SAN FRANCISCO — George Sterling, the poet, called it “the cool, gray city of love.” He was something of an expert at it, being a man of passion, both physical and intellectual. He celebrated its seductive charms for several decades before committing suicide one day in 1926 in a room at the Bohemian Club. He is largely forgotten today.
Herb Caen, who died just a few years ago at age 83, is in danger of being forgotten, too. He celebrated The City (as nearly everyone in these parts calls it) in a daily column in the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly sixty years. He functioned as a sort of soul of the city, recording the comings and goings of its more colorful characters, instructing newcomers on its ways and dishing up large helpings of nostalgia.
To a boy growing up in the hills across the bay, facing the Golden Gate, San Francisco was always the Center of the Universe. Washington and New York could only be imagined, but San Francisco was real, with its sparkling blue skies and light breezes (“nature’s air conditioning” they call it here), steep hills and the deep shadows of its the narrow downtown canyons, their buildings suggesting that important things were going on inside.
Dining in a club here today is to be reminded of a time when San Francisco was considered a very “dressy” city. The men and women are once again in well-tailored suits. The main difference from, say, 40 or 50 years ago, is that the women no longer wear hats and gloves. Outside precincts such as this one and a number of high-end restaurants, however, anything goes in the way of attire, as it seems to everywhere these days.
One of the happiest ways to spend the cocktail hour is to sip a martini on the third floor balcony of the University Club, facing eastward. The skyline has changed mightily since I first enjoyed the view from that aerie. Forty years ago, the sand-colored Russ Building — for several decades the tallest in the city — stood out majestically, its fluted surfaces good examples of the architecture of the 1920s. The then-new International Building, about 20 stories tall, seemed to float from its platform at the edge of Chinatown. The Bay Bridge and the Oakland-Berkeley Hills stood out clearly.
Today, the Russ Building is overshadowed by a series of 50-story towers; the International Building, looking very tired, is squeezed between more behemoths. The view of the bridge and the hills across the bay is blocked by this wall of monuments to maximum rentable square footage. There is a notable exception, the Transamerica Pyramid, which caused a lot of controversy when it went up, but now soars toward the stars as if it had always been there.
One of the most endearing characteristics of “The City” has been its great tolerance for the eccentric, aberrant and individualistic. It goes back to the founding of the modern city. With the discovery of gold in 1848, San Francisco changed virtually overnight from a sleepy Spanish-Mexican pueblo to a bustling gateway to the gold fields. Thousands of men (and a few women) flocked here to head to the Mother Lode to make their fortunes. Many were getting away from something. They may have been second sons who weren’t going to inherit the farm; possibly on the lam from the law; running away from family troubles — or other complications. People in San Francisco learned to take one another at face value without many questions about background and breeding.
This has been a strong leitmotif of the city ever since. Waves of later immigrants — Chinese, Italians, Irish — all contributed to San Francisco’s variegated heritage. The history of tolerance explains, in part, why San Francisco became a congenial haven for an energetic gay community.
All these varied constituencies live side by side and more or less in peace and harmony, although the city’s politics in recent years have reflected bitter feuds between various groups. The result has been a city government that is often gridlocked in meaningless quarrels and bizarre proposals. It’s not as zany as Berkeley’s city council, but it’s not far from it.
With its cable cars and colorful characters and probably more good restaurants per capita than any other city in North America, San Francisco remains a great magnet for tourists and for many who want to make a new start at the western edge of the continent, putting behind them the frustrations of life to the east. Some never make it and end their lives by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge into the cold waters of the bay. Of the several hundred who have done so, all but a few have jumped facing eastward, at continent’s end, to say a last farewell to the land they left behind.
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