San Francisco in the ’90s Wasn’t a Better Era Than Now

I love San Francisco. This is the only place where I want to live. I’ve had so many discussions about What Is Happening to the Place We Love, though, that I am frayed. I feel loss as the funky bits are swept away, and I’m experiencing culture shock in the city I’ve lived in for almost 20 years. But let’s face it, things weren’t so much better when I first got here. Let’s remember, for a minute, the San Francisco of the 1990s.

During online discussions and wine-fueled dinners spent rehashing the state of the city, I hear those of us who came of age (and now middle age) in San Francisco talking about the good old days. Everyone was an artist; you could rent a huge, sunny flat in the Mission for cheap; you could take a date to Axum Cafe for $10. We sound like the baby boomers who once blamed us for changing their town — staking their claim to cheap rents, working part-time as a daisy painter, and living downstairs from Janis Joplin.

I have to call cease-fire on the hysterical reminiscing. San Francisco wasn’t all Bohemia and rainbows when I moved here. Some things are actually better now than they were back in the day. No one misses the old Ferry Building, which was like a forgotten bus station on the waterfront, with pigeons swooping overhead. I don’t miss Mayor Willie Brown, who is a walking caricature of a well-connected politician. Brunch lovers should be glad they didn’t live here before 1998, when the statewide ban on raw or runny eggs was lifted.

This has always been a food town, but we didn’t fetishize the home cook until recently. Farmers’ markets didn’t feature pastured meats, and Safeway didn’t have an organics section. We had Cala Foods, a local chain of grocery stores with locations scattered around town. There was no joy in shopping at Cala. I went there because it was close to home, and I didn’t have a car. Every store smelled like sour milk and looked like something out of the 1950s. Herbs with faded labels, raw shrimp that reeked of ammonia, and five kinds of instant rice: Cala had it all. Twice I purchased rotten meat there that had been repackaged and flipped over so the green part was facing down. I’m surprised I didn’t give up on cooking and stick to inexpensive Thai takeout (RIP, all you forgotten delivery restaurants). Rainbow Grocery was around, but its overpriced offerings were out of my reach.

Farmers’ markets are everywhere now. There are dozens in San Francisco. Small weekly pop-ups and the large city-run markets are bringing fresh food at decent prices to areas considered urban-food deserts. The Ferry Building Farmer’s Market gets all the glory, but even tiny Crocker Galleria holds its surprises (and lower prices).

Outdoor concerts inside city limits are a welcome addition to San Francisco’s cultural offerings. Once upon a time you had to drive to places like Concord or Mountain View to see a big-time musical act in a large amphitheater, or you could attend the occasional concert at Candlestick Park. Now you can take the bus (or walk!) to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park or shuttle over to the Treasure Island Music Festival. Pack your layers, spread out a blanket, and bask in the fog-glow of how great it is to live here.

Dolores Park is another outdoor attraction that has changed in the last few decades. When I first moved here, the only cannabis for sale in the park was sold in $10 bags from behind the trees near the J-Church tracks. It was sketchy business. Now upstart vendors sell pot truffles and hashish ginger snaps. The playground was run-down, and the public restrooms were for emergencies only. When I lived nearby, I logged some hours sitting in Dolores Park, but it was not the destination it is today (except for the nude sunbathers on the upper shelf of the park, also known as Gay Beach). A warm afternoon in the grass is a full-on scene of cruising and idling, ground-level entrepreneurship, and ragtag community. Dolores Park is a testament to open public spaces, but I do wish people would clean up after their rosé- and pot-cookie-fueled benders.

Biking in San Francisco is definitely better than it used to be. It’s still scary — someone’s always double-parked on Valencia Street, and delivery trucks never pull into those red meter spaces that only they can use. But if you think the bike lane on Folsom Street is edgy and dangerous, consider Folsom Street before there was a bike lane. It was one rodeo clown shy of a circus. When I first started biking, I had a near miss on Market Street. A car I had been riding beside turned into me in broad daylight. Somehow I jumped off my bike, threw it into a gas station (now high-rise condos), and hurdled to safety. The driver of the car rolled down the window and asked, “What are you doing there?” After that I started riding in Critical Mass.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has worked with the city to make this a safer place for bikers and to get more cars off the roads. Demarcated green bike lanes remind motorists that yes, indeedy, a bike with a person on it might be present. The first bike lane in the city was on Lake Drive in Golden Gate Park in 1971 — a quaint ride but not exactly a commuter route. Enter the Wiggle, a route used to get from Market Street to Golden Gate Park with the least amount of uphill riding. Shared-lane marking, also known as sharrows, were added to the Wiggle’s green lanes in 2011 to make the route more visible to bikers and drivers. Plotting official routes to get people across town on two wheels has led to a huge increase in bike commuting.

It wasn’t just biking that offered a scary ride in the ’90s. In 1998, Muni took old streetcars out of service and added the gray cars now in use. At that same time, the underground system became automated. What happened was known as the Muni Meltdown. It was bad — so bad that I don’t think Muni is all that terrible anymore. Railing against Muni is a point of pride for San Franciscans, but the system of yore was a different beast. I almost got fired because of that crappy transit system. My supervisor, who drove to work, didn’t believe me when I was almost in a Muni-on-Muni head-on collision and had to walk through tunnels below Market Street because the train I was riding on had somehow gotten on the opposite tracks heading the wrong way. She did not believe that I could stand in the Castro station and that a single train wouldn’t come for 45 minutes. In those days, it was faster to walk.

The Castro reminds me of my early days in San Francisco: late-night meals at Orphan Andy’s diner, shopping for housewares at Cliff’s Hardware, and, on a much more serious note, the tail end of the AIDS crisis. The Castro had a sadness that wound its way through the neighborhood. I remember young men who should have been in the prime of their life using canes. The obituaries in the Bay Area Reporter contained pages and pages of photos of people who had died. It was a sad and horrible time for so many San Franciscans. I try to imagine how different our city would be if those people were thriving, if AIDS have never happened. This would be a different place.

I’ve been thinking about my little studio on Castro Street and my life back then. My rent was $600 a month — about half my monthly income. Even back then it wasn’t a lot of money for a girl fresh off the plane who needed West Coast clothes and tickets to the Fillmore and who eventually got her landline shut off because she couldn’t pay her phone bill. I soon made friends, who taught me the ways of San Francisco — things like buying clothes by the pound and that I should never unwrap all the foil from a burrito before eating it.

We all think we were the last of the cool kids to set up shop here. In coming here, we set out on our own personal gold rush in search of opportunity, acceptance, or fortune. I wonder what future San Francisco will remember about today’s city. Will the city seem as polarized in the rearview as it is right now? I’ll have to ask my daughter when she grows up. I hope she remembers a creative, colorful, accepting, occasionally dirty, and sometimes funky place. Fingers crossed.

MOLLY DITMORE, The Bold Italic

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