Last night I attended a lecture called Sacred Roots in Secular Soil, given in conjunction by two pastors, Dave Lomas & John Tyson. What follows recounts some of the facts/connections/conjectures made in that lecture and also contains my own reactive thoughts and reflections.
*I never thought that being a Bay Area native would be a rarity in San Francisco. But it is. It’s not uncommon that I’ll receive an incredulous response when I tell someone that I grew up in the South Bay. “Wow, so you’re actually from around here!” they’ll say. “Yep, born and raised,” I respond. Once someone even said, “I think you’re the first person that I’ve met who’s ACTUALLY a Bay Area native.” I was shocked.
*Most cities, by nature of short-term apartment leases, constantly changing neighborhoods, and a large population of young inhabitants, foster a culture of transience, but San Francisco (and perhaps New York) does so more than other cities. San Francisco is notorious for its out-of-town transplants, people who’ve come here to strike it rich with the Silicon Valley boom. Sounds familiar right? And not without historical precedent either. The get-rich-quick phenomenon isn’t new—it dates back to the Gold Rush, in 1848, which led to the fastest growth in population that San Francisco had ever experienced. A city that began with 200 people in 1846 became a population of 36,000 by 1852.That’s a population that was getting 45 times bigger every year, or 180 times bigger over the course of four years.
*Though the earliest gold-seekers were mostly Californians, by 1849, news of the Gold Rush had spread, and that’s when thousands of what we now call “forty-niners”—East Coasters, Australians, New Zealanders, Latin Americans, Asians, and Europeans—made their way to California. In 1849, this group numbered about 90,000; by 1855, this group had grown to 300,000. One interesting demographic to note about these individuals is that they were mostly men—either single or men who had left their families.
*The mentality that gave birth to the riches that lay the groundwork for San Francisco is one of rootlessness. That the forty-niners came for the money meant that their attachment to this city was merely financial. There wasn’t much reason to stay if they didn’t find the gold they were looking for, and if they stayed, it was until they could strike it rich. Then they could send money back to their families, or find a way to live a good life here. “Eureka,” which literally means “I found it!” is our state motto. Like most urban migrants, we arrive in cities to find something. Sometimes we find it, and then we leave; some people never find what they’re looking for at all, and they leave, jaded and dissatisfied. It can be difficult to truly feel like you’re building a life with some semblance of permanence. San Francisco does a good job of fostering city pride through its sports teams and strange traditions, but we rarely lay down our roots in our neighborhoods (and by neighborhoods, I probably mean micro-neighborhoods). We’re never in one place too long. Our living situations are temporary, and so is our sense of being here.
*The Gold Rush-incited mass movement into California was the start of what we now call gentrification, a densensitized and somewhat euphemistic term we use to describe the process of kicking out old residents by increasing rent. I know this is a simplistic view of a much more complex system, one in which I am very much implicated, but this is essentially what happened at the time of the Gold Rush too. Native Americans were forcibly removed from their land, resulting in thousands of deaths. When we come into a neighborhood unaware of its history and unconcerned with its existing culture and population, we’re not only at a disadvantage, but we're doing harm through ignorance. To distance ourselves even more by not fully engaging with the immediate community means that we draw a line between “us”’ and “them,” “us” being the sojourners who will leave in awhile but take what we need in the mean time, and “them” being the people who have probably been here way longer than we have. Sometimes we make these people "them" because their lives are more harder to relate to because of cultural or linguistic or economic barriers, but none of these barriers preclude community engagement.
*I’ve been back in the Bay Area for nearly a year now. I live in a furnished apartment, which makes it all the more difficult to feel like this is my home. My one-year lease on this apartment is almost up, and I’ll have to decide soon if I want to move elsewhere. But I realized last night that planting roots and investing in community is not contingent on my living situation. Instead, it’s an attitude and a posture that requires that my time and energy and money be spent here. It requires getting to know the people on my street and opening my eyes to the day-to-day happenings of my neighborhood. This isn’t going to be easy, but I don’t want to be a forty-niner, trying to strike it rich: here today, gone tomorrow.
*In high school, I used to take the BART into the Mission. I knew even back then, when the Mission was a vastly different landscape, that I wanted to live in that neighborhood. I sensed a special vibrance in the place, one that felt communal, one that felt like it was building and renewing and creating. I was so smitten by the colorful murals and the Mexican bakeries with their sugary, colorful pastries. I even knew the cross streets of my desired residence, and somehow, that’s where I ended up.
*I work in the tech world, a world full of modern-day forty-niners, a world where the Internet makes it so much easier to excuse ourselves from our immediate community except at times when it serves our own selfish needs. I’m still struggling with how I can begin to invest in and give to my community, and in the process, cultivate the relationships that will root me in this very neighborhood. In twenty years, I hope I’m still here in the Mission, but first: I need to go meet my neighbors.