American Decline

How San Francisco Became a Failed City

By Nellie Bowles, The Atlantic

About the author: Nellie Bowles, the author of a forthcoming book of essays, writes a column in the newsletter Common Sense.

San Francisco was conquered by the United States in 1846, and two years later, the Americans discovered gold. That’s about when my ancestors came—my German great-great-great-grandfather worked at a butcher shop on Jackson Street. The gold dried up but too many young men with outlandish dreams remained. The little city, prone to earthquakes and fires, kept growing. The Beats came, then the hippies; the moxie and hubris of the place remained.

My grandmother’s favorite insult was to call someone dull. I learned young that it was impolite to point when a naked man passed by, groceries in hand. If someone wanted to travel by unicycle or be a white person with dreadlocks or raise a child communally among a group of gays or live on a boat or start a ridiculous-sounding company, that was just fine. Between the bead curtains of my aunt’s house, I learned you had to let your strangeness breathe.

It was always weird, always a bit dangerous. Once, when I was very little, a homeless man grabbed me by the hair, lifting me into the air for a moment before the guy dropped me and my dad yelled. For years I told anyone who would listen that I’d been kidnapped. But every compromise San Francisco demanded was worth it. The hills are so steep that I didn’t learn to ride a bike until high school, but every day I saw the bay, and the cool fog rolling in over the water. When puberty hit, I asked the bus driver to drop me off where the lesbians were, and he did. A passenger shouted that he hoped I’d find a nice girlfriend, and I waved back, smiling, my mouth full of braces and rubber bands.

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