Google and Facebook are going to fight. It's all anyone can talk about. The two of them have been jockeying for attention, and now the rivalry has reached the point where a throwdown appears imminent.
I'm at a Halloween party in San Francisco's Noe Valley, in a three-story house packed with tech company employees, the girls who date them, and the guys who want to finance them. The two young gents dressed as the competing Web powers — Facebook all in white, with the site's trademark features silk-screened onto a T-shirt; Google also in white, with eyeholes poked through the O's — have been feuding for a while (something about an indiscreet posting on a now defunct social-networking site). The two of them — drunk and staring each other down in the teak and stainless steel kitchen — have to be pulled apart by more conventionally outfitted revelers: a ninja, Lil' Wayne, and a woman I'm guessing is an Oompa-Loompa.
Costumes begin to deteriorate as more drinks are consumed and guests keep arriving: A cat's tail is shorn under the boot of a Blackwater employee ("Immune from prosecution since 1997"); Supergirl's cape is discarded after being covered in bourbon. The conversation, though, stays focused on Web 2.0 — the industry and culture that are driving and reviving San Francisco. "Did you get pre-IPO stock?" "What's the lockup?" "If you were one of the first 100 employees, you're worth $100 million today ..."
Surely we're all going to cash in, those of us lucky enough to be in this house, in this neighborhood, in this city at this exhilarating time. The tech industry, and hence San Francisco, is again dreaming big. The product of a thousand code-writing quant poets — millennial Ferlinghettis and Ginsbergs — is geysering into the ether just down the block. The neighbors are launching their own multibillion-dollar ventures, funded by the money czars on Sand Hill Road and executed in the office parks of Mountain View and Redwood City. You'll be employee No. 12 at your friend's start-up and cashing out with a bundle while you're still young enough to travel the world and mingle with the cool kids. The twentysomething guy who owns this house has done just that — made a killing selling his business to a bigger company — and now he's no-worries wealthy, standing by the dining room table sloshing bourbon onto Supergirl.
For a visitor, it's all so inviting. Why can't every one of us come to San Francisco, as generations before have, chasing the latest iteration of the American dream, the freedom to reinvent ourselves and — why not — strike it rich? But unlike California's other oasis of reinvention, Los Angeles, this is a real city, comforting in its compactness, its verticality, its bustle. Thousands of foot soldiers are pouring in from around the country, lured by the Web 2.0 boom and staying because they find a place that is even more livable than San Francisco 1.0.
The city by the bay has always beckoned and then thrived upon housing and servicing those who heard the call of whatever siren was singing: railroads, gold, shipping, free love, technology. When I visited in the 1990s, drawn by the possibility of a job during the first Internet boom, I didn't consider that I was joining a long procession of prospectors who came as far west as Manifest Destiny would allow to strike it rich in gold, bliss or binary code.
Unlike countless culturally bereft Sun Belt sprawls or hollowed-out Rust Belt hubs, San Francisco has never had to work hard to sell itself. Geography has been the primary marketing tool. You came for the gold, the drugs, the start-up; you stayed for the weather and, um, the great port facilities.
In 1775, Spanish navigator Juan Manuel de Ayala became the pioneering European to brave the treacherous Golden Gate Strait. His report of a vast inland harbor — larger and more sheltered than Monterey to the south — would catalyze the subsequent settlement of Yerba Buena, in today's Mission District, and the building of the Presidio, the northernmost military bulwark of King Carlos III's New Spain.
Over the next seven decades, the settlement would grow into a sleepy seaport whose main industry was the export of hides and tallow. The Mexican-American War of 1846 passed stewardship of the land to the United States, transforming the Embarcadero into a point of disembarkation for Easterners looking to make their fortune and for Far Easterners who would build the western arm of the Transcontinental Railroad. Two years later, the Gold Rush turned San Francisco into the polyglot urban center and unique cultural hybrid that we know today.
