All the places I’ve lived have been pretty cool. Even D.C., which I, admittedly, rag on all the time, is a beautiful city that’s full of intelligent people who really believe in what they’re doing. D.C. is actually pretty underappreciated as a cultural center; people see it as a faceless place where young people go to do their time before going to law school. But it’s more than that. It’s a city with its own history and culture and intellectual life. D.C. doesn’t really need defending, though, because it’s always going to be there. Its importance and its role in our nation are pretty well understood.
The Bay Area, though, has a curious inferiority complex that makes it difficult to talk about the place without sounding like you’re either for it or against it. I’m really not sure what its deal is. Maybe the problem is that it’s full of the kind of people who’d ordinarily move to New York if they weren’t chained to Silicon Valley by their high-paying tech jobs. As a result, they have to spend all of this time convincing people that the Bay Area is just as good as New York. That it’s got just as much cultural shit and LGBT shit, and that the tech industry is so exciting and vibrant that it’s just fostered a level of switched-on living that you can’t get anywhere else in the country.
Whatever. New York is New York. It’s 8.4 million people in 305 square miles. You can get a certain kind of cosmopolitan urban living there that you cannot get elsewhere in the United States (though you can get it in London, Paris, Madrid, Mumbai, Tokyo, and, probably, many other world cities).
I’m used to thinking of the United States as a fairly homogenous place, because people move around so much that every place seems to include people from pretty much everywhere. Even people who think of themselves as ‘native’ Californians rarely have roots that go back further than a generation.
But it is surprising how much difference there can be between places.
For instance, I’m always struck by how frenetic San Franciscans are in the way they conduct their social lives. Everything is oriented around public events and happenings: Pride; Burning Man; Outlands; Folsom Street Fair, etc. And every party that you go to or every bar that you hit needs to be the biggest and best thing going on that night. My friend was joking, last weekend, that every San Franciscan makes three plans every Saturday and only chooses at the last minute what they’re actually going to do. It’s like every night is New Year’s Eve. It’s a very different pace of life from D.C. or Baltimore.
I’m not sure what drives that. Maybe it’s simply a surfeit of money and a lack of time. People have enough money to make sure that their leisure activities can be beautiful and unique, and they have so little free time that they need to make sure every free moment is memorable.
In Oakland (which is a city on the other side of the bay from San Francisco), life is different. There’s no pretense that the bar you’re going to is the best or that this rave is the place to be. Nothing is singular and nothing is branded; everything is just an example of itself–another house show, another warehouse party. They might have names, but does anyone really distinguish strongly between this one and that one?
Which is not to say that Oakland doesn’t take itself seriously. It just needs to do it in a different way. More than in San Francisco, there’s a certain homogeneity to Oakland (or at least to the young and white part of Oakland). Everyone’s connected, somehow, to everyone else. Everyone knows the same names, the same touchstones. Everyone goes to the same bars and the same cafes. I can’t count the number of people who’ve told me, after I told them where I lived, “Oh, that’s near the Actual Cafe, right?”
There is literally nothing special about the Actual Cafe. Neither the food nor the coffee nor the ambiance are particularly out-of-the-ordinary. It’s just a cafe that exists in a part of Oakland where there’s not much else. And people know about it because this is a part of Oakland where young people without much money tend to live.
Oakland has a certain simplicity. It’s a place where there are only a few spots. Only a few bars. Only a few clubs. I’m not saying I’ve been to them all, but I probably could go to them all. Everything is smaller. More comprehensible. Less consumerist. Less affected.
The American dream is to work hard and make money and own your own home. But there’s also a California dream that exists alongside the American one. And the California dream is to not work very hard and to live somewhere sunny and wake up at 11 AM with a mild hangover and then ride your bike to your friend’s house for brunch.. And I think Oakland thinks of itself as a place where that dream, more than elsewhere else in the Bay Area, is still alive.
Which is not to say that it’s better than other places. Other places have their own dreams. But, to me, it always felt like I was cut off from the DC dream and the Baltimore dream and even the San Francisco dream in a way that I am not cut off from the Oakland dream.