On Cities: Why is SF so hard to get to know?

I love cities. I might even call myself a 'city girl.' I love that they are living, breathing entities, dear friends you cherish and lovers you dream about, pine over, and explore. I love their accessibility, their magnitude, their pulsing heartbeat, their inconveniences, their character. Their danger. Well, maybe not so much the danger. But I do love that I can within a half-mile radius find a delicious saltado, a hot steaming plate of curry goat, luscious beard papa, knife-cut noodles, pluots, and pecorino cheese.

I did not grow up a city girl. I was born in the well-manicured heart of suburbia, right next to Disneyland (the happiest place on Earth). I spent 18 years in the same house before going to college in an urban center. I never want to go back.

I'm trying to remember, but I'm pretty sure the first time I really got the taste of a city was right after I graduated high school, on a graduation trip to Europe (10 days, cheesy tour, wouldn't recommend it). The first city I fell in love with was London. I mean, how could I not? It didn't matter that at the end of each day we'd blow our noses and find black snot, and the hotel was so old fashioned the hot and cold water came from separate spigots. It was dandy, it was chummy, it offered itself and its curiosities up to us like a child at show-and-tell. We felt privy to a whole set of confidences and we were sure no one else had ever experienced London like we did. (Of course they had.)

And when we moved on to Paris, I felt in my heart a peculiar longing, an urge to look back with a sigh. I really missed London, like I might have missed a crush I hadn't seen in the lunchroom for a while. And that's how I knew I had fallen in love.

Anyway. In the past 10 years, I had the privilege of learning to love a good number of cities: Boston, with its history and great dear river; New York, where love can be mistaken for loathing; Los Angeles, my wondrous 'urban galaxy' and breathless food paradise; pristine Lucerne; serene Lijiang (ok, those last two are towns really); bourgie boho Berkeley, uncompromising and inconvenient Beijing; gritty, neatly squared Xi'an, mulatto half-breed and delicious Macau, Kuala Lumpur with its juxtapositions and otherworldly Towers, and Hong Kong, the Ultimate City, where you can find absolutely anything your heart desires, at any time of day or night.

I think loving a city doesn't have as much to do with the amount of time you spend there (though that helps). Seems more important the quantity and quality of new things you can discover in it.

What I've wondered for the past two years is why I can't seem to find a rhythm for the city now closest to me, San Francisco. Again, I know it's probably my problem, not the city's. I just don't know why I can't get my brain around it when soooooooooooooooooo many people I know can't get enough of it. Enough of what? Getting there (from the south bay) is a huge bother; parking is a bitch, people are blockheaded and irrational when they drive. I don't feel safe in it--people I know have been mugged, and my brother saw a 22-year-old kid die right in front of him, from a random shot to the head. I walked around Union Square and in one afternoon ran into two people from my hometown--everything seems smaller and more strangely provincial than you'd expect from a great city. And the only food I have seriously craved in SF are the amazing greasy papusas from this Salvadorean place on Mission, just a few doors up from Good Frikin Chicken. Well ok, the seafood saltado at Mi Lindo Peru is pretty fabulous too.

Anyway, I should stop complaining about it and go to sleep. I just can't help scratching my head over it every once in a while, and wonder what it is that I'm missing.
11 responses

San Francisco is almost an hour away. Keep in mind you would probably feel similarly if you were an hour away from Beijing, KL, Xian, HK, or anywhere else.

What's an hour away from New York City? New Jersey. Blech.

haha, good point.

then again, berkeley is an hour away, and i love berkeley. most of the advantages of a big city with very few of the inconveniences!

Steph, go to sleep, It's late!

Look who's talking!

Good thing you don't have timestamps yet, or people will start to think I have no life.

Oh wait, I don't. HAH. Ok, I'm going to bed now I promise.

LOL at the convo above..

I haven't been to any big city except London, UK. When I came to North America I used to say to my man that I'd never been to any big city. Then it struck me.. «but I've been in London?!».. The difference is that London isn't a modern big city..it's old..and I didn't preceive it as all that big. Even Montreal felt bigger when I rode a bus straight through it.

When I try to imagine what it would be like to actually LIVE in a big city...often I've come to that conclusion that you somehow have to focus on the little world around you... Like you say, the coffee shop and bar on your block.. A little bit like in Seinfeld. They seemed to have their little world within NYC..

Coming from a smallish, old, rust-belt city with tons of culture—but one maybe only a local could love (Rochester NY) I have to say the safety thing can be crucial.

“I don’t feel safe in it… and my brother saw a 22-year-old kid die right in front of him, from a random shot to the head.”

—this little nugget seems like more than enough to turn someone off to a place on a visceral level. We’re wired to pay attention to this stuff. Not attending to it is what leads to middle-aged neuroses and mysterious aversions. Take it from someone with the luxury of hindsight!

i grew up in hong kong, spent my formative years in seattle, went to college and worked in los angeles and now i’m here in the heart of san francisco. my first impression of san francisco was not unlike yours – that it’s smallish, provincial and kinda angry – anytime i mentioned i lived and loved los angeles i got stared at and the inevitable fury of vitriol followed. imagine how that feels being a lakers fan in san francisco! for a city whose claim to fame is peace, love and understanding, san francisco’s attitude was a little shocking. but it’s easy to generalize of course. i’ve been living in san francisco for 10 years. i’ve slowly learn to love it and its serenity, its small-townish feel (compared to the likes of hong kong, london and nyc). i like my local coffee shop and bars, where people know me by name. it helps too that i have a little family here. to me, it’s never the city, it’s the people that makes it.

(I've updated this comment using my account instead of Theo's)

After spending all my life in suburbia and the outskirts of large(r) cities, I'm just now starting to consider SF as my next home. Previously, I had always been put off by the idea of commuting from SF to work (wherever that might be). Also, all my sisters live on the east bay -- pretty far from Mtn View even, but much farther from the city. That being that, what's started to shift my view is realizing how much work I can get done commuting on the train. I can easily deal with an hour commute to and from if it promises to be 75% productive use of time...

Oddly, I feel much safer in a city. I think it's the familiarity of seeing people, crowded buildings, and cafes, etc., that makes me feel grounded and at home. But I think it's because I've lived in cities my whole life (Chengdu, New York, and now SF). I remember when I first moved to the Bay Area I refused to call SF the city (as in, hey do you want to go to the city tonight) because I thought that is the title of New York and no other. SF has begun to grow on me ever since for having its quirky small town feel while still retaining the accessibility (via public transportation) and surprises of a city (whoa....there's an amazing restaurant hidden in that alley).

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