The Fashionable City

“We all have a face

That we hide away forever

Then we take them out and show ourselves

When everyone has gone

Some are satin, some are steel

Some are silk and some are leather

They’re the faces of the stranger

But we love to try them on.”

Billy Joel, “The Stranger”

I must say I am not a very fashionable person. I really never saw the use for it, to the point of letting me wife choose my clothes for me. Sure, I have a style I like, but I would never pick up a mens’ magazine looking for trends, or go shopping to browse the new garments.

I grew up in a relatively poor part of the United States, and most of the kids in my high school did not dress well. I was almost without a concept of fashion. My parents became convinced that quality jeans and athletic shoes were good value, or I would have worn K-Mart shoes and pants my entire life. Only when I went to college did I become exposed to my friends wearing good clothes, so to speak. And I never truly bought into that world.

So fashion, while not my forte (see my Costco jeans and free t-shirts) fascinates me as a true outsider. I was watching morning TV for news one day and the fashion segment came on. The expert that day was of course decked out in clothing that cost more than my whole closet. The type of look that screams,”Don’t look at me, you can’t afford me.” Anyway, she had perfectly coifed straight black hair and was wearing  a gray dress. However, she was sporting a pair of brown boots, that totally stood out. When the  interviewer asked about them, she quipped, “It’s okay to wear one brown accessory when wearing black.” I immediately thought, “And away we go.”

Sure enough, within the month, the bus stops on the way to the financial district began to fill up with the best dressed women commuting downtown with black suits and brown boots. It finally culminated in all the workers sporting the same look, in a Pavlovian lemming type of way. I was amazed.

Years ago, I complained about this to a friend of mine, who had a few more dollars in his pocket than me, and he proudly told me a pair of Doc Marten’s was a way to prove you were in the loop. Check out the shoes, and make sure the person is legit, so to speak. I immediately stopped the discussion. It was an alien comment. Probably turned on my Clash CD and opened a history book. Probably explains why my job interviews sometimes ended rather quickly.

One thing that has changed a great deal over time in San Francisco is the overall wealth, but the fashion has almost remained static. Why? I am convinced that it is the true desire to be “urban”, to truly stand out and fit in to the new “urban environment”. I used to be a denizen of San Francisco’s Lower Haight, a real scene of working class hipsters, who were really dressed as ragamuffins, usually because we didn’t have money to buy new clothes. This fashion has never really changed, but the clothing is now bought in chic boutiques and pre-ripped. It actually looks authentic, but to a true observer, it stands out like a sore thumb. Then the mouth will open and start chatting about reality TV or shopping at Whole Foods and give it away. This ain’t your grandmother’s urbanite.

It even shows up in the gym. The amount of times I have observed a young woman wearing a punk rock inspired pink spandex outfit is humorous. Wearing the knit wool hat on the hot humid day always strikes me as style over comfort. Or the times I’ve heard someone bragging about living on Courtney Love’s old block, wearing a pre-faded Ramones hoodie, while working at a tech start-up is also good for a laugh. The revolution is available for purchase online.

The idea of veering from the American Dream seems to be dying a fashionable (intended) death. Why rebel when you can pretend to? Fashion also contributes to the idea that you can have everything. The corporate lawyer can dress as a punk rocker at night. The  financial planner can don the designer overalls and work his or her organic garden on the weekend. It isn’t selling out anymore. Fashion is the ultimate tool when putting on the left-hand turn signal while going right. The trouble is, they are increasingly crowding out the people who lived the dream in its entirety, not as a costume to take out for social media consumption in the downtime. Sorry Mr. Joel, The Stranger has discovered Instagram. I’ve heard tech types brag that they are the perfect inheritors of San Francisco’s rebellious past. Alrighty then.

I truly think each generation has its rebelliousness. It is a good thing. I think I would be disappointed if my kids didn’t question authority to an extent. I really don’t want them to buy the Kool-Aid hook, line and sinker. But I get the feeling that there are a lot of parents out there who are pushing their kids in the success only direction. And this is a suburban attitude, no doubt. Political Science is bad, Engineering is good. History is useless, Financial Planning is wonderful. And so on. I get the feeling that our cities are filling with this suburban demographic, and the word urban is fading into the dustbin of history. And I wonder who our overall conscience will be in the future.

