The idea of the “soul of San Francisco,” and whether it’s been lost or found in these years of our gentrification and more recently the pandemic is a well-worn idea. But what exactly does it mean, to go in search of something as ephemeral as a city’s spirit? After 99 columns, I’m still trying to find out.
“One of the things people say to me all the time is they’re happy we’re still here. As if they are expecting me not to be,” said Paula Tejada, the self-proclaimed Empanada Lady who presides over Chile Lindo, her specialty food stand and catering business on 16th between Capp and South Van Ness, the crossroads of good fortune and hard luck.
Tejada is the among the San Franciscans I’ve talked to over the last few years for this column, which has been devoted largely to probing the idea of what keeps some of us here, while others decide it’s time to leave in a hurry. It’s been a thorny proposition, fraught with the usual contradictions of writing about a complex city, and yet I learn more and more about San Francisco each day by talking to folks who call this place home.
“Foot traffic in the morning is done,” Tejada told me by phone this week when I checked in on her pandemic status, three years after we first sat down for a chat.
“There are no Google buses, people who used to walk by in the morning aren’t going to work on BART and I never know if I’m going to have that customer that’s coming in for a dozen.”
And yet, Tejada digs into reserves she doesn’t really have to pay topflight jazz, salsa and bossa nova musicians to perform at her storefront, thanks in part to The City relaxing regulations around outdoor dining and drinking during the pandemic. She does it because she believes in that ineffable thing we call the soul of San Francisco.
“An extension needs to be granted for at least two more years,” she said. “It’s going to take that long to recover. Look at how many small businesses closed before the pandemic, not to mention after?” She’d also like a little help with maintaining her storefront in the mornings, where she often washes away bodily waste and discarded items from those who make their nightly bed in her doorway.
“If Salesforce decides to become a patron for Chile Lindo, they could call it a marketing expense and I could channel those funds directly to pay musicians,” she said. It’s a great idea from a experienced businesswoman and grassroots arts advocate: Tejada understands the urban ecosystem and the ways in which when one channel shuts down, it impacts the whole.
Alvin Orloff is another believer: When we spoke to the author and bookseller last December about the biography he cowrote with trans superstar Bambi Lake, the pandemic was shaking out to be a mixed bag for him and still is. Though he’s definitely doubled down on his commitment to The City by acquiring the Castro Street bookstore he managed, now called Fabulosa Books.
“It’s exciting and terrifying,” he said. “Our regulars are real troopers. We rely on tourism, which isn’t back to normal, but we’re counting on the holiday season as ever, though more so this year,” he said. “The turning point for us will be when the Castro Theatre finally reopens.”
As luck would have it, the historic cinema begins screening again Nov. 4 with director Stanley Nelson’s “Attica,” a documentary about the historic 1971 prison uprising. And on Nov. 6, The Castro is showing “Summer of Soul,” the documentary by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who will be in conversation with Ben Fong-Torres, local music historian and longtime San Franciscan (and subject of his own documentary, “Like A Rolling Stone,” screening Oct. 30 at the Great Star Theater in Chinatown).
Also persevering despite the pandemic, and following the death of her husband Victor, Jeannine Suarez, sole owner of Derby, maker of the Frisco-born bomber jacket, is launching a new cotton candy pink jacket benefiting the nonprofit Cancer Connections. “I lost two cousins in the last two years to cancer,” she said. “Derby is committed to giving back to The City that made us.”
Among the historians, researchers and medical professionals we’ve spoken to, Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai continues to biomonitor the heavy metals known to cause women’s cancers as well cancers affecting all people, children and pets in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard area. The pandemic has turned her attention to the continued disparities in what she calls the Bayview’s toxic triangle. However, she said she experienced a breakthrough this year: working with a lab that can actually record and detect the manmade substance of plutonium in the body.
“Plutonium is the elephant in the room,” she said. “We know there is an enormous concentration of plutonium in the area, and now it will be recorded.” This long fight to prevent further cancer deaths in the area is not over and Dr. Sumchai, who is Bay Area born and educated, is committed to seeing the story to its end.
Tracing footsteps of the region’s original people and her own ancestors, Kristine Mays has created a new sculpture show “Rich Soil,” which debuted in San Mateo County at Filoli Historic House & Garden pre-pandemic and has since made its way to the Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C. Deft with embracing life’s complexities and depicting them in hard rebar wire sculptures that nevertheless display shape, form, movement and joy, Mays has found the silver linings in the pandemic despite its difficulties and losses.
“Quarantining had been a time to be reflective and to make soulful, strong work,” she said of the show, which has evolved to take in suffering of indigenous and enslaved people, but whose root idea was migrant kids in cages.
“We seem to have forgotten them,” she said, admitting to waking up with injustice on her mind every day.
As I see it, the soul of San Francisco is in the hands of all of us. But the burden, as ever, seems to be shouldered by the folks who are willing to stay awake and alert to the changes and the beauty in the cracks of the facade of our picture-perfect vistas.
Every day, I see a woman sweeping the ground around her place at a bus shelter; a man covered in rags muttering as another yells and takes swings at a phantom, but the enemy isn’t invisible. It’s we who turn a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow San Franciscans.
“There is a force that is more powerful than wickedness and that is called ‘A Love Supreme,’” said the Archbishop Franzo King of the Church of St. John Coltrane, one of those only-in-San-Francisco places. “I’m excited about the time we’re living in right now,” he continued on local radio station KPOO. King’s statements are perhaps what you might expect to hear from a man of faith. And yet, if this time of great upheaval isn’t an opportunity to reset and rise again and take wisdom from wherever we may find it, then the so-called spirit and soul of San Francisco may well be lost.
Last week, I stopped by The Green Arcade bookstore on Market Street to pick up a copy of “Orwell’s Roses” by San Francisco author and great thinker Rebecca Solnit. Taking on the idea that Orwell, a writer known for fierce political critiques, might also be a passionate gardener and naturalist, is an example that our contradictions are here for the embracing. We must love all of it, and all of us, if there is to be any hope for any of us.
So while I can’t claim to have located the soul of San Francisco, I like to think that tapping into the psyche of our residents — the artists, the authors, the activists and the rest of us in the amen corner — is one step in the direction of finding it. I’ll let you know when I do.
Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan. SF Lives/Live Talks are live streamed at 10 a.m. on the second Sunday of the month from birdbeckett.com.