, through the Mission around downtown, past Chinatown and up to North Beach and you would swear that you had just visited four continents. On the Muni, you are likely to hear Spanish, Chinese, Korean and any of a dozen other languages that the locals speak.

The most famous neighborhood, or at least the only one I had heard of before arriving, is probably the Haight-Ashbury. The Haight (pronounced Hate) is where the Grateful Dead hung out and Santana got his first gigs back in the day. It has long been a hub for the drug and counter-culture and, to this day, if you walk four blocks down Haight Street and donít get offered drugs, thereís probably something wrong with you. One of my biggest disappointments about the city, however, happened in this neighborhood. At the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, the epicenter of the flower-child generation, there is a Ben and Jerryís Ice Cream and a Gap. Is nothing sacred anymore?

San Fran has almost 10 miles of public beaches, but you can leave your bikini at home for itís a rare day in the summer when you can take off your sweatshirt on the beach. SF has microclimates, which means that the parts of the city on the bay side can be 15 degrees warmer than the neighborhoods closer to the beach. All summer long, a cold fog rolls off the cold Pacific and sends tourists, most of whom only packed t-shirts and sunscreen, scurrying to gift shops to buy fuzzy, overpriced fleece sweatshirts. Baywatch is not filmed in San Francisco.

The City has a sizable gay and lesbian community. It was here that the gay rights movement started in the sixties when some wacko shot Harvey Milk, SFís first openly gay publicly elected official. Larger than their population, however, is the gay communityís influence over local politics, society, art and culture. The Gay Pride celebration is the largest in the nation and comes complete with 6í5" transsexuals in high heels, Dikes on Bikes, and, my personal favorite, the all-male, habit-wearing Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence clad in fishnet miniskirts. I saw some things that weekend that I ainít never seen before nowhere. Iím sure we would have an old-fashioned lynching if any of that went on here, but thatís why there are no Southern Baptists in San Francisco.

California Proposition 215 legalized medical marijuana and nowhere in the state has the law been more warmly embraced. The law states that cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, HIV positive people undergoing certain treatments, and various others can legally buy marijuana in specified distribution centers (there was one across the street from where I went grocery shopping). In practice, however, the drug is all but legal throughout the city for anyone. Many times I passed people indiscreetly smoking pot in a park or on their front porch and almost daily I smelled the sweet aroma lofting from open an apartment window. Your biggest danger while getting high in SF is burning your thumb.

But all of this doesnít come for free. San Francisco is the most expensive place I have ever lived. I could live for a whole year in my current house in Mobile for what I paid for three months in SF, with money left over. Let me just say that you get what you pay for.

The cityís attitude towards foreigners, gays and pot is in line with the San Franciscansí live-and-let-live-attitude on almost everything. It is the exemplification of what we Americans perceive our country to be; open to all, free for all and accepting of all. Itís the way it should be. The United States needs a place like San Francisco.


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