Chapter 01: Hello, my name is ___________, and I am a Hipster
Of all the cities in the United States, San Francisco has always exuded a particular brand of fascination on outcasts. Generations of counter- and alternative culture have flourished here, be it Beatniks, Hippies, LGBTQ+, Punk and Post-Punk Avantgarde and more recently, la génération hipster (although, arguably, this is just a re-insurgence of beatnik culture mixed with hippie-esque and (post-)punk flavours).
There are many songs about San Francisco, of course, but perhaps the most well-known, and the one I have predictably chosen to name this monthly column after, is the one by the glouriously moustached Scott McKenzie:
My reasoning for wanting to go to San Francisco, apart from it being the birthplace of beatnik poetry, was heavily influenced by its omnipresence in the media I consume. A piece of media I came across fairly recently is a lovely little gem of a series called Looking. It’s about gay culture and subculture in San Francisco, and I really enjoy the show. There are two seasons out now, and there will be an hour long last episode in lieu of a third season. Looking takes place in San Francisco, and San Francisco is a major theme of the show as a whole. Just listen to the first sentence of the first season’s trailer:
So after I saw Looking there was no doubt in my mind that I had to see this wondrous city. And when I had to go to New Jersey for work, I took the opportunity to travel from the east coast to the west coast. But was the image I had of San Francisco close to the reality of the city at all, or had I just created an imaginary space in my mind, a space too good to be true?
Well, dear friends, in the end, San Francisco did not only live up to my expectations, it by far exceeded them, and over the next couple of weeks, I am going to attempt to explain to you why. Perhaps it’s best to reminisce about my more immediate experiences, i.e. the thoughts that often crossed my mind while I was still there, sitting in my small, cozy room near 24th Street in the Mission District in the last week of May. There were three distinct thoughts that I had in particular:
1) I was, alas, a hipster
2) I would have loved to live in San Francisco in the 60s, 70s or 80s
3) I was probably part of the gentrification crisis that has San Francisco in its grips
Let me start this series of articles by discussing the third point, as it is the one that seems to be the least fun. The part of the city I was in, the Mission, or La Missión, is traditionally a Latino district. Pan-Latin-American migrants have lived there ever since the early 20th century. The population is currently still over 50% Latino, but just barely. In the last year alone, the Latino population in the Mission has gone down by 20%. Rents have continuously been on the increase, and because there is no real national rent control in the States, it seems that there is no stopping the housing crisis. Nowadays, it costs on average 3100 $ to live in a 1-bedroom apartment in the Mission District. Of course, that just isn’t possible on minimum wage. Instead, these apartments are rented to the new migrants from Silicon Valley, who, bored with suburban life in the bay area, came flocking to the land of milk and honey, parties and great food – San Francisco.
As much as we’d like to think differently, us ‘travelling folk’ are probably part of the problem, with our willingness to pay more than market value for an airbnb room in an apartment, for example, to avoid pricey hotels. It’s a little like in Hamburg, when as a student you move into hip and cool areas and then complain about how the neigbourhood has changed. Oftentimes students are able to afford better places than those who make minimum wage due to their parents’ support. But then again, it is not at all like that, because, as mentioned before, national rent control doesn’t really seem to exist in the U.S., and the chances the free market provides are simultaneously the cause for a greater social imbalance than in Germany. We’ll always have housing reserved for those unable to afford fancy apartments – if not in, then at least on the outskirts of urban areas. Not fancy apartments, mind you, but it is possible to apply for Hartz IV even under the most dire of circumstances as a German citizen – even though many people don’t, for a myriad of different reasons.
That being said, gentrification has of course made the Mission District a lot safer than it used to be (even though walking around the district after 10 p.m. by yourself as a woman is, unfortunately, still not recommended). In my opinion, and you can call me a hipster all you want, there is no real reason to leave the Mission and its immediately surrounding districts for any extended period of time while you’re in San Francisco. Sure, Fisherman’s Whorf exists and Golden Gate Park is pretty cool, and it’s really easy to get around the city by BART and with the busses (this is, after all, one of the Northern American cities with the best available public transport). But as soon as you leave the Mission/Castro/Heights and Ashbury area, San Francisco, to me at least, blends with other places I have visited or lived in.
Why is the Mission so cool? It has a lot of wonderful book stores, where you can find copies of anything your heart desires. There are many great restaurants in the Mission, Latin-American cuisine, but also many vegan joints, affordable (and good) Japanese cuisine, and many great coffee shops. In terms of cuisine, the Mission is perhaps most famous for the Bi-Rite Market and its Creamery, where you can get great vegan ice cream (there’s always a queue there). Usually, I’m not big on coffee – but Philz Coffee Shop on 24th has amazing coffee with home-made blends brewed to perfection, and it’s a lovely place to sit with a book or your laptop and start the day. There’s a great independent cinema, Roxie’s, and there are a lot of joints with live music, most notably the Revolution Café on 22nd, with free live music every night of the week. And of course, there’s art and artists at every corner, starting with the massive murals that aren’t only pretty to look at, but also tell stories about the city. Finally, the people in the Mission District, but also in San Francisco as a whole, are really friendly, open and outgoing. So if you’re looking to have a good time, listen to great music, experience art and have amazing food, then, my friend, San Francisco is the city you should head for next. Release your inner hipster, you know you want to!
The question I keep asking myself is why San Francisco has always been and continues to be a haven for counterculture. Perhaps it’s the weather… but that can’t be it. San Francisco is, after all, in the bay area, which means that the temperature will vary throughout the day. A little like Hamburg, just that there’s no real rain.
Perhaps we’ll get a bit closer to answering that question next month, when I introduce you to Wild SF tours, the only walking tour you’ll ever have to go on when going to San Francisco, flowers in your hair and all.
by Simone Lechner
P.S. Getting to San Francisco from Germany and back will currently cost you a minimum of between 800 and 900 euros. There are direct flights available from Frankfurt, and it will take you about 12-15 hours. Hotels are quite expensive, so it might make sense to check for alternatives via couch surfing or airbnb.
Simone was listening to Rest My Chemistry by Interpol while writing this.