Wednesday, November 23, 2005

San Francisco - a victim of free thinking

From (New Zealand):

It's touted as the US capital of free thinking, but San Francisco has a surprisingly sordid underbelly, David Sygall writes.

The locals proudly describe San Francisco as an oasis in the United States.
Progressive, free and liberal, it's a dissenting voice in a giant country obsessed with materialism, conservatism, self-confidence and blatant excess.

However, spend a bit more time than the average traveller in this city and you might find that despite its inhabitants' belief, San Francisco is more a metaphor for the US than an anomaly.
Ever since rock band Grateful Dead transformed the district of Haight-Ashbury, in the south-western part of downtown, San Francisco has been synonymous with the resistance movement that quickly spread throughout California and had a profound effect on political and cultural history.

While Haight-Ashbury is still littered with 1960s paraphernalia, the neighbouring district, the Castro, is the city's gay and lesbian heartland arguably the modern version of that 1960s liberalism.

Back towards the peninsula is the tourist haven of Union Square and up towards North Beach and the famous piers at Fisherman's Wharf.

But underneath the tourist facade is a different San Francisco.

While the city offers so much of the best of the US, it has to some extent become a victim of its own free-thinking ways.

It is this paradox that made San Francisco, at least for me, much more interesting than just trekking the beaten track on the cable car to the Golden Gate Bridge and the boat to Alcatraz.
My first few days were spent trotting about the usual tourist attractions. But, disturbingly, the most striking thing about such places was the abundance of beggars, mostly African-Americans, almost all on drugs. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere downtown without being asked for "spare change".

When I expressed surprise to my friends about this, they said it was because San Francisco had become a magnet for some of the poorest people in California and beyond.

They arrive believing drugs are easily available because of the city's liberalism. They know there are many tourists and they do their best to gain their tiny piece of the cake. But it's not just the down-and-outers who have problems.

One night I went to a hip-hop club. Inside was like a scene from the Eminem movie 8 Mile, with young people in baggy jeans, big T-shirts and headbands nodding their heads and bending their knees to the beat and the rapper.

Just outside, two young adults were lighting a pipe and others were skolling from a bottle of spirit. No one looked surprised, not least the bouncers, who let them in when they had finished getting their hits.

In an almost different world, the next night I experienced America's national pastime, baseball, San Francisco's Chargers against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The crowd was full of parents and their kids, many eating hot dogs or doughnuts. But it took a while to realise that less than 1 per cent of the crowd was African-American.

Progressive? Free and liberal? Inclusive? This combination left me a little confused.
Don't get me wrong. Greater San Francisco and its often very pretty satellites form one of the most impressive and intriguing regions a traveller could wish to visit.

But outside my window I also see a drunk, homeless black man sleeping next to a parked limousine whose driver is probably waiting to pick up his white client from the theatre next door.

San Francisco is certainly a leading US city in some ways. However, its self-proclaimed liberalism may be caught in a 1960s time warp.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i guess it's because the writer is from new zealand, but it's pretty funny to see him mention a baseball game between the arazona diamondbacks and the san francisco chargers...

Saturday, November 26, 2005  
Anonymous Adam said...

Whether you're from New Zealand or not, you dont spend quality time in San Francisco, say you've got it all figured out, and then describe the Haight/Ashbury as "the southwestern part of downtown."

Thursday, December 01, 2005  

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