The Great Awakening
This short story was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Her car windows slowly roll down, inviting a wisp of chilly, crisp air that is all too familiar to Mei, though nothing within her line of sight, aside from a few street names and the general building architecture, evokes any sense of familiarity. But she is no longer an outsider in Hayes Valley —no sense of the piercing neglect that bleeds into her most recent memory of the city.
The San Francisco she had left was a dead one.
Mei passes the SF Jazz center and turns left onto Grove street, gradually easing to a stop. A large sign blocking traffic reads “Permanently closed for pedestrians,” no, “CREATIVES.” Her lips curl into a slight smile. So it's happening?
Her eyes then wander to the new murals on the walls, the paint beautifully and inadvertently blended in with the colors of flickering lights that lined the streets. Mmm, the smell of fresh paint— strong and seductive...nostalgic. A past that has long gone. She draws a deep breath, taking in the chemical aroma. But now revived?
On her left lies a vacant yoga studio, barely noticeable behind its thick wood panels that signified its closure. A mid-aged woman in front swipes her paintbrush over the wood with exaggerated movements, forming wide, abstract strokes resembling somewhat of a 21st century Polk. Across from her, a young violinist's bow dances to Brahmn's concerto, joined by a crowd of appreciators swaying to its melodic tunes.
“Are we there yet?” Lina yawns. Five hours in the backseat left her limp.
Mei opens the car door and swoops her daughter up, shifting her stacks of canvasses in the back. Lina lets her hand slide into her mother's and, habitually, rubs on Mei's hardened calluses. She likened them, seeing her mother as invulnerable to the decades wear of paintbrushes.
“Almost,” Mei cracks. A single tear rolls down her left cheek.
As they walk towards the center, her eyes fixate on a thin, off-white building in the middle of Ivy street. Memories flash back. Mei remembers. She was on her knees, screaming, crying, begging —one hand over her pregnant belly. She had been dragged out from the flat after her landlord filed a lawsuit against her. A battle she lost.
Rent prices had surged astronomically in the past three decades, especially after her landlord renovated her building. Most of her friends, artists as well, had left the Bay. But she refused.
San Francisco was her home — it was where her grandparents settled in the early 1900s after immigrating from China, it was where they raised her. It was where she started her work as a painter, authentically capturing the hidden life of 90s Hayes Valley, when the central freeway still towered over the narrow streets. Back in the days, poets and revolutionaries lined the cafes, joined by artists, hippies, and queers openly flaunting their personalities.
San Francisco was the dream for any young, bohemian frolicker.
She persisted through the internet age, the dot-com burst, the mass influx of young workers to the Silicon Valley dream. Through Facebook and Google, and then the other unicorns. She watched her city succumb to the demand for tech and talent. She watched her friends flee one by one to the East Bay. She protested the gentrification of Hayes Valley, the lack of affordable housing, the forever increasing rent. Until she couldn't any longer.
Mei never really understood who's fault it was. At first her anger was channeled towards the newcomers, then the city for allowing them in, and then the companies that built this empire. Resentment turned into grief, and then to acceptance. Cities change, cultures shift.
Eight years had passed since Mei stepped foot inside the city. But now she is back. And the flat, the one where she was so forcefully and unjustly evicted from, is now back in her possession.
She looks down at Lina, at her innocence. Mei knows she will never truly understand the beauty nor the ugly of the past. It's for the best.
“Mama, is that your old house?” Lina asks, following her mother's gaze. She picks up a large piece of stained glass from the sidewalk and peeks through the yellow filter.
“Lina, don't touch other people's work!” Mei scolds.
A laughter bursts from behind, and a tall, bearded man with frazzled gray hair appears. “Please —let the child play.” His voice is friendly. “Mei, wow, you're here. What has it been? Ten years?”
“Eight, actually. But yes, a long time. Good to see you again, Gary,” Mei scans his figure. “Wow, you look thinner...and older,” she winks.
Gary smiles, “All the days stressing through the pandemic, that's all.”
“Are they really all gone?”
“Almost. Still a few lingering up by the Marina but they'll probably be gone by end of month. The others are huddled in Pac Heights and the Presidio. At least the Mission and Castro are clean.”
“Who's gone?” Lina asks, curiosity lurking.
Gary's face lights up with delight, “Well look at you! All grown up. The last time I saw you was when your were still inside your mama!”
