San Francisco. No other place on Earth moves me quite the way it does. The way the fog curls silently around Sutro Tower as it slowly engulfs the city. The red of the Golden Gate Bridge against the Martian tan of the Marin headlands. The way the fickle weather constantly changes – from hour to hour, district to district. The ravings of a harmless lunatic as he stumbles along Market Street. The sleepy afternoons in Japantown. The endless milling crowds at Powell and Fishermans Wharf. The invigorating, slightly biting breeze as I cycle down the sunlit Marina. San Francisco is a city unlike any other, an urban agglomeration teeming with life and industry, yet perched precariously at the gates to another world – a wild, cold world of sun and fog, implacable and recondite. For me, San Francisco is a collection of moments from the grotesque to the sublime, a heady mass of contradictions, a city so simultaneously ugly and beautiful and endlessly fascinating.
It’s that sentiment that led me to pick up this book, written by longtime SF resident Gary Kamiya as an ode to the city from 49 different perspectives – a study that takes us on a mind’s tour of the city through space and time, much in the tradition of Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Kamiya loves the city far more than I ever could – a bond established through decades of wandering the city’s forgotten paths, both as a taxi driver and as an inveterate urban explorer. In the book, Kamiya describes undertaking the equivalent to the Knowledge for San Francisco, wending his way around the city’s many places, both famous and forgotten. He shies away from nothing – not even from taking a trek into Bayview/Hunter’s Point, often considered the most dangerous part of the city. From his travels comes this book, written in two interwoven strands – one strand in which Kamiya talks about San Francisco’s places in respect to their contemporary psycho-social and literary significance to the city; the other in which Kamiya takes us on a historical odyssey, using the city’s places as launching points to narrate its rich and varied history – and what a history it is, a tale that shows up the city at its most ridiculous, tragic and sublime. San Francisco is the protagonist of its own magnum opus, the star of a storied narrative that rivals anything the world has ever seen.
Kamiya is at his best when penning down his wry thoughts on the city’s most famous neighborhoods. His knowledge of the city’s sundry spaces is encyclopedic, his prose elegiac and compelling, and his empathy and sheer understanding profound. His chapter on the Tenderloin is perhaps the single most interesting chapter of the book, combining autobiography, sociology and economics to paint a picture of the city’s most dystopian district in vivid and macabre colors. Another standout is the chapter in which he describes the slow wasting away of the indigenous peoples under the not-so-tender ministrations of the Spanish Mission, embodied today in the Mission San Francisco de Asis, a picturesque church by Dolores Street whose pleasant facade belies its less-than-noble past. His chapter on the Castro shines with a tragic account of the HIV/AIDs epidemic of the 1980s, where the district rallied to look to “the nursing, cheering, burying” of their own. But Kamiya is a great admirer of nature as well; his tramplings lead him across the city, on sylvan dirt paths that traverse the city to its many and sundry stairways, the grey rocks of the Farallon Islands, miles from the coast. He is a great conoisseur of the city’s geology, and with reason. The city is unique in how closely tied to natural forces it is. The last bastion before the Pacific, it is a city enveloped in clouds, susceptible to earthquakes. It retains a strange quality of wildness, of being untamed by man. Great natural spaces – Bernal Heights, Glen Canyon, Ocean Beach and Land’s End – persist as uncultivated spaces that retain the harshness and wildness of what came before, great holes in the urban fabric that reveal the naked essence of San Francisco beneath. Kamiya also dwells on some of his personal haunts, quiet spaces unknown but having great personal connotation to him. Those are somewhat more hit-and-miss, at least to me. Kamiya has his sacred spaces, and that’s okay. But many of those vignettes accrue not from the city’s history but his own association with it, and are less compelling than the chapters that tell of the story of the city, told in the silhouettes of its buildings and hills amid the rolling fog and the brilliant sun.
The book’s great virtue is its understanding of San Francisco as an idea that endures across a swath of time and tide. It tells us that the city has always been a harbor, a haven for the wretched, the weird and the excluded. It was the idyllic and pastoral village of Yerba Buena, the teeming city of the 49ers, the disembarkation point for Chinese and Japanese laborers and immigrants, the refuge of hippies and homosexuals. It had its blots, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, but those were transient and ultimately contrary to the city’s inherent nature. And San Francisco retains that essence today, even as it welcomes throngs of tech workers into its streets and precipitates yet another conflict over what the city ought to become. Kamiya never quite reveals who he sides with, however, never quite says where he stands on the city’s contemporary issues. It is the only good choice for such a book. It suggests that he sides with the city as a whole, in defense of its heterogeneity, its imperfections, and its weirdness, and the tensions and dynamism that that brings. A city of sin and hope, a harlot with a heart of gold, luxuriating on the rocks at the ends of the earth.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 stolen taxis