Rebecca Solnit's Hollow City is not the most ill-timed book in the history of publishing. That title still belongs to Dumb Money by Joey Anuff and Gary Wolf a sardonic memoir on the wild and woolly world of day trading that hit bookstores on the same day a 10 percent drop in the Nasdaq guaranteed nobody would ever find the stock market quite so funny again. Still, it's got to be discouraging to be peddling a book on the "siege of San Francisco and the crisis of American urbanism" now that the siege has been so dramatically lifted. The dot-conomy Solnit blames for undermining San Francisco culture lies moldering in the streets, and the momentum of the city government has passed to slow-growth zealots who want to make sure the body doesn't get a decent burial. Pricey apartments are going empty, and the real estate market is dropping with a speed that would convince even an invisible-hand skeptic of the power of self-regulation. The city's hipster axis has returned to the coffee shop layabouts who never really left, and to the extent that the rest of America ever paid much attention to San Francisco, it's unlikely anybody is watching the city for clues to the future of urbanism. These days, vilification of the dot-coms ranks somewhere south of stiff Al Gore jokes in terms of general relevance.
None of which appears to have hurt the book's reception. The New York Times mentioned the book, and the Susan Schwartzenberg photos it features, in a story on the anti-gentrification war. The Washington Post devoted a thousand not-entirely-favorable words to it early this month. Last week, The New Yorker gave the book a brief recommendation, taking at face value Solnit's argument that "the Internet boom transformed San Francisco into a suburb of Silicon Valley, and the resulting housing squeeze and accelerated gentrification of low-income neighborhoods created a cultural crisis" and made the city into "a place in which artists, activists, and members of diverse races and classes can no longer afford to live." Even the ostensibly pro-dot-com eCompany Now praised the book as a "smart, timely cri de coeur."
And as a cri de coeur, the book is a success. Solnit is strong on the charms of offbeat urban landscapes, and can even evoke some terrible pity for the closing of a Western Addition supermarket. To get to this material, you have to look past the author's considerable self-satisfaction. Few descriptions are allowed to pass without reference to Solnit's own comings and goings with delightful bohemian and activist pals; we are constantly being told how she took her bike from point A to point B, and what occurred to her while waiting to meet activist X; even a passage on Parisian housing makes sure to let us know that Solnit herself spent some time living in the City of Lights. This intense focus on the personal has the virtue of opening up the author's nostalgia. Solnit is especially strong on the wealth of historical information that gets lost with each building turnover or demolition.
The problem is that all that feeling amounts to a book whose main message is, "Everything was better when I was ten years younger." We can all sympathize with that sentiment, but Solnit is after a Big Book, an Important Book, a book in the Mike Davis vein, one of those books that has a title like Unreal City or City On the Edge of Forever or City of Fear or City City Bang Bang or You Were Born In the City, Concrete Under Your Feet. "[G]entrification is just the fin above water," the book promises. "Below is the rest of the shark: a new American economy in which most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous and more controlled or controllable."
Strong stuff, but Solnit immediately shifts her focus to the least promising test case: San Francisco artists, who in her words are "the indicator species of this ecosystem." More likely they are the group the author finds most diverting out of the many possible indicator species she could have chosen. Why are artists better indicators than, say, bus drivers, who provide a more useful service and are often even surlier? For that matter, do we have any proof, other than Solnit's word, that the cluster of bohemians she focuses on are all that significant, even as social indicators? The book carries a blurb from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose relevance can be gauged from the almost total likelihood that you can not name a single poem he's ever written (except maybe "To Fuck Is To Love Again").
Artists don't keep cities vital, but there's ample evidence that immigrants do. Which makes it odd that the ethnic group responsible for almost all of San Francisco's population growth during the past decade Asians and Pacific Islanders, and in particular Mandarin-speaking Chinese barely show up in Hollow City. After all, it's easy to blame the overwhelmingly white dot-com generation for turning the city from a complex ecosystem into a "monocrop." Making the same case against Asians is problematic for obvious reasons. By the same token, while the Latino population in San Francisco has grown only mildly over the past decade, it has exploded in all the surrounding suburbs. You may explain this growth by saying that Latinos are being forced out by the dot-commers or by considering as Solnit does briefly, before dropping the point that most Americans prefer a freestanding house with a yard to a cramped city apartment.
This is not to play an invidious game of ethnic juggling, but to show that Hollow City is happy to sing the blues in situations where it might be more appropriate to sing "God Bless America" in your best Kate Smith bellow. In an interview with Feed, Solnit claims that the lesson of San Francisco can be transported to "the Bostons, Seattles, Denvers, and Austins." That pluralization as if all cities are interchangeable is telling, and suggests Solnit might have benefited from spending some time in, say, Philadelphia, where until very recently the problem was people leaving the city and it still isn't clear that the illnesses of which that desertion was both a symptom and a cause have been cured. Anybody who has spent a few years in any one place will understand Solnit's disenchantment with a wave of crass newcomers. But anybody who has seen the flipside knows there are far worse things that can happen than a good economy.
And when that economy is as fleeting and unstable as the dot-com boom obviously was, you have to question the wisdom of anybody who tries to screw with it. Perhaps the saddest thing about the dot-com boom is the woeful effect it has had on city politics, sweeping into power a new "progressive" board of Supervisors bent on stamping out the loopholes that allowed businesses to flourish here. (To the consternation of many, it's also the whitest, malest board in recent memory.) Working on the belief (widely held in the City by the Bay) that the way to deal with a housing shortage is to punish property owners and discourage new housing the new Supes have plenty of gasoline to throw, but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the fire has gone out.
But that's economics, and the real issue here is style. "It's impossible to move here and just invent yourself anymore," Solnit opined in that same Feed interview. Oh yeah? Tell it to the dot-coms, who invented themselves with a vengeance during what anybody with any common sense knew would be brief window of opportunity. Tech industry losers got a chance to start fun if ill-considered companies. Washed up hacks jump-started stalled journalism careers. Coffee bar waitresses jumped into high-paying jobs with inflated titles. It was an inspiring story in many ways, but the main players committed the sin of being people whose taste (or lack thereof) Solnit and her bohemian cadre happened not to share. It's telling that Solnit's critics have condemned her for not being bohemian enough in a characteristic letter to In These Times, one naysayer boasted that he was down with mural artists, not the fancy-schmancy types Solnit favors. (Keepin' it real is, alas, the most vicious of circles).
It's an unfair complaint against a writer who can deftly describe some of the city's charms, but we must acknowledge that Solnit was asking for it when she set herself up as the arbiter of what constitutes the genuine San Francisco style, or for that matter the genuine style of anyplace. In the end, it's the bohemians who insist on dining on a monocrop, on resisting the flux that created their own lifestyle, and will eventually sweep it away. It's sad to reflect that the world we know can pass away so quickly; but when we try to elevate that feeling to the level of policy we learn that the personal is not always political.
Courtesy of the Magua
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