When I first moved here, I didn’t consider myself a city person. I had no car, and it seemed to be a good place to start my life in California. I immediately fell in love with the lifestyle. Car-free, walking, no malls. And most of my friends were in some type of job that was not a true career path. Most were in school or producing some type of art. Now? The place I moved to has almost disappeared. Instead, this demographic now shows up with the advanced tech credentials and resume already entrenched into the system. I worry that the places to move in America to foster creativity outside of employment are drying up. But the new demographic looks,  so rugged in that hoodie, so hey, why am I complaining?

Urban: A Word Losing Its Meaning

Urban.

It is a word that has been bothering me lately, not because of what it means, but by the way it has been co-opted by the conquering suburbanites. Yes, we are all suburban now. Trouble is, the last ones to realize it will be those conquering suburbanites, who will only have each other to make fake gangsta signs to when the last bohemian and minority San Franciscans are kicked out.

Richard Florida,who has championed the term “Creative Class” for the millennials, as only a proud dad who watches his kids manipulate the “dang computer so well” could. According to Florida, this group has rediscovered the city and craves walkable neighborhoods and dense living. They are improving it, or, suburbanizing it.

Gee Mr. Florida, most of the cities this creative group has “rediscovered” had rental vacancy rates near zero to begin with. Meaning, people have been living in cities for a long time, just not the type of people the “creative class” were raised among. Causing housing prices to soar in once affordable neighborhoods. Did a member of the “creative class” just get hit jaywalking while looking at Tinder? Don’t get me started…

Most of the movement of millennials into the cities has been spurned by misguided growth policies all over the United States. The suburbanization movement hit a major snag as the sprawl just moved too far away. There are means to move even farther from the city core, but Not In My Back Yard (NIMBYism) quashed most of these means. Once the suburban home was built, the new homeowners quickly joined the movements to make sure no one else could build, preserving property values, and just pushing people farther out. To where there are less freeways and even less transit options.This was never sustainable.

In reality, I have only lived in suburbia once, and the people I live amongst didn’t consider themselves to be suburbanites. It was living in Marin County, a beautiful county that starts on the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. In their minds, they were preserving their small towns.

The reason I was there in the first place was a San Francisco eviction. My landlords decided to “move in” to the house we were renting during the first dot-com era, and all of us scrambled to find affordable housing. After struggling to find a place in SF for almost two years, I ended up in a room off a garage in Fairfax that smelled like paint. In some ways, I looked forward to living somewhere new. But I did learn that I belonged in the city.

However, I found the experience illuminating. The way people lived, and how they thought they lived, was is such confused juxtaposition that I laughed. One candidate for town council billed himself as “pro-family, anti-growth”. Don’t try to ask where his kids will live with this strategy. Most lived over 50 miles further out. The younger ones however, lived in San Francisco. I know because while biking home at night on the weekends, I noticed the driveways of the homes were filled with cars sporting SF parking permits on the bumpers. They seemed to return to the womb to get laundry done and pick up food I guess. And the public transit they were so high on didn’t refer to busses in Marin. But I digress.

What I noticed was the reliance on the car for transportation while assuring themselves that expanded freeways were not needed to allow this lifestyle to continue. Fairfax was a beautiful small town, but vibrant is was not. So much of the retail district was almost low rent. The reason? Lack of parking and retail prices. I sold lottery tickets in a downtown store. A major component of our clientele only bought lottery tickets, which I guarantee is not a huge money-maker. They would brag about how they had preserved Fairfax and Marin from development, and kept the chains out. As they reached into their wallets though, the receipts would fall out. Where were these from? Trader Joe’s, Macy’s, Safeway, Costco, etc. The stores where they really shopped.

One observation I made right away was this reliance on the shopping mall. These malls or districts were all over, but mostly right next to Route 101, the only true highway in Marin. Marin could use multiple freeways, but the locals had blocked them in the name of preservation only to assure  the type of traffic sprawl on local roads a person living in LA would find unbearable. By the way, the local transit system is mostly empty during the day. I used it and found it remarkably good. But most high school kids had never been on it in their lives.

