The term ‘bellwether’ resonates more strongly on the American side of the pond than the European. Pundits use it to describe a political omen, so that a State that typically gives its electoral college votes to the eventual victor in Presidential elections is regarded as a bellwether State.
California in general, and the area around San Francisco in particular, has been Democratic for some time, but acts as a bellwether for American society and culture in other ways. Far from being the idealised image of The Beach Boys and The OC, America’s wealth and prosperity, social inclusiveness and breakdown and self-image are frequently bound up with the performance of California.
California is where the Anglo-Americans fulfilled their self-appointed ‘Manifest Destiny’ in 1848, when President Polk manoeuvred the country into war with Mexico and subsequently annexed or purchased vast swathes of territory, including Tejas, as it was then known.
Just weeks before the peace treaty was signed, gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada mountains, causing a speculative boom, the likes of which make yesterday’s era of easy credit look positively stagnant. Naturally, there were winners and losers, and more of the latter amongst the prospectors than the former. The real winners, once the rich seems had been bought up by conglomerates, supplied ancillary services from the mundane, such as spades, to the innovative. One German entrepreneur who had gone bust stayed in San Francisco just long enough to hit upon the bright idea of liberating the sails from the abandoned boats in the city’s harbour and turning the fabric into jeans. Levi Strauss thereby hit a much richer stream than he could have hoped, and today Niall Ferguson is touting America’s production of jeans as an example of the superiority of its industry during the Cold War.
San Francisco was also the destination for the Continental Railroad; the North’s answer to the South’s enticing prospect of a plantation economy in a largely agrarian area. Taking seven years to build and introducing a significant Chinese community to America as labour for the first time, the railroad eventually carried California’s exports and returned with carriages full of immigrants in search of work.
Engineering has become an indelible part of the Californian ‘achievement’, and the city of San Francisco is famous for its two bridges, both built during the 1930s. The Golden Gate, the more famous and attractive, was initiated in typical American style. Conceived during the Depression, it appeared that no-one would buy the six million share issues until the President of the Bank of America stepped forward and declared ‘San Francisco needs that bridge!’ The Bay Bridge, completed just a few years later, also connects San Francisco to the mainland, specifically to the port of Oakland, one of the largest on the Pacific.
The city retains much of its charm through the preservation of its traditions, none more so than the cable cars that negotiate its steep hills, except perhaps the nine hairpin turns on Lombard Street that disguise a 27% incline. Another of San Francisco’s proudest engineering achievements, its earthquake-resistant buildings, was born out of tragedy. In 1906, the city was decimated by a quake. Instead of shrinking, it was rebuilt more grandly. What could be more progressive than a miniature replica of Notre Dame de Paris built on top of a car park?
Of course, while America’s cities frequently benefited from the attention of speculators during the Great Depression, the general population felt the brunt more sharply and it is hard to imagine a place that felt the brunt of the pain more than California, where workers were reduced to miserable conditions by the desperate competition for work immortalised by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
San Francisco is comfortably amongst the loveliest places in the United States, because of its strange hill-top configuration, its attachment to its parks (both inside and outside the city – the Golden Gate Park is far more wild than Central Park in New York and both sides of the bridge are flanked by nature, but it is outside in the redwoods of Muir Woods and the glacier-formed valley Yosemite, which owe their existence among many circumstances to the attention of John Muir and the interest of Theodore Roosevelt, that so many Americans seek peace in), and its ability to afford so much extravagance.
The city also regards itself as the most progressive in the United States. It was in San Francisco that Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in California, and was subsequently martyred, that the hippie movement of the late 1960s was centered, and that today environmentalism is becoming a way, and a necessity of life. And yet, many of those causes are frustrated. Gay marriage became illegal again when Proposition 8 passed during the last election, and the Gubernator, Arnold Schwarznegger, was frustrated in much of his environmental agenda.