An estimated quarter million people came from all over the world in the decade after gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, and the city developed a massive infrastructure to service all those thousands heading into the hills. The wealth thrown off allowed for the settlement of the peninsula we now consider San Francisco proper, as well as the creation of the network of parks and open spaces that make it such a welcoming place to visit. Travelers and tourists have always been the city's lifeblood, and the natives have taken pride in getting rich on the needs, wants and lusts of visiting rubes.
So, are you heading to San Francisco? Of course you are. As America goes politically blue, San Francisco is retaking its role as the maverick that allows the rest of us to glimpse what's next. Just a few years ago, this beacon of liberalism was out of the mainstream in a country drifting to the right. If Bush & Co. won twice on so-called family values, where did that leave a city whose contemporary image was built on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Way out in left field, and too often the target of reactionary culture-war fusillades. The Bush administration and conservative congressmen delighted in portraying San Francisco as a Jezebel — a hotbed of same-sex marriage and the seat of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the bench most frequently accused of "activism" by the strict-constructionist right.
San Francisco and its easy-to-score medicinal marijuana seemed an urban anachronism, like a giant Flying Burrito Brothers' jam band that could never make the transition to the newer, sleeker Faith Hill America. The city voted overwhelmingly against Bush in 2000 and 2004, and in 2003 elected the dapper young Gavin Newsom, then 36, mayor.
Newsom's policies are progressive and progrowth — a winning combination in tech company–dominated San Francisco. The city that Newsom envisions is the kind we all aspire to, with universal health care, universal pre- and public-school arts education, and even citywide Wi-Fi. Meanwhile, the Moscone Center is the largest municipally owned solar-powered facility in the country, and the San Francisco Giants will soon become the first Major League Baseball team to play night games under lights stoked by the sun. Suddenly, San Francisco's values are back in fashion, embodied, at least in spirit, by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose eighth congressional district includes most of San Francisco.
"In my visits to other cities," says Newsom, "I am always looking at what I can bring back to San Francisco. We are looking at best practices all over the world and bringing them here."
The city has long lured the best, the brightest ... and the bohemian: beatniks, hippies, homosexuals, techies, greenies. "When I found San Francisco," wrote novelist Herb Gold, "I found my home. I found Left Bank Paris and Greenwich Village in permanent laboratory condition, wrapped in a convoluted time warp of past and future within the instant present tense of California."
I am sitting with Gold — 83 years old, trim, dapperly dressed in pastels and earth tones — in his Russian Hill apartment. It is the abode of a luxurious monk, books and literary journals spread about the small cushioned rooms, each with a view toward North Beach and, beyond that, the harbor. He has written 31 fiction and nonfiction books, built a reputation, seen it wither, and then rebuilt it, remaining vigorous and relevant even as he's watched too many of his contemporaries pass from the scene.
There is no pathos in Gold, although there is a filigree of sadness, etched delicately around the eyes. Yet his enthusiasm is youthful and infectious; he is more alive than those costumed techies I saw duking it out on Halloween. To me, Gold embodies a previous generation drawn by the promise of West Coast hip and of a cultural life as rich as that of Greenwich Village — and because, as Gold recalls, "in the middle of winter, I was playing tennis and the sun was out and there was glorious light and warmth and I thought, That's it, I'm staying."
I suggest to him that, in a city ever more intoxicated with the Web and wealth, he may be the last of the true bohemians. But he disagrees. And as we make our way down the 45-degree sidewalk along Broadway, he restates his belief in the Beat-and-jug-wine paradise that first drew him here. The houses on either side of us appear poised to slide downhill at the next sizable tremor; Lombard, that famously sinuous route that no film shot in San Francisco seems able to neglect, is just a few blocks away. "There is still a bohemia," Gold asserts. As proof, he mentions the name of another renowned writer, who lives a few houses down from him. "But he's an ass- hole," Gold says with a laugh.
