San Francisco in the late 1970s was not a happy place.
I know. I lived there then, although I did not realise it at the time.
Events that took place during this time included the Patricia Hearst kidnapping (February 1974) and bank robbery (April 1974); the Jonestown massacre (November 1978); assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow supervisor Dan White (also November 1978, a devastating spiritual and psychic “two punch”), events captured in both the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the feature Milk; and the trial result of White, with riots in the streets (May 1979). There was a whole lot more.
I had only lived in one big city before then (Boston), so I think I assumed that this was normal for cities. But it wasn’t. It was weird and bizarre.
I don’t think that anyone has truly figured out the connections between these terrible events – and the pall of doom that they cast over that beautiful city’s spirit. I have looked for explanations, and uncovered few.
Kevin Starr, possibly the best contemporary chronicler of California history and the California State Librarian Emeritus, has written a multi-volume series of historical books about the state, under the title “Americans and the California Dream”. His books cover the periods 1850-1915, the 1920s, the Depression in the 1930s, the 1940s, 1950-1963 and 1990-2002. Not the 1970s or 1980s. Starr has not – at least not yet – grappled with this troubled time.
I was delighted to find two very different books that have. In his 2012 book, The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love (not the 2011 American fantasy film starring Nicolas Cage), David Talbot (founder of Salon), deals directly with this period – the best attempt of analysis I have read. And Ellen Ullman, in her novel By Blood (also 2012), also deals with the time (set in 1974) through a fictional gothic style story of a therapist. Ironically, Ullman reviewed Talbot’s book in The New York Times, thereby stimulating a response from Talbot, in which he pointed out that his “San Francisco was not hers”.
That’s part of the point. Everybody’s San Francisco is different. It’s what makes a great city great; each of us has a different experience that somehow adds up to a whole.
In so many ways, California represents the future – and it has done so for a very long time. As Starr writes in his book California: A History, by the year 2000, 32.4 percent of the state’s population was Latino and almost 11 percent of Asian origin. San Francisco was “on the verge of becoming the first prominent American city with an Asian American majority.”
And then it happened: as of 1 July 2013, officially California no longer had a “white” majority, joining Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia as “majority minority” states. This foreshadows the future of America, predicted to be a “non-white” majority country by 2043, the “first major post-industrial society in the world where minorities will be the majority,” says immigration expert Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
The geography of California, of course, is also exciting – as anyone who has ever visited knows. As Starr writes:
“Just sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the state, is Death Valley, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. Here temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit, as they did on July 10, 1913. In midsummer the Central Valley can be as hot as the Equator.
Did the demography or the geography of California contribute to what was, in effect, that unhappy moment in San Francisco’s history in the mid to late 1970s? I doubt it. California has always represented some sense of freedom to Americans. The early Hollywood Jewish moguls left the east coast for Los Angeles seeking fewer strictures on their work (and better weather). Later generations – me included – moved there for economic opportunities, the weather and the lifestyle. Perhaps it was that sense of freedom that encouraged such bizarre and out of the norm behaviour.
Northern California has now moved to a different moment – one that is equally bizarre in its own way. An early November 2013 widely reported speech by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan has canvassed the possibility that Silicon Valley should become its own country, because the USA appears now to be “the Microsoft of nations” (apparently a bad thing). The speech has caused a great deal of exclamations over arrogance and “naïve libertarianism” (Nicholas Carr). Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times called the speech, “an unusually honest articulation of ideas that are common among members of a digital overclass whose decisions shape ever more of our lives” (italics are mine).
The tech industry apparently now threatens Boston as the centre for higher education (MOOCs – massive open online courses), New York for finance and media (Twitter and blogs) and Los Angeles for entertainment (Netflix and iTunes), reported The Australian newspaper. All true.
So this is the future of America, one that is increasingly likely NOT to look like its past.
(Post script: Looking for one of the best recent movies to portray the San Francisco area? Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, opened in the USA a couple of months ago and opens here in Australia later this month. It replays the accidental shooting of a 22 year old black man at the BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – Fruitvale station. Highly recommended.)