Well, Look At Us

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Every single day in my hometown, and without much incident, close to a million people get out of their beds, bathe, eat something and get themselves to work, or school, or somewhere else they believe to be worth getting to.

Some climb, (granted, with fingers crossed, perhaps), onto our city’s public transit system, called MUNI, or the regional transit system, called BART, or onto AMTRAK, or Caltrain, or into employer-provided buses, or their own cars, or bikes, or even walk; again, mostly without incident, to speak of. Now, MUNI can be insanely crowded, late and filthy. By all rights, there could be riots on the rails every day about some offense or other but there are just not. Mostly, my fellow San Franciscans and I get on, get off and get about our business.

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We go to workplaces and schools and studios and stores to buy food – or maybe eat out with our friends and families on Sunday nights, or special occasions. We’re productive, hardworking people, just like most people in most cities are, trying to do well by ourselves, our families and succeeding generations.

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In my hometown, we residents and our families originally come from places all over the globe – China, Russia, Italy, England, Cameroon, Indonesia, Cambodia, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Japan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and even Greece, like my family did. We’re Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Sikhs, Muslims and Druids. And, miracle of miracles, there’s no faith-based violence to speak of – not even much evidenced expression of faith-based hatred, anger or enmity. And this isn’t because there’s no overt expression of religious belief or practice – there are more places of worship in San Francisco than bars (If you know anything about this city, you know that is a significant statistic.) – as some would have you believe.

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And we’re people of all genders and sexual orientations and identities. And – witness any public gathering – widely diverse aesthetics as well.

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This city – any large and diverse city – only works because we collectively agree to accept, appreciate, and even celebrate the diversity in which we live and pretty much let other people get on with their own lives as they themselves see fit.

(Go in peace, my brother.)

The fact that we try, day in and day out, is both extraordinary and startlingly common to all modern cities of any scale.  The fact that it works and has worked here for over 150 years, without widespread insanity and violence, day in and day out, is nothing short of absolutely miraculous.

There’s a lesson in this, for those who care to hear it.

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What Makes a City Livable?

Before the advent of industrial-era construction machinery and the widespread availability of automobiles, cities were, of necessity, built to human scale. Buildings were smaller because of what it took to erect them, and cities were organized around neighborhoods, because people moved either on foot or rudimentary public transit.

Look in our cities’ older neighborhoods, to the extent they still exist, and see how livable those places can look. They were made for people, for communities.

Contrast them, for example, with the new, walled-in styrofoam-faux neighborhoods along the San Francisco Bay Area’s I-580 corridor. Every component of housing stock looks identical to every other. You must do freeway driving to get anything or anywhere. There is no feeling of place and, not coincidentally, no place where neighbors meet.

There is a place in the heart of San Francisco, down the street from the financial district, a short walk from AT&T Park, where the baseball Giants play, a nice stroll from the Embarcadero and the historic Ferry Building, adjacent to the convention center.

It is the Yerba Buena Center, a place of quiet beauty, a children’s playground, hundred year-old carousel, ice rink, bowling alley, theater, children’s museum, open space where office workers come to lunch in the fresh air.

One piece of art depicts a human standing atop the earth. Sit on a nearby chair and the human sits. Stand and the human rises. No user manual, no instructional signs. You find the secret chair by exploring. (Hint: here’s a picture.)

To the extent they are, cities are livable because they’re made to be, on purpose.