San Francisco: The past we can’t agree on

By Lincoln Mitchell

By Lincoln Mitchell

“The City just isn’t what it used to be.”

You hear it wherever you go, whatever you read. San Franciscans of all ages and backgrounds seem to take great pleasure in bemoaning how The City has gotten worse. But the perception of what San Francisco used to be depends on when you got here. In the case of natives, it often hinges on your high school years. In other words, while the sentiment itself may be widespread, the changes that people dislike so much vary, depending on who’s doing the talking.

Many of my middle-aged lefty friends stroll through the Mission District and wince at the expensive restaurants and boutiques that have replaced the dive bars, cheap clothing stores and Mexican restaurants of our youth. Newer and more conservative San Franciscans walk around that neighborhood and get upset about all the homeless people, who seem to be more numerous than a few years ago, who they pass as they make their way to those very same restaurants and boutiques.

People over 70 who grew up here miss the time when there were a lot more natives and The City felt much smaller. Some people long for the days of 2018, when crime rates were lower, while people with longer San Francisco memories know that this a much less dangerous place than it was a few decades ago.

My baby boomer friends still occasionally reminisce about the Summer of Love and the years immediately following that, while slightly younger gay men remember the Castro the way it was in the late 1970s, before AIDS. My Black friends and colleagues of that age miss the time when the African American communities were larger and more vibrant.

This has become a city where the only thing that we agree upon about the past is that it was better. And that means we will always be disappointed because cities, even San Francisco, only move forward.

The enormous changes in populations in recent years and decades make our disagreements about the past even more boisterous. The continued shrinking of the African American population means that a hugely important part of The City’s history is in danger of being forgotten. At the same time, new immigrant groups from many corners of the world — including Asia, Central America, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union — already have created San Francisco histories of their own that are layered upon the histories of longstanding communities of color.

As San Francisco transforms from a city of natives to one of newcomers, the central demographic dynamic of the past 40 or 50 years, the pace of forgetting increases while those who still remember an older San Francisco defend it more fiercely.

The arguments over San Francisco’s past — and therefore its future — are playing out on the national stage, largely through the inane right wing drum beat against critical race theory, as well as efforts by progressives to retell America’s story with a greater emphasis on racism and conquest. Nationally, this is a straightforward fight between the left and the right. In San Francisco, the battle is different.

Arguments about San Francisco’s past are less about ideology and more about The City’s character. While nostalgic Boomers and Gen Xers see the city as fundamentally progressive and offbeat, the affluent recent arrivals see San Francisco as an urban playground where longstanding big city problems should go back to being as muted as they were a few years ago. Older working class San Franciscans of all races and ethnicities may simply see The City as too expensive and no longer feel welcome. These competing visions and memories are irreconcilable and to pretend otherwise gets us nowhere.

These differences are not going to be resolved, because they are precisely what makes San Francisco possible. The fundamental tension that defines any metropolis is that the people who live there exist in their own version of the city and carry around in their heads distinct ideas of what it is, was and should be.

That tension, with its uniquely San Francisco flavor, is also what drew many of us, and many of our parents and grandparents, to this town. Whether we came here because we felt we could be freer here than the places we left, because there was something about the beauty and vibe of the place that we could not shake or simply because of economic opportunity, we were all drawn to a place where there was a lot going on and little agreement on anything.

That disagreement has always existed in San Francisco, and that is not going to change regardless of what this town was like 20, 30, 40, or even three years ago.

Lincoln Mitchell grew up in San Francisco and has written numerous books and articles about history and baseball in The City. He teaches in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. For more of Lincoln’s work please visit his website or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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