We drive up Columbus to the Baker Street Bistro, where, over a bottle of red wine and a bowl of bourride, Gold lays out his life and times, his good relations with his five children from two marriages, his joy at being a grandfather, and his continuing quest for that elusive perfect woman, that beautiful young girl in a café, thumbing through the Hudson Review. He's convinced that she's still out there somewhere; that San Francisco produces them in prodigious amounts, imports them by the Boeing-load; that the city itself is the draw and that all he has to do is wait for them to feel the pull.
It's alluring, this notion of city as a honeypot into which you can stick your nose and find it sweetly stuck. I almost moved here from New York myself a decade ago, accepting a position at one of the magazines that was then phone-book thick and making a bundle covering the first Internet gold rush. I flew out to meet with the editor, a pretty woman a few years older than me, and we went to lunch in one of the cute little restaurants along South Park in SoMa. Her pitch sold the city as much as her magazine. She had moved here from New York, she explained, and had no regrets. At the time, it was the quaintness that I found striking. If compared with Los Angeles it was civilized, then compared with New York it was positively manageable. My wife and I were expecting our first child, and San Francisco seemed a better place to raise a family than Manhattan. At the last minute, however, I stayed put.
I still wonder, every time I visit, if perhaps I made a terrible mistake. San Francisco, being just seven miles square, is more accessible than other international supercities. "Whoever laid the town out," wrote John Dos Passos in Harper's magazine, "took the conventional checkerboard pattern of streets and without the slightest regard for the laws of gravity planked it down blind on an irregular peninsula that was a confusion of steep slopes and sandhills. The result is exhilarating."
Equally bracing is San Francisco's capricious weather, which can be balmy in the dead of winter and practically Canadian in high summer. Today, I am lucky to have caught a sunny afternoon, so instead of ordering the car from the valet at the St. Regis, I decide to indulge in a tourist cliché and take a streetcar down through Chinatown for a quick stroll along the Embarcadero. Still wallowing in that nagging regret over never having moved here, I hail a taxi up to AB Fits, a trendy boutique in North Beach. It takes just five minutes before I am let off at the quirky little storefront down the street from Italian bakeries selling macaroons and cannoli and around the corner from Gelateria Naia, where elderly Italian women look surly surrounded by visiting Japanese and Swedes. Inside, I try on some denim from Japan and begin flirting with a woman named Zia who moved here from Los Angeles ten years ago. She's a painter and owns a floor in a building in the Mission District, a few miles to the south.
"Never looked back," she says of her relocation as she studies her silhouette in the full-length mirror. She's wearing a peasant skirt with some brocade along the hem. ("It's meant to go with this jacket," the salesman tells her, holding out the matching garment.) "Los Angeles always felt like it was going to become a great place, but then it wouldn't happen," she explains. "Like downtown was going to become a great arts center, or Venice was going to become this great gallery area. And then a few years would go by, and I would realize that whatever was supposed to have happened hadn't." San Francisco, she says, "is already a great city."
I always stick up for L.A., but when I muster my argument, which usually hinges on the weather, she cuts me off: "And don't start with the weather."
The following morning, my friend Amy Tan, the writer, picks me up in her Prius and heads for Golden Gate Park, where we are to meet her husband, Lou DeMattei, and Segway together through the thousand-acre oasis. We rendezvous behind the Spreckels Temple of Music and unload the electric-powered scooters. Amy gives me a quick tutorial in riding the gyroscopic vehicle. And off we go along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, past the AIDS Memorial Grove, with its sun-dappled paths wending through cypress, bay, and eucalyptus trees, and down past beds of camellias and dahlias to the carousel.
The scooters roll forward if you shift your weight onto your toes; stopping and backing up are just as intuitive, as is turning left or right. They are ideal for touring, noiselessly traveling at up to 12 miles an hour and open to the elements so that you feel you are doing more than just passing through. Amy first rode a Segway during a tour of Paris two years ago, and she and Lou have been using them to run errands around their home in Sausalito ever since.
"It's amazing — you sometimes have people riding by in cars saying, "Are you too lazy to walk?'" Amy says, "and they're in a car! They don't realize we're riding a Segway instead of driving, not instead of walking."
