Gary Kamiya's Cool Gray City of Love is a walking tour, a fact-rich history, and a collection of honest, funny, and tender first-person anecdotes that all work together to create a beautifully subjective account of San Francisco. "Every writer," explains Kamiya, "always describes, or creates, the city that is closest to his or her heart." In the forty-nine chapters that take the reader from the geological creation of the peninsula to the Occupy Movement -- and around the forty-nine square miles of the city's physical terrain -- Kamiya has created a detailed portrait of "the last place to have a drink before America stops and the endless ocean begins." Kamiya and I talked on the phone last week while he walked around the city.
Bean Gilsdorf: How did the project of writing Cool Gray City of Love begin?
Gary Kamiya: It's been brewing in the back of my brain for much of my adult life. I'm a passionate lover of San Francisco and have written about it for Salon.com and the San Francisco Examiner. I was always thinking about it and came up with a rough idea for it years before I did it. I was thinking about approaching the city from a variety of different perspectives -- scientifically, sociologically -- a Cubist approach, if you will. But a little over three years ago I decided it was time to do this project, and that's when I hit upon the idea of each of the chapters being a separate essay on a different location.
BG: I love that you call it a "Cubist approach." How did you decide on the structure of the book?
GK: I was trying to mix the perfect San Francisco cocktail. It's a very experiential book, a combination of left brain and right brain. There's an enormous amount of research and reporting and personal experience in the book, but there's also a love of place that's driving it at all times. I wanted to start at the Farallon Islands because they embody San Francisco's wildest, most unmistakable quality: how riddled it is with nature. And from there I wanted to go into the grittiest, raunchiest, dirtiest part of the city: the Tenderloin. The book begins with geological time at the Farallons and after the Tenderloin we move into the earliest Indian inhabitants hunting megafauna at what is now the bottom of San Francisco Bay, so there is a chronological through-line. It's just constantly interrupted by space. This is not a one-thing-after-another history; the book reflects the chaotic, effervescent, unpredictable quality that one actually has when walking through the city.
Author Gary Kamiya
BG: And you bring that chronology all the way to the present, with the Occupy Movement and the second-wave dot-com bubble that's happening now. You wrote, "Cities are kept alive by heterogeneity -- the juxtaposition of radically different things in a small space." Where do you think the city needs help right now?
GK: San Francisco is in danger of being flattened out by the extraordinary influx of money, especially with the tech sector just exploding here. At the same time, it's neither desirable nor possible to stop a city from being prosperous -- but it is possible to try to preserve the heterogeneity of it. Traditionally, quirkiness and individuality have been a huge part of the charm of this city and, optimistically, we don't know what's going to happen. The tech thing is a danger for any city as a place, because when communication itself is foregrounded -- as it is in social media -- place moves into the background, and we need actual communities instead of disembodied ones. I think that the city needs to try to preserve its free spiritedness and its maverick qualities, but that doesn't come from top-down planning, that comes from the people that live in the city. There's reason to be concerned, but there's also reason to be hopeful.
BG: One of the things that I really liked about the book was that you go from extremely subjective, experiential accounts to really specific, granular facts like how many commuters crossed the bay by ferry in 1913, or the price of washing a dozen shirts in 1849. And from that, I got a real sense of the city's history, and also a sense that there must have been a lot that you left out.
GK: Oh my god! Yeah, you should talk to my editors about that! I had 10,000 words on the Vigilance Committee, this extraordinary citizen militia in early San Francisco and one of the most controversial episodes in the city's history. Actually, when I first approached the book, I was tilting toward more of the deep, granular history and my editor, Kathy Belden, said, "Look, I think you're getting away from your original idea," which was more mixed, more personal, more sui generis. Probably unconsciously I was pulling back from that, just because once you start writing like that, you've jumped off a bridge. I've written lots and lots of deeply personal essays, but writing a mix of the personal and factual is a trickier animal. So yeah, a lot of things, personal and historical, got left on the cutting room floor.
Jon Adams, illustration for Chapter 11, Cool Gray City of Love, 2013.
BG: Does that mean we can expect another volume?
GK: It's possible, I certainly have the material for it! I'll probably always write about San Francisco, but whether I want to take on another book about it remains to be seen. [laughing] Maybe I can put a Director's Cut into cyberspace!
BG: Last question: where are you now?
GK: I'm in a mini-park directly over the Broadway Tunnel, looking at the trees planted right behind a ventilator shaft. There's some very cunning use of minute public space in San Francisco, and here on Broadway off of Hyde they have to have these ventilator shafts, but they've turned the lemons into lemonade by making a really small park, a little urban oasis. It's not one of the dramatic ones like Glen Canyon, it's a little respite -- and San Francisco is full of such places.