When I first heard the line, “You don’t get to hate San Francisco; you don’t get to hate it unless you love it” from The Last Black Man in San Francisco, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Yet, as it lingered in my mind weeks after I had finished watching the movie, I realized that it captured my exact feeling towards the Bay Area, my home.
Growing up, I hated the Bay Area. I longed for autumn leaves and snowy plains. I wished for quaint, ivy-covered, brick architecture that decorate cities like Boston and New York. I wanted to be a part of preppy, East Coast society
I often imagined that idyllic life as I sat in 3 o’clock traffic on highway 92, staring ahead through the smog at the throng of Priuses, amidst a gray sea of concrete, beneath the beating sun. It was moments such as these, wedged in among a crowd of Bay Area natives, that I felt stagnant.
I blamed my home for what seemed to be the slow pace of my own accomplishments, of growing, of becoming someone different, of experiencing change. And the swell of crises didn’t compel me to stay.
California officially entered a state of emergency, suffering one of its worst droughts in history. Costs of housing soared higher than elsewhere in America, pushing many out and seemingly only allowing the wealthiest to remain. Poverty surged and no public action seemed to quell the despair that sprawled across the Bay Area from the Tenderloin to People’s Park. These problems stoked my desire to leave.
“Why do you want to go to the East Coast so badly?” friends and family members would ask.
“I just need to get out of California,” I would respond. And seeking a more simple rationale for my desire than the state’s litany of crises, I would add, “it just feels like there’s no culture here.”
So, when the time came for college applications, I applied mainly to universities outside of California.
Shamefully, I now realize that my pretentious, naive ideas of culture assumed that the highbrow, polished, museum-going lifestyle associated with the East Coast was the sole way to be “cultured.” And there is nothing wrong with that way of life. Yet I took for granted the Bay Area culture that bred me.
Never did I appreciate the break-dancers who enliven the BART commute; the everyday activists on the streets who steer our moral compass in the right direction; or the murals that brighten neighborhoods like the Castro, the Haight, or Telegraph Avenue south of UC Berkeley. As a kid, I overlooked the Bay Area’s beauty, so of course I immediately grabbed the opportunity to move across the country once I got into college in New York City.
Once I arrived there, I loved the city, but found myself searching for green mountains that frame the Bay Area’s sky. It was only then that I learned that San Francisco is one of the only cities in which you can see such landscapes not shrouded by gray and black bulks of skyscrapers.
Within my first month of living in New York, I yearned for the lush hills, the pure air, and the breezy pace of the Bay Area. And as amazing as New York coffee is, I discovered that nothing could take the place of a sweet and creamy Philz Philtered Soul. Throughout my first year in New York, each chance I got to tell people where I was from, I surprised myself by proudly claiming my title as a Bay Area native.
“Why does everyone from the Bay Area always have to mention that they’re from the Bay Area?” A friend from South Carolina once asked me.
I merely shrugged, but I knew the answer; we Bay Area natives see our home as the greatest place to live.
What other cities in the world would have wholeheartedly dedicated themselves to ensure that the dream of a sick child becomes a reality like that of the Batkid? What other places would be among the first to lead the charge to ban e-cigarettes and plastic bags, or fight for LGBTQ rights, even when it was economically and politically inconvenient? Where else could you find a universal passion for veganism and avocado toast?
I find quirks of the Bay Area such as free and accessible art, colorful personas, the embracing of nonconformity encompass the overall spirit of this place: liberation, generosity, and innovation.
After a few years of living in New York and studying abroad in Europe, I found that the more I traveled outside of the Bay Area, the more I realized that no place quite like it exists in the world.
Once I returned to the Bay Area, finding a job here rather than in New York as I preferred, I was shocked by how happy I was to be home. I no longer experience those autumn leaves and snowy plains, but here in the Bay, I always notice the more delicate, golden tinges in the sunlight as time shifts from summer to autumn, or the wind pressing harder than usual in December, or the micro seasons that come and go within the day, with the fog blanketing the sky in the morning until the sun blasts through in the early afternoon. Only a Bay Area native could detect those slightest seasonal changes.
I no longer walk among ivy-covered brick buildings, but I have grown grateful for the iconic Victorian houses and palm trees that decorate the city. No, I am not a member of East Coast society, but I can say with pride that I am part of the world’s hub for vibrantly dyed hairs, tattooed skins, and outspoken eccentrics.
I find it horribly ironic that I now want to stay in the Bay Area during a time when it seems impossible to, when the very issues that drove me to leave a few years ago have not only persisted, but grown worse. I often think about this during my commute on Highway 101 as traffic overflows; or as I see homeless camps popping up and sprawling into the streets; or as I scroll through rent prices in San Francisco, wondering if I should move to the Mission or Haight and then contemplate that perhaps I am part of the gentrification crisis. I often think of leaving, rather than facing or maybe exacerbating the moral dilemmas my home faces today.
Weeks after watching The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the now-infamous line still looping in my mind, I watched an interview with Danny Glover during which he discussed the themes of the film in which he had a supporting role. I listened to his story of growing up in San Francisco, his love for it, and the current struggles he witnesses his hometown enduring. At the end of the interview, Glover concluded his hope for the next generation, declaring, “it’s this generation that will battle and be in the city and fight for the city. We have to fight for this city.”
I keep fighting with myself over exactly what that means. What I, a restless millennial with no status of importance and heaping student loans, can do to fight poverty, inequality and natural disasters in my home? Or if I even have any more of a right to be here, to say what the Bay Area is or isn’t? And if my only argument is that I had the luck of being born here, then I can’t say I deserve to be here more than the tech billionaires who seem to be defining my home now.
I continue to wrangle with these thoughts, never reaching a definite answer, remaining indecisive if I will stay or go. The only things I am certain of are how beaten I feel that my home is rapidly transforming and my resentment for crowds, skyrocketing prices, and the waves of poverty. Yes, I hate all of this about the Bay Area. But only because I love it.