San Francisco is a place that's almost impossible to define. Sure, you can catalog its geography, economy, climate, and so on. But none of these quantifiable nuggets will tell you the whole story, much less capture the soul of this strange, wonderful, constantly changing city. Which is maybe why, after almost three years here, I still struggle to describe this place to outsiders in a way that doesn't sound like a tourist cliché.
At one time, you may have been able to get a sense of San Francisco's beating heart by reading its newspapers and magazines, but Herb Caen and Rolling Stone magazine are long gone. These days, the pulse of the city can be found online. SF is covered by a shifting blanket of blogs: Mission Mission, Muni Diaries, Burrito Justice, Tenderblog, Sexpigeon, Noe Valley SF, and on and on in a list that just keeps getting longer. (Oh look, Uptown Almanac launched in the time it took me to write that list.)
But these outpourings, both informative and surreal, tend to focus on niche topics and particular neighborhoods. What about the bigger picture? Not everyone in San Francisco is an obsessive blogger, after all (even if it does occasionally seem that way). Julie Michelle's deceptively simple website I Live Here:SF offers a broader perspective. For the past year she has been photographing city residents and posting their portraits alongside short texts the subjects write themselves. They are a mix of Bay Area natives and transplants from across the States and beyond. Some tell linear stories that begin with where they were born or grew up, while others talk about specific moments or events, like how they fell in and out of love, or found their calling. Many describe the journey that brought them to this city. Some entries are fragmented to the point of poetry, like one person's random snapshots of the city.
Plenty of the characters will seem familiar, but even those that look at first glance like SF stereotypes -- the creatives, dreamers, and kooks -- will quickly defy your expectations with stories full of earthy realities and unpredictable twists. You might not expect grinning Dottie's story to include a stint in Iraq with the National Guard, but it does. And how could you not read a story that opens: "Three big things happened to me when I moved to San Francisco: I found myself; I met the love of my life; and I got breast cancer." (If you can make it to the end of Sonia's story without both crying and laughing, you're a far stronger person than I am.)
People who live on the streets rub shoulders with moms, writers, and dancers. There are three dogs, two cats, and at least one yoyo fanatic. And almost all of them end up writing an SF love letter of one kind or another. Sure, there are gripes: the city is "expensive, the school system sucks, and we trip over ourselves in our tiny house," says Julie. But even Mat, who starts his entry with the words "I hate this place," admits he never wants to leave.
This city, any city, has as many narratives and perspectives and ideas of itself as it has inhabitants, which means there is no shortage of tales to tell. My favorite is by Travis, the writer, photographer, and skateboarder who is pictured above. The story he tells revolves around the homeless guy who used to hang out in the street outside his Victorian in the Lower Haight. It is touching and beautiful, but its emotional punch sneaks up on you from a place you might not expect -- a description, like so many, that could just as easily apply to San Francisco itself.