Someone once said the reason San Francisco has so many cultural events is that it has Champagne flowing from its veins — that may explain the abundance of bad driving on city streets.
In recent years, as San Francisco’s political process has been commandeered by arrivistes who pay little heed to civic traditions, the question has been raised as to what the main attraction is for the outsiders, transients and fringe activists who flock here like migratory birds.
And judging from unscientific surveys gathered over time, the answer seems to fall on one aspect of San Francisco that has rarely changed: The parties come, they rarely go, and they cut across all cultural, ethnic and class lines.
You need to look no further than the colorfully dressed contingent of more than 60,000 people that took to the streets for The City’s 99th annual ING Bay to Breakers race Sunday — one of the largest footraces in the country and without doubt the most festive and frisky. While it remains a serious race for middle-distance runners, it still exists largely as a moveable feast for the masses.
Juxtapose that with the more standard Oysterfest concert last weekend, which came on the heels of the How Weird Street Faire, or the more mainstream celebration for SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary Friday, and you have a sense that if there’s an excuse to drink in more than sunshine or modern art, San Francisco will take to the streets to find it.
And that’s just leading up to a party so big, city arts patrons can only hold it every two years — the Black and White Ball, a gathering that started to commemorate the 1906 earthquake and has survived the tectonic shifts of three generations. The event Saturday once again will provide a setting for people of all ages and tastes to come together to raise money for the San Francisco Symphony’s music education program, a celebration that strikes all the right chords.
The others just come to party.
“It’s really like multiple parties within a party, and we’ve tried to reinvent it along the way,” said Patricia Sprincin, chair of this year’s gala, which takes place at and essentially closes Civic Center Saturday. “In the past, we’ve had to book up to 25 bands, and that’s an undertaking. It’s kind of a signature event.”
Tens of thousands of people have signed onto it over the years, making the Black and White Ball the largest black-tie event in the country. It has attracted hippies, Deadheads, debutantes and dowagers — just the kind of pairings that would result in Tony Bennett playing with k.d. lang, or a bill featuring Blondie and Boz Scaggs, San Francisco’s version of a cosmic wink. (For more information about this year’s ball, go to www.sfsymphony.org).
One amusing aspect of The City’s cultural-events scene is that it gets people riled up over everything from their ZIP codes, their neighborhood parks or their self-given right to do anything they want.
Currently, the so-called progressives in town are fighting over alleged crackdowns in bars. Neighborhood groups in North Beach and the Haight have been battling about popular street fairs, which critics say lead to rowdy behavior.
Residents in and around Nob Hill are waging a holy war to stop a promoter from expanding the number of concerts at Masonic Auditorium. And there are a handful of local gadflies who have spent years railing against concerts in city parks, just the kind San Francisco has grown infamous for.
Yet somehow most of the party traditions remain, as evidenced by Bay to Breakers, the Black and White Ball and even some long-running if relatively new additions like KFOG’s KaBoom (also this weekend) and two fall concerts, the Now and Zen Fest and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
San Francisco may have an unquenchable thirst for cultural celebrations, but it also has a deeply defined knack for giving. The Black and White Ball is the symphony’s major fundraiser, but as Sprincin said, “It’s really all about the special-ness of The City.”
In 2012, it should be really special — when the symphony ties one on to celebrate its centennial anniversary.