The State is also among the most indebted in the country, and has lurched from budget crisis to crisis. Last year the Governor from the late 1970s, Joe Brown, was re-elected to again work his magic. He has not found the going easy, and is desperately trying to broker a deal by playing on people’s fears of tuition fee hikes, a possibility that seems more real given the outside world than it did when first threatened. Mr Brown’s job may be tough, but he will not have envied Barack Obama much this week either, as the President sought to agree a budget with the Republican minority in the Senate and majority in Congress. The GOP leadership, seeking to mollify the Tea Party activists among its ranks, made some of the most convoluted and confused demands of the President – making the issue first about the size of cuts to be made, then about the principle of federal funding for abortion. No part of the drama seemed an advert for or even an example of democracy, but merely a show of the instability America’s government is capable of.
In San Francisco, where there is controversy over tax breaks given to Twitter in order that the company stay in the city, a similarly contradictory approach to business and to the budget will need to be resolved, but the reality is that while the old industries of farming and importing have their place, the area has risen and fallen with the fortunes of Silicone Valley, the home of information technology innovation. There has been a dot-com boom and bust before, in the late 1990s, with subsequent consequences for the wider economy. The arrival of Google (whose motto is Do No Evil and whose employees are given time to work on whatever takes their fancy provided they present it sporadically), Apple and Facebook brings a peculiarly Californian brand of consumer-centered innovation, their share prices are spiralling with little clear indication of where the value is (Apple excepted).
If the economy is the primary importance of California in the American imagination, crime as an issue has never been too far behind. Between 1934 and 1963, the island of Alcatraz, just over a mile from San Francisco, was the most important federal prison in America. The complete isolation of prisoners from society, coupled with the fact that they could hear the New Year’s parties of the San Francisco Yacht Club was meant to serve as a humiliating reminder of the price of their crime, but for the public, the myth that ‘the Rock’ was escape-proof was more important. It was here that the headline names; Al Capone, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, and the Birdman Robert Stroud were deposited.
Residents of the city had their confidence shaken in the 1940s when a botched escape attempt left the prisoners loose from their cells but trapped in the cell-block. In the resulting firefight, guards were murdered in cold blood and the prison was shelled by marines. When three men ‘went missing’ in 1962 after following a plan that was largely adopted by Stephen King for his Shawshank Redemption, the public were told that they could not have survived the currents in the Bay, which do indeed seem to flow in several directions at once, or the freezing cold, but the truth is that no-one really knows if they made it or not.
During the 1970s much of the United States, and indeed the rest of the world, suffered a rise in crime as economies faltered. The problem became noted in New York, but when offered the part of a no-nonsense cop, the Western actor Clint Eastwood made it a condition of his accepting the part that the setting was moved to San Francisco. He later reasoned that this was meant as a side-swipe at the country’s victim-culture. In other words, San Francisco’s year of permissive-culture had led to too great a tolerance.
Dirty Harry thankfully seems more of a pastiche these days, but if San Francisco is not crime-ridden, it is a city that apparently suffers more than most from homelessness and drug-addiction. A blind-eye is turned to marijuana (a law classifies it as the lowest priority for the City police, on the basis that it cannot be other than a banned substance under federal law), but there is certainly a laxity about other drugs, including alcohol, and quite possibly an under-provision of shelters that has contributed close to an epidemic of homelessness. Unfortunately, the apparent live and let live attitude taken by the authorities means that this is a feature of most American cities that is likely to stay. It is a tragedy of disturbing proportions, the more one thinks about it, although as Mayor Carcetti discovered in The Wire, there tend to be many PR disasters and few rewards in focussing on such an intransigent issue.
If I have dwelt too long on San Francisco’s faults, I do not mean to obscure it’s virtues, nor its value, but merely to point out that San Francisco can be at its best when it considers itself progressive, but can easily be led astray. America’s fortunes are largely dependent on its coastal cities and California is blasé enough not to be bothered by its assumed leadership. Talking of the blasé, the next stop will be Los Angeles, city of entertainment, of gangs, and beaches. Another experience.