People often tell me that they don’t like San Francisco, especially of late. It’s dirty, or depressing, or has the wrong vibe, or is full of people who think it is reasonable to ban straws, or is the epitome of some kind of sinister social failing. Which are all plausible complaints.

I’m reminded of this thought from Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton, which my boyfriend and I have been meanderingly reading in recent months:

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

Which is not to say either that I think people should pour their energy into awful cities, or that San Francisco is the kind of awful city that might prompt the question of whether they should. But I do wonder if there is something missing in the usual attitude. In everyone moving here, assessing what the city gives them, and finding it either sufficient or lacking.

One thing is that the city is largely people. Who do you expect to make it good? It’s not true that you should stay at parties that aren’t fun, but you are missing something if you show up at parties to sit at the side judging before going on to the next one.

At Burning Man it is clearer that whatever the social scene is, you and others are making it. If it is more others than you, why are you so powerless? Maybe there are just a lot of others, and they don’t want the same things as you. In which case, a fair time to leave for another camp. But if you are an observer puzzled at why ‘they’ don’t do things better, then consider that you are ‘they’, as much as anyone.

I’m open to the possibility that contributing to the goodness of your city is not a worthy use of effort, if you have more important projects going on, and you abide by laws and pay your taxes. But I don’t take it for granted, and similar views seem probably wrong—for instance it seems like an error not to contribute to your household being good, or your family being good, or your friendships and relationships being good. A city is bigger, so it might be tempting to succumb to tragedy of the commons—no helped stranger will likely benefit you enough to make the help worth your while selfishly. But averting tragedies of the commons is better than suffering them, if possible.

On a different and non-prescriptive note, the same place is different if you love it. I have a friend who appears to relentlessly like San Francisco. And San Francisco is better going around with him. It’s a place of bright parks and hidden shops, fresh bread and rich coffee, characters, corridors for riding, singing in the street, culture, stories, poetry. I don’t necessarily recommend people go around loving things they don’t love for the sheer experiential benefits of it, but it seems worth noting.

Straight down San Francisco through a bush
San Francisco viewed through a bush straight down the middle on my evening run.