​Walking among unicorns

Mango-red: San Francisco houses, among other tourist attractions, the famous Golden Gate Bridge, but there are other sides to the city. Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Mango-red: San Francisco houses, among other tourist attractions, the famous Golden Gate Bridge, but there are other sides to the city. Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

The City of San Francisco is not big. It is roughly 12km long, and the same wide. Data from the 2016 census tells us that it is home to about 864 816 people, 53.6% of whom are white (41% of that being a curious category called “white non-Hispanic”), 15.3% Hispanic “and all other Latino” (excluding the ones passing for whites, I’m guessing), 6.1% African-American (despite what the police and mainstream media would have us believe), 35.3% Asian and 6.6% also curiously marked“other”.
First Nations people and Pacific Islanders make up less than 1%.

Settler historical records pin the city’s rise to the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s but the city’s roots sink far deeper — into Latin American soil. This much is evident when one looks at the ornate wood-panelled row houses along tree-lined Folsom, Mission or Guerrero streets — painted in colours that mirror indigenous scarlet columbine and yellow sand verbena flowers.

As of July 2018, the city’s average monthly rent mirrored the average annual cost of a bachelor’s degree at the University of Cape Town.

It is officially the most expensive city in the world to live in. The fact that it currently produces the world’s largest number of unicorn companies (billion-dollar companies with unique business models such as Uber and AirBnb) has a lot to do with this.

These are not facts that jumped out at me when I arrived in San Francisco in April this year.

Instead, they revealed themselves over the next three months, from the city’s southern edge of the predominantly Latino district of the Mission where I first lived to the northern edge of its Europeanish Marina, where I learned the true meaning of the phrase “You’ll love San Francisco! It’s just like Cape Town”.

They are facts that wafted through the air and up my nose as I walked a daily 5km commute along Valencia Street — assaulting my sense of nostalgia with its (surely illegal) quantities of cardamom leaking out of Samovar Tea; encountering a “chai bar and urban sanctuary”; prickling baby hairs on my thrifter’s hands with the mustiness of a “offbeat vintage shop”; and inducing bourgeois hunger with the salty breeze of aioli fries being tossed at Souvla, a “fast-fine Greek restaurant”.

In a letter to loved ones, a month into my stay, I wrote: “There is nothing to see here.” I was, admittedly, in the depths of a crisis of curiosity.

By then, I had been deeply moved by the hyper visible proximity of the homeless to the high-rolling (with drug usage by both) — two symptoms of a regional economy in the depths of its own crisis; one with a cognitive dissonance. But I could not move myself, just then, to document any part of it.

On an evening run early into my stay, for example, I found myself at the City Hall at dusk. It was a spectacular sight. The building itself, true to colonial proportions, was imposing and brilliantly lit. To my left, tourists were scuttling into shuttles. To my right, culturally inclined tourists were wading into Symphony Hall for a night with the philharmonic orchestra. Behind me, the San Francisco police department was warming up for their own performance of night-watch — doing that strange peacocking at the waist by holding onto their holsters and rotating their hips.

Ahead of me, “Tent City”. This is the name used to describe San Franciscans who have created homes for themselves under bridges and in the nooks of underused walkways.

I do not know whether the residents themselves call it “Tent City”. Something tells me they do not.

I was scolded by housemates and long-term residents for venturing out late at night into the Tenderloin, the “dodgy” and “drug-afflicted” part of town desperately in need of a “clean-up”.

This reaction, to me, had the familiar ring of our own term signalling difference, “swart gevaar”.

I had also been unmoved to document much of the tourist must-do’s, seen here in point form:

  • The Golden Gate Bridge (it is an engineering feat but it’s also mango-red rather than golden);
  • The Wine Lands (refer to Keeping Up with the Kardashians: Season 9, Episode 2 or Season 14, Episode 15 for accurate depictions);
  • Silicon Valley (a screenshot of your privacy settings on Facebook will do, although the newest Sales force tower is supremely phallic);
  • Row houses (highly googleable, and not likely to show you how many people are squeezed into the kitchen, crying over spent rent); and
  • Alcatraz (like Robben Island) only exists shrouded in a semi-permanent fog some people call “Karl” for no definitive reason.

None of these facts — not the census data, the changing skin tones and languages across the city’s hilly topography, the pungency of burritos and miso soup, or the varying pronunciations of Vietnamese pho — come as close to revealing the nature of the city to me as its soundscape.

Beyond the swooshing of North Face and Patagonia puffer jackets that blanketed the (very) windy city, I found myself drawn to what people were saying and how they were saying it.

In documenting some of it, it is no more or less intrusive than pointing a camera at it. But I console myself with the knowledge that it was the patterns and themes — the rhythm of the city — I was listening for. That rhythm, I learned, is best described as a washing machine on a gentle but furious spin cycle. I cannot exactly dance to it, but I can certainly strive toward a Jetsons-like life with it.

Cases in point:

“The housemate seemed to have the right ratio of privacy to friendliness,” said a daughter leading her parents on a university housing hunt, adding that “optimising for personal space is, like, make or break”.

Then there was the friend of a housemate who complained about struggling to “optimise the proximity of housing to good restaurants”.

And my personal favourite, heard in passing: “I’m just trying to optimise for an ideal sleep cycle.”

These are not the words of technology entrepreneurs or venture capitalists now synonymous with San Francisco itself. They are the words of residents deeply embedded in a culture now so data driven, so codified and so vindicated in reducing life itself to a quantifiable daily dosage of a scientifically developed meal replacement named Soylent.

Had it not been for a newfound family of friends I was welcomed into — trading dystopian milkshakes for home-cooked meals — it would be hard not to laugh at it all.

The giggles helped us to avoid crying, all while trying desperately to figure out how to reconfigure this live-action version of Sim City under San Francisco’s Uberfied leadership into something liveable, rather than optimal.

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