He kneels to match Lina's height. “You see, this place here wasn't like this before. That music that you hear, the murals on the walls — that's all new. It used to be full of young rich folks working computer jobs. They took over this area and kicked your poor mama and me out.”
“Well not intentionally. We just couldn't co-exist,” Mei corrects Gary.
“Yea sorry, I don't give them any of my pity. They're all just selfish duds who convince themselves they're doing good for the world. See? After the rona they just moved out! To Bali, or Denver, or wherever there are beaches and mountains. Taking advantage of every crisis.”
Mei sighs. Gary has been critical of the tech community for as long as she's known him. She couldn't blame him. He was a poet with an archaic stained glass side hustle that didn't mesh well with the yuppies, and he took it as a personal offense, lashing out his anger by blaming the tech industry for destroying the culture of the city. What Gary wanted, a resurgence of the San Francisco Renaissance, was simply not going to happen.
But finally, things took a turn in 2020. Following the pandemic, the homeless population surged when more evictions poisoned the city. With a majority of Silicon Valley companies shifting to remote work, the city saw a large exodus of tech workers to safer, family-friendly towns. Housing prices dropped, offices relocated. Landlords had a moment of scare and started frantically selling their buildings, an act colloquially coined the “tech flight.”
At first it looked as if San Francisco couldn't be saved, but then came the artist coalition, composed mostly of displaced artists from the Bay, who fought a year long battle with the city government. They petitioned the mayor and ultimately gained support and state resources to turn many of the heavily discounted buildings into artist co-ops and community shelters for the homeless.
There were conditions, of course.
It was then when Mei phoned Gary, reconnecting with her old friend. Gary had scoffed at the idea of moving back. In his jaded view it would take a miracle for something substantial to change.
“But look,” Mei had persisted, “There's already so many people moving back —- like, musicians, painters, poets like yourself — you can revive the San Francisco Renaissance! They're looking for people, uh, to head these co-ops, I don't know. This IS a miracle.”
Gary was stubborn indeed, but he nonetheless caved. They joined the coalition and opted to lead the co-ops in Hayes Valley, which included Mei's previous flat. Wounded by the past and apprehensive of the future, they endured many sleepless nights in the weeks leading up to the move.
Mei snaps back to the present with Lina's tug. “I want to see more!” Lina demands.
“Mei, I'll take her around. You start getting settled in,” Gary offers.
Gary takes Lina by the hand and walks her to what was once Patricia Green. The grassy area has now transformed into a sustainable garden flourishing with tomatoes dangling from vines, chiles and herbs of all kinds, and various lettuce sprouting from the soil. In the corner, a young fig tree towers over a rosemary bush. The scent of lavender from the garden greets the aroma of freshly baked bread from a cafe.
“We're turning this center block into a garden so we can cook for the community.” Gary points to an unfinished bamboo structure to the left of the garden. “There, we're building an outdoor kitchen.”
He turns around to a row of fancy apartments. “And those will be artist studios. Each artist gets their own space. They just have to contribute to —”
“I like it. I want one!” Lina's eyes widen at the ceramicist spinning clay over a wheel. A man in a suit next to him packs a few of his creations into a box. “Where are they taking them?”
“Oh that, yes, so we sell our work to the city and state government to pay for the housing. I believe it'll be another 20, 30 years before we completely own everything. Not a perfect model, but it helps us build THIS,” he says as he flails his arms around to signify the vast expanse of a self-sustaining artist co-op.
“Was it like this before they came?” Lina asks as two sculptors walk past, carrying a marble carving of deadbeat robotic caricatures.
“They? The computer people? Ah, yes. I mean no, it wasn't like this before. This...is new. The old model, well, it didn't work because we all had to leave. We developed this new system so they can't come back again, and, you know, destroy its soul again.” He bit his lip to stop himself from a rant.
“Well,” Lina starts cautiously, “they're gone right? Is the soul also gone forever?”
Gary is fond of the little girl. “Yes, they're gone for now. Don't worry, the soul is still here, we just have to look deep and find it again.”
She doesn't understand. If anything, this neighborhood has more soul than any place she's seen before. Lina takes a large brush from a can of red paint. She gets on all fours, and uses the brush to outline a shape around her.
“Then I'm giving it a heart,” she beams.
Mei watches the two of them from her balcony above. The neighborhood is a canvas, a diary, a garden, a music studio —anything the artist wants it to be.
This is what Lina will grow up to know of her city. It isn't perfect. But it comes pretty darn close.
The San Francisco she knows now is alive.