A cool city that just isn’t so hot anymore

They’re killing the cool, man, he said to me.

I am in San Francisco and I’ve just had a day out.

San Francisco is delightful. The city is built in and around a large bay. The downtown spreads across the southern isthmus of two that enclose the harbour. To enter the harbour, you sail under the Golden Gate Bridge (if you come by boat).

Beyond the harbour is the mighty Pacific Ocean. Cities by its edges are grander. This is a well-known geographic fact.

San Francisco is hilly too, so you are always catching views of sparkling waters in both directions, and of neighbourhoods perched along ridges and then down in valleys. The landscape breaks the city into communities, not by class or ethnicity in the first instance but by simple geography.

My outing started on Market Street, in the centre of expensive boutiques and the stunning old girl, Bloomingdale’s, the upscale department store.

Right in front of where I was walking, a homeless man dropped his trousers, squatted and started defecating onto the pavement. My breakfast barely held.

I walked on to Second Street to Alexander’s for a book I hoped would frame my day: Joan Didion’s essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion is a famous US writer. In the sixties she wrote newspaper columns recording what was happening in a nation gripped by Vietnam War protests, struggles for race and gender equality, and widespread disaffection with where America was headed.

The essay I wanted to read was about Haight-Ashbury, the community high on the ridge of the southern isthmus where hippies came from all across the US in the mid-1960s, and San Francisco became known as the coolest place on earth.

My cab ride to The District, as Didion calls it, took 20 minutes. The driver was twitchy. And he sniffed, a lot. His cab wandered across the tram tracks like an old Holden with too much weight in the boot. He said he’d played in bands in San Francisco for four decades – and in studios all around here as he stretched both arms from the wheel and waved them every which way.

But now these tech heads have moved in, he said. They’re killing the cool.

I sat in Golden Gate Park, where Didion did a lot of her observing, and ate a BLT sandwich and drank designer lemon squash and read the essay.

It is a sad piece. Didion describes heavy drug taking in the so-called Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967. There are directionless teenagers, neglected children and overly-ambitious and exploitative radical movements. And the main participants, says Didion, are young middle class drop-outs with a cash lifeline to parents back east; not so much refugees from society as children who do not quite understand it.

Today’s Haight-Ashbury exploits the myths about those days. Shop after shop sells tie-dyed T-shirts and kaftans, funky beads, and flowers for your hair. These are the images we saw from Australia nearly five decades ago.

I walk two blocks from Haight-Ashbury and see gentrified Victorian triple-storey wood and shingle houses. A real estate agency lists them at over US$3 million. Rich techies and geeks (although I think these are the same people) and their venture capital (VC) backers are the buyers.

And they are probably upset when tourists like me walk down their streets looking for the cool.

Phillip O’Neill is a professorial research fellow at the University of Western Sydney