What Does It Mean To Be So San Francisco?

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Written by Laura Turner and designed by Dan Bransfield for The Bold Italic


I recently saw a photo making the rounds in my social media outlets. “Is This the Most San Francisco Photo Ever Taken?” blared the headlines on SFist. The image was very hip, to be sure, right down to the Dolores Park locale, Google Glass, and empty Blue Bottle cup on the grass. But to be a hipster doesn’t represent all of what it means to be a San Franciscan, and it’s time we stopped talking like it does. One of the comments on the photo echoed a thought that had crept into my mind:

“You guys need to get out of the Mission more.”

The photo is very “San Francisco” – that is, if you are a certain kind of San Franciscan. Young, for one. Someone who recently moved here. Well-off enough to live in the most up-and-coming parts of the city, to afford a Google Glass and Blue Bottle Coffee and a day off in Dolores Park.


dolorespTo be in San Francisco is to be surrounded by a rich history of ethnicities and foods and professions and curiosities. There is a subset of these things that, yes, can be called hip – but it’s important to be careful not to conflate “hipster” and “San Francisco.”

This is a city with so many neighborhoods and cultures, and I think we do a disservice to ourselves when we associate San Francisco with young (mostly) white people who listen to the same music and drink the same beer and are subject to the same trends.


My husband's grandmother, Marilyn Blaisdell, is a San Francisco historian, a career she picked up later in life. She spent years raising six children at her home in St. Francis Wood. She and her husband, Bill, live now at the edge of the city, across from Ocean Beach, with a view that extends to the Farallon Islands on the clearest of days. She collects art and photographs of the Sutro Baths and Golden Gate Park. She's written a book on Woodward's Gardens, an amusement park that occupied space at what now is Mission between 13th and 14th Avenues in the late nineteenth century. And she and Bill, married over 60 years, celebrate their milestone anniversaries with five o'clock dinners at the Cliff House or pizza at Gaspare's on Geary.

streetcarIt is important to know her San Francisco – a city with history that extends back centuries before I got here, before Bi-Rite started selling salted caramel ice cream. I want to know the city that she still occupies, the restaurants and postage-stamp museums and chilly afternoons at the Japanese Tea Garden. I want to know how Bayview and Hunters Point, areas once reserved for shipyards and slaughterhouses and radiological decontamination, became the most economically marginalized parts of the city. I want to know because I want to live here as a whole person, not just as one part of one small demographic.

If we stay in our own San Francisco, we will never get the whole picture. We will eat at Delfina and Tartine, drink wine at Dolores Park, share rides on Lyft, walk to yoga. We are in constant danger of consuming the San Francisco that is comfortable and familiar on our terms without ever getting to know the city on its terms. And isn't the best part of living in an urban environment that not everyone is like you? Free from tract homes and subdivisions, what a gift it is that we get to inhabit one of the country's most diverse cities! But diversity is meaningless if we stick to our tribes of young, white, 20-somethings.

I want to argue, I guess, for the expansion of our definition of San Francisco – we can include hipsters, for sure, but we need to know the horizon does not end with the tapered ankle of a skinny jean. The City by the Bay stretches out far to the west and north and east and south of where the trend conscious might normally venture, and there is much to see and much to learn outside of our sunny environs.

There is a San Francisco outside of the Mission; a world where cheap beer is enjoyed unironically and the sun sometimes shines on the open ocean and no one wears glasses without a prescription.


Read more about the San Francisco you are missing at The Bold Italic.