Why I Live in San Francisco
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San Francisco is where people come to try ambitious world-changing ideas. No other place is like it. I came to join the ferment.
In San Francisco, there are four potency enhancers for social justice efforts that multiply the effects of an activist's work:
1) community moral support
2) being a hub: people come here from all over
3) being a fishbowl: people watch what we do
4) we publish
Moral (and emotional) support
In San Francisco, there is metacommunity—an interwoven community of people who are building all different kinds of subcultures and subcommunities. On the mundane level, there are smart, intense, creative and unconventional people of all races and walks of life. Chance encounters with cabbies, dignitaries or panhandlers are equally prone to veer into stimulating, erudite, productive societal critique.
Along with the affirming support of daily experience, there's the particular kind of support that comes from people adoring experimentation and debate—people not afraid of disagreement. And we have a great mix of urban settings and nature to create conducive frames of mind and reference.
People with ideas come through as visitors, or as explorers themselves, to get feedback and exposure for their project—seminating awareness through films, lectures, art, performance, street action and branch offices of organizations. Living in San Francisco, we find out more about what happens elsewhere than we would in most other places.
San Fran is a travel destination. Conventions and trade shows come through—covering everything from quantum physics to yo-yo to monster trucks to Dickensian roleplay—allowing us to keep a finger on the pulse. Travelers are always happy to have people pick their brains. They crave meeting sympatique–os and you can find them prowling our streets in search.
While here, people get ideas. An example: We started Critical Mass bike rides. They've spread to more than 400 cities, many predating any media attention. People saw it with their own eyes while visiting, liked it, took it home.
SF is easy to get to and from by plane, car, ship, train, bus and internet. Why is San Francisco home to a globally celebrated Gay community? It was the easiest port of call for the U.S. armed services to dump their dishonorably discharged during the "Pacific Theater of Operations" phase of WWII—which happens to be when the first specific rule banning gays in the military was created. After being "outed" like that, they were stuck here: Going "home" to Topeka was not a great option if you were publicly known as gay in 1942.
Eyes on us
Anything unusual we accomplish here hits the presses around the world. We're talked up, blogged and emailed by inspired or impressionable folks everywhere. When I travel I hear the very name of our town equated with the idea of noteworthiness. An unusual effort in any other town may get some attention, but if it happens here, it's magnified: "There they go again!"
We invent things that then get refined outside our region. Think food co-ops, Black Power, credit cards, immigrant rights.
We even sometimes get to define the essence of things that begin elsewhere. You start it, we run with it, then you try to catch up. Think www. Think 'zines, environmentalism, flower power, bungee jumping. Think medical marijuana. (Put that in your pipe and smoke it.) And around the Bay, think Free Speech, wine, mountain biking, populist architecture.
Extensive communication happens here, and lots happens from here. Important national and international (as well as interplanetary) magazines, books and new electronic media, if not, unfortunately, excellent newspapers or TV, are based or hooked-in here.
Living San Francisco by leaving San Francisco
On the other hand, San Francisco is not really a microcosm. There is not as much of a sense of the brutal real world here—which isn't to say it isn't here. But it is easy to forget how people elsewhere think (or, more commonly, have been coaxed not to).
This city is not a good place to have as one's only place. It would create a skewed reality for an isolate. It is something like a school, but with a curriculum we can invent ourselves and make out of real experience, not just hiding in the library. Instead of learning in the abstract, learning happens here in the context of constant challenges from all those "eyes" and through-passers.
But it still takes going elsewhere for periods of time on a regular basis to apply the learning. This might mean a rap group bringing live music to the suburbs and hamlets, or doing legal work for a few months on the Dnai reservation in Utah, or Earth Island jaunts to help set up environmental social change programs in Kenya. It might mean going for half a year to Chiapas, or to the Highlander School, or regularly visiting the collective farms in Latin America that supply goods to Global Exchange (based here). It might mean lunch counter desegregation sit-ins which were organized in the 50s and 60s, largely from here. You get the idea.
My fantasy of the best life is a little like the Antioch College co-op system, with people giving one another strength and relevance as we repeatedly go out and come back with a thousand things to share and improve in one another's plans and perspectives. I've found no better place for that than San Francisco.
Many people would rather be settled. People who are settled in one small, delineated community, building trust and connection within that community can be very effective and impact many lives. That's a model you might aspire to. It certainly works, especially if it's in your natural community. But a person whose ambitions change and wander, and whose boots have tramped many roads, may be better off in (and out and back in again) a hub—a community of activists.
For the same reason, a person who lives their entire existence in San Francisco is also missing out. Community crosses borders. Helping other places and their struggles to connect and find mutual relevance is the ultimate challenge of democracy, and it's the challenge that my San Francisco community has, in a somewhat unplanned grand plan, taken up.
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