Erasing San Francisco / Rebecca Solnit argues that gentrification is wiping out the city's eccentric personality
Reviewed by Tess Taylor
There's no question that San Francisco is changing. There are signs of it everywhere: expensive frame shops on Valencia St., yellow-walled, ceviche- serving bistros in the Mission and $800-a-month studios in what used to be called the Tenderloin. Despite all the talk of new prosperity, for many longtime residents there's an unsettling flavor to the change. Rebecca Solnit takes on the topic in her latest book, "The Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism."
Like a contemporary Baudelaire, she wanders the streets of the once-gritty Mission and sighs, "the old San Francisco is gone! The form of the city changes much faster, alas, than the heart of a mortal." Baudelaire's narrator was mourning a Paris rendered unrecognizable when Baron Hausmann razed entire neighborhoods and displaced thousands of residents. Solnit grieves for a San Francisco that has changed almost as quickly. The book is accompanied by a photo essay by Susan Schwartzenberg. The images document a city in transition and commemorate the faces of poor, working-class or radical people who can no longer afford to live here.
Solnit's tone is somewhere between indignance and regret. Since the explosion of the dot-com universe, the cost of being a San Franciscan has skyrocketed.
Old-timers see the change, but Solnit cites startling examples. Rents increased 37 percent from 1996 to 1997 alone; in some neighborhoods, they can increase 20 percent over in 2 months. San Francisco has a housing market so tight that newcomers often go to demolition sites in hopes of getting spots in the new building.
According to Solnit, this wealth has imposed an extremely high tariff on the city's cultural vibrancy. If the economy is booming, many spaces for cultural experimentation are shrinking. San Francisco's bohemia is dwindling.
More and more, people engaged in such nonlucrative activities as making art live elsewhere. Flags of the city's progressive diversity, such as the human rights organization Global Exchange or the John Coltrane church, are in fiscal tatters. People who nurse this city's sick, teach its students or build its new loft spaces can no longer afford to live here. The Golden Gate is, at least temporarily, closed even to middle-income residents.
This saddens Solnit. She pays journalistic tribute to a more chaotic, diverse city, a city of strange multiplicity, charged proximity and unexpected encounters in public space. Quoting Bill Saunders of Harvard Design magazine, she writes, "One longs for more bad taste, for more surprise, dirt and looseness, more anarchic unself-conscious play."
What's more, Solnit worries that the physical yuppification of San Francisco also makes it difficult to remember a time when lower-income lifestyle choices were options. The city forgets what it has evicted; the new landscape erases the past.
Solnit is at her best when she's writing about landscape and memory. Unfortunately, her indignation sometimes blocks, rather than fuels, good writing. She wanders off on tirades that waver between academe and agitprop. She falls into a "save the artists, blame the dot-commers" rhetoric that's self-congratulatory and too simplistic. She snipes about cell phones and snits that "dot-com newcomers tend to like cover bands more than innovative ones."
Her "kids these days" attitude is hard to take, especially when Solnit has pretentions of documenting a major "crisis of American urbanism." It's true that American cities are changing, and that gentrification has taken root in cities nationwide, but Solnit's scholarship doesn't substantiate the scope of her project. Ultimately, she is neither specific enough about San Francisco nor insightful enough about the rest of the country to achieve a good balance.
Still, Solnit is raising thought-provoking questions. She's asking the social cost when a city begins costing so much. She's challenging the implicit margins of social possibility and arguing that they shrink when urban residents are required to make so much money just to stay afloat. It has always been hard to venture out as an artist, an environmentalist or a public school teacher, but now it's even harder. "The Hollow City" is a wide-format book, but its text is compressed into narrow margins. The tight inner space suggests the absence that surrounds it. Like the blank space that surrounds a poem, the emptiness is significant. It asks the reader to think what -- and whom -- they are no longer seeing.