Has San Francisco Lost Interest in People?
Driving through San Francisco today, I listened to Krista Tippett’s new podcast, Becoming Wise, and her conversation with poet Elizabeth Alexander, who said this: “Are we not of interest to each other”. And I thought, “crap, no. But then, also, maybe.”
We talk of San Francisco in terms of a boom town, in terms of tech, in terms of things and people available on demand. We talk of it as a place that has lost its soul, as a place where gentrification leads to displacement, as a place where the people who live here don’t care about here, but care about what here can offer them.
But under that shiny, glittering surface there is something innately human percolating. Purpose-driven organizations and individuals, art collectives and community initiatives are swimming against the tide of one-clicks and easy information and placing significance on being in the room, face to face, having meaningful conversations. People who are talking about values that on the internet seem either radical or old-fashioned: community, connection, a social network.
I spent Saturday afternoon at Yerba Buena, which amongst the arts community is leading the charge on civic engagement and community inquiry. Through programs such as Public Square, the series I was attending, Yerba Buena is bringing people together to ask the core questions that we all have to answer. The space is thriving with a demographic that in its diversity speaks of the breadth of people still within the Bay Area. It also speaks of their need to be out in the world, connecting to one another around universal issues, such as ecology and work, the subjects of today’s curated program of installations, events and discussions. In creating Public Square, Chief of Program and Pedagogy, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, is making the argument that we matter, still, to one another, and our public institutions need to make a commitment to doing some of the work of community building.
On Sunday morning I shifted focus and headed to Berkeley to Sunday Assembly East Bay. With a tag line that reads “Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More,” and a program into its second year, Sunday Assembly approximates Sunday service but without the faith bit. That morning, hymns had been replaced by secular songs – Yellow Taxi, Country Road, An Octopus’s Garden; the sermon with a regular person’s perspective, this time Chris Highland on John Muir’s nature and the power of “Wow”, and the reading was given by someone who was “Doing Their Best”. As host Daniel Braga-Lawlor explained it, this was “coming together as people and celebrating life”.
As the director of Storefront Institute, a pop-up cultural and learning organization devoted to exploring how we live our lives, we’ve responded to this need for not just how we can connect ideas but also how we can connect people. The economy, family, community, religion, and education (all the big stuff) are going through profound change. And our emotional lives, psychological well-being, and sense of how to live can be intimately affected. We need a new kind of space that brings people together to better understand ourselves, the world around us, and each other. We believe that place is Storefront Institute. We deliver discussion-based public programs facilitated by innovative practitioners from across the Bay Area – writers, artists, designers, teachers, and thinkers. Our programs provide the practical, social, and intellectual connections to open up new perspectives that help us better navigate our lives.
We launched in November amongst the whispers of a tech bubble slowly deflating and the rapid loss of our artists and makers to cheaper locations. Since then, we’ve held Open Classrooms on our relationship to Work, Happiness, and Money; Practice Studios where we make to better understand our families, our minds, our bodies; Office Hours on how to apply design thinking, astrology or improv to our lives. And we’ve done this as the climate is trying to tip in a different direction: Minnesota Street Project and 500 Capp Street just launched, the CJM is shifting to an emphasis on ideas, a newly reimagined BAMPFA has just reopened, California Sunday Magazine has become an award-winning fixture and Pop-Up Magazine has expanded it’s offerings to Oakland. Our cultural spaces are leaning-in to this philosophy that people are the material of arts too.
The Bay Area is at the forefront of tech innovation, but it may still have something to offer movements founded by and for people. Look around in its quieter, less blingy, more underfinanced moments, and there’s a new sector percolating, that of an open engagement with learning, with life, with one another. If San Francisco and the Bay Area gets it right, it can find its feet again by recognizing that it’s always been a city not about tech, but about people. About who people can be, and the lives it is possible to have, and our continual, abiding fascination about what it means to be human.
Getting back to that podcast and that poet…Alexander explained it like this:
“Are we not of interest to each other? Which to me isn’t about I like her shoes or he has a fascinating job. Its much deeper than that, are we as human beings in community, do we call to each other, do we heed each other, do we want to know each other, and I think reaching across what can be a huge void between human beings. It is so amazing that we are each unto ourselves, inside our heads.”
In the Bay Area now, if you pay attention, there’s an argument that we don’t need to be so isolated (and lonely) and there are opportunities and spaces that can help us figure that out. We are the most connected city in many more ways than we realize.