If we’re honest, San Franciscans like myself have to admit that we can be insufferable about our city. We nakedly adore it, sometimes to the point of rudeness. People in Oakland and L.A. can only roll their eyes when we babble like giddy teenagers about living here.
In his book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco,” Salon.com co-founder Gary Kamiya does his fellow San Franciscans a favor by charmingly and thoughtfully laying out why this particular swath of 49 square miles inspires such fervor. Though a seasoned journalist, Kamiya is clearly in the tank for San Francisco, which he describes as “a soaring sand castle built where the tides comes in, a thousand white pennants waving from cathedral spires, the last place to have a drink before America stops and the endless oceans begins.”
As he investigates all of the city’s various landmarks and features, and relates his personal connection to all of them, Kamiya is more often than not awed by what he encounters. People and places are described as “remarkable,” “magnificent,” “marvelous,” “glorious,” and so on. Yet when Kamiya describes the trails hugging Land’s End, or the actions of various citizens in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, those adjectives prove apt.
Courtesy Alfred Castino
Author Gary Kamiya
But even while he channels the invincible enthusiasm of the late Huell Howser, Kamiya isn’t shy about exposing the troubling flaws and the lasting shames of his beloved home. Throughout the book, he relates the city’s long history of disgraceful treatment toward its non-white residents, a history stretching back from centuries ago to today, encompassing the Ohlone, African Americans, Japanese, Chinese and Mexicans. And as Kamiya makes clear, the city has a record for being hostile toward the poor and the working class, and now, toward its middle class, too.
Yet, San Francisco remains alluring, if only because of its unimpeachable beauty. Kamiya explores its hills, beaches, cliffs, lakes, canyons and vistas. We learn the geology behind them and we get a good sense of why they exalt those who behold them, from the area’s first settlers who lived here for millennia to today’s techies snatching up homes in the Mission District. And its history offers legacies to be proud of, too. Most recently, there’s been the nonconformity of the Beats, the optimism of the hippies, and, especially, the courage and the resourcefulness of the LGBT community amid the horror of the AIDS crisis.
In the end, “Cool Gray City of Love” wants to capture what it means to be blissed out by San Francisco, and does a solid job of that. But it’s really about something bigger. It’s about having something in your life-no matter where you live-that makes you glad you’re alive.