The City that
Reinvents Itself

by Bill Slatkin

New York’s fame always has resided in Times Square, on Broadway, Madison Avenue and Wall Street. And Chicago, then and now, has been known for its stockyards and the colorful gangsters of prohibition times. Beginning with the movie industry, we’ve come to know and to love, or to hate L.A.

But what we associate with San Francisco has changed from generation to generation over the past century and a half. From a stop along the trail of missions established by the Spanish in the 18th Century, San Francisco grew into the destination for traders and adventurers who sailed into its harbor from the Far East, while it became the rainbow’s end for those who laid down the potter’s wheel, the farmer’s scythe, saying farewell to villages and towns all across the U.S., pushing onward toward the setting sun, eager to try their luck at the gold and silver deposits that might bring everlasting fortune, or to mine the pockets of those who came out of those hills a little richer and then invested in the pleasures of the booming town where, according to rumor, they could slack their thirst and find companionship for the night.

It was a San Francisco that attracted merchants and opportunists, the derelict and depraved, shop girls and whores, the little yellow people who spoke a strange language in a sing-song voice that most had never before heard. The reputation that spread across the country by telegraph and in mail sacks borne on the new transcontinental railroad, told of magnificent vistas and agreeable weather, of green hills and blue water, of wild nights with dance and debauchery and fog-enshrouded mornings to recover.

While the City’s Barbary Coast offered entertainment for baser appetites, the new opera and playhouses, just blocks away, balanced San Francisco’s offer of diversion with choices for more refined tastes. And the city began to bring balance to the country, East to West, with a fresh and glorious cultural scene and, of course, its new riches. If the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers of New York enjoyed more wealth and power than the Stanfords, Crockers and Huntingtons of San Francisco, their dominance would not last long.

When tragedy struck, it was the determination of the proud San Franciscans that transformed the devastation wrought by the 1906 earthquake and fire, into a City ready to host the Pan American Expo, barely nine years later. And when the country went to war-- not once, but twice--two generations of American servicemen and women, those fortunate to be stationed at, or shipped out of San Francisco, came under the City’s spell.

Never content to follow the nation’s cultural norms, San Francisco succumbed, after the second of the wars, to the rhythm of the Beats--their poetry, their jazz, their contrary life style. From there it seemed an easy “trip” to the Sixties and the Haight Ashbury scene.

In mid-century, Des Moines housewives in gingham aprons, Houston laborers in their oil-splattered boots, Madison Avenue Madmen in grey flannel, all knew what town had the Golden Gate Bridge, little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars, flower children and topless bars.

Soon, there were communities throughout the country, even in Europe, living in the Age of Aquarius. And while others were busy emulating the styles and attitudes, the culture and language associated with the new face of San Francisco, the city was reinventing itself yet again. This time it was San Francisco money and its pioneering spirit planting the seeds beyond the City’s southern border that quickly brought the fruits of technology. And to the north, it was the planting of grape vines yielding wines ready to challenge the dominance of the legendary brands from France and Italy.

While the Valleys: Silicon, Napa and Sonoma, fed the world’s growing demand for their product--electronic and enological, Americans learned of yet another San Francisco asset, as leadership of the country’s favorite sport was quickly grasped in the firm grip of Joe Montana and the rest of the San Francisco 49ers.

And as we reached the years at the end of the century, it was time for San Francisco to grow tired of the gridiron--having been there and done that--and move onto another field of play. Just in time for the digital age. From the City and its suburbs came the personal computer, the World Wide Web, Internet search engines and social media. And then, just as they had fifteen decades before, San Franciscans rode the boom and the bust. Then became the place for the next revolution.

Today, a multi-billion dollar biotech center is sprouting along the City’s eastern waterfront, an area long in decline after the end of San Francisco’s shipbuilding history. The labs, clinics, conference rooms and other state-of-the-art facilities make San Francisco a world leader once more; this time a key center of research into the medical miracles waiting to be discovered as we decode the human genome and build a new and thriving industry from what we learn.

But as it continually emerges in new and exciting forms, decade to decade, generation to generation, through every fad, factor and fancy, San Francisco clings firmly to its rich and colorful past.

The world leaders, the scientists, the entrepreneurs who enter this nearly mystical place may be doing the work of the 21st Century. But they’re doing it with a backdrop of the iconic bridge, Fisherman’s wharf, Coit Tower, the historic districts and world-famous restaurants and hotels.

Yes, San Francisco is the City that reinvents itself. But it never escapes the hold of its history. Perhaps that’s its greatest strength.

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