I have wandered Golden Gate Park before, but never have I experienced the length and breadth of it, all from a sleek vehicle that conforms to my childhood notions of the future. This was what tomorrow was supposed to bring: a silent ride through a perfect setting, in a city that would seem to be leading us into that better future.
I am sold. How, I wonder, can I come up with a new Web application that will enable me to live in one of those hillside town houses, ride off to the coffeehouse on a Segway, and sift at my leisure through the best and brightest of each successive wave of immigrants? For it sometimes seems that without that killer app, or at least the cocksure belief that you will soon cook one up, the days of rolling into town like Herb Gold, Mark Twain, or any of a dozen other young writers and earning a living with your pen are as quaintly anachronistic as Friendster.
Yet here it is, the undeniable wealth of possibilities. More millionaires have been minted here than in any other city — more billionaires. Those modern dream factories are thriving just down the coast, their founders and staffers seduced by the same promise that lured the forty-niners. Myth trumps reality. When has it not? And when I am back in San Francisco, I can't help but feel the urge to buy in.
I am driving down Market Street, a movie producer sitting in my passenger seat. He optioned my first book awhile ago, paying not that much more than it would have cost to buy a copy on Amazon.com. We haven't talked in months, but he lives in town and when he turns up at my hotel we decide to take a ride down to the Mission District, to one of the coffeehouses that are reviving a little of that old beatnik spirit. He tells me that he's raised money from a Taiwanese PC maker, from a Japanese production company, and from a Silicon Valley software firm, and that with just one more deal here, a script tweak there, he will be ready to go into production this year. He mentions possible directors, an actor he believes is interested. It's just talk, of course; no more real than my visions of conjuring a killer app. But in this city of literary dreams and social-networking schemes, of "Go Ask Alice" and Long Strange Trips, why can't I indulge in a few flights of fancy? Who knows, maybe this producer, with barely an independent film to his credit, can devise a way to make his movie and we'll all get rich ...
I hear a siren.
Behind me is a police car with lights flashing. I pull over and park dutifully by the side of Market Street, in front of a Bank of America and down the block from the turnoff to the Castro.
"Sir, do you realize you were in a bus lane?" the short, stout policeman asks me after I hand him my license.
"I was daydreaming," I tell him. "I'm from out of town."
He looks at my license, then writes me a ticket. "Welcome to San Francisco."
Later, at a bar in the Mission, a lovely girl from Colorado who is working her way through Cal State serves me saketinis. Her upper arms are thick and muscular yet feminine and freckled; they are sexy and she knows this, showing them off as she does with a halter top. She came, she says, because of Cal State's track-and-field program (she's a decathlete). But she'll stay, she declares, because she likes the sense of possibility here, the freedom — "no one judging me."
I ask her how much I owe.
"It's on the house," she says, smiling. "Welcome to San Francisco."
The next day, I swim for half an hour in the hotel pool and then head over to the Museum of Modern Art. I've always liked the photography collection — the current show is the strangely erotic work of San Francisco's own Henry Wessel — as well as its fine and eclectic collection of Mexican and California painters, including Diego Rivera and Richard Diebenkorn. Later, I walk up to Union Square for dim sum at the venerable Yank Sing and then, as the morning haze gives way to sunshine, decide to wander through downtown, past the Asian Art Museum and the War Memorial, all the way up the tidy little streets with their clapboard town houses to the Haight.
I gambol along Buena Vista Park, its green hill rising beside me till it dips out of sight behind big bushy oaks. In the afternoon light, boys on skateboards slalom down the sidewalk before stopping to take turns grinding a bench. Strolling past the tony boutiques that long ago replaced the head shops which lined Haight Street when I was a kid are pretty, impeccably dressed women, a few of whom — I'm not kidding — actually wear flowers in their hair.
I could have lived here, I think to myself. And perhaps I should have. Those decisions made nearly a decade ago still haunt me. Because San Francisco beckons. It always does.