My joke about Marin to new visitors is to concentrate on the retail stores lining Rte 101as your friend is bragging about the so-called preservation of Marin. Truth is, you are on your way to the hills, to where Marin dreams of itself. In reality, 101 is what Marin is. A bedroom community of suburbanites whose reliance on cars and conveniences needed for this reality. It is far from small town living. But they will get home and immediately discard the Armani suit and don the tie died tee-shirt and sandals.

Which brings me back to my original thought. The absolute mess of the suburban  model and NIMBYism. These suburbs that ring the cities in the Bay Area are all no growth zones, and also have voted down all transit issues presented to them. Silicon Valley, the famous tech center, builds practically no housing, while adding jobs and services all the time. BART, the Bay Area’s regional rail commuter system was kept out of Marin, that community known for environmentalism and SUVs.

So what do you do when you run out of land? The nightmare stories I hear about spending multiple hours in the car in sprawl to find a place to live in the Bay Area are horrifying. People are living two hours from SF commuting on roads not suited to this traffic, because the inner suburbs voted these down. NIMBYism. The only true option is the cities.

I have lived in the Bay Area for 27 years now and can attest I do not like it overall. But I live in SF and love the lifestyle in the city, or really, the old lifestyle. Biking, transit, shopping local etc. In reality, this is all changing as the suburbanites “discover” urban living. The way we read about transit and millennials? Puh-lease. The busses are empty at night, cars are crammed in every nook and cranny of the city. The most desirable neighborhoods in the city offer quick access to the freeway, like the Mission. As a matter of fact, along with the special busses shuttling techies to six-figure careers are expensive sports cars crammed on the freeways commuting to Silicon Valley. And let’s not forget the service workers who drive late-model cars commuting from even farther away. Why? Rapid transit (see the term rapid) is nonexistent. And  Silicon Valley has little affordable housing. The reverse commute to the suburbs is in full flight. It is easier to drive to the suburbs out of San Francisco at night than to drive back from them.

Multiple problems fuel this in San Francisco. One is Proposition 13 that limits property taxes in San Francisco. Home owners have no incentive to keep property prices down. Rent control fuels this as well. Renters are protected from rental spikes, so homeowners and renters find themselves limiting local growth. Also, there is little incentive to move in this system. Buying a new house or moving only brings a huge expense, even if it means accepting a long commute. In no way does it help foster the type of development needed in the Bay Area as a whole. It just accelerates a housing shortage, air pollution and sprawl.

But building housing has drawbacks as well. The housing shortage has created little land barons, landlords that bought property years ago, and fund extravagant lifestyles on this wealth. Also, those buying into property right now could be devastated during a “market correction”. So even an attempt to pop the bubble would have major significance. The fact that I should have bought one apartment building with the money I spent educating myself says it all.

The Bay Area is now experiencing a huge economic boom. These workers and immigrants need places to live. We do not build them. Our kids need places to live. We do not build them, as we ridicule them for living in their parents’ basement. The only huge developments are happening within our cities. They are not affordable developments. And figuring out legal ways around rent control.

San Francisco has weak rent control. There are simple ways around it. One easy way is to sell rental housing to those looking to own residential property. These are called Owner Move-In (OMI) evictions, and they are devastating to those evicted. It is the equivalent to throwing someone on the street in SF. An apartment eviction is really an eviction from the city to the suburbs. That ex-tenant was most-likely using the city’s transit and local shops, not Amazon and the mall on the way home from the suburbs.

One noticeable trend is the closing of local businesses that used to thrive. Small corner stores, electronics shops, and local restaurants. When the new shop that displaced the closed shop moves in? The term “Urban” appears. The small liquor store becomes Urban Wine Shop. The closed diner becomes Urban Spoon. The electronics store becomes Urban Electronics. The local pub becomes Urban Brewery.And so on. Trust me, the owners were probably not raised in a city. All with prices the old-time residents can’t afford.

Why? So the newly urban can distinguish themselves from their birthplace, to be different while simultaneously chasing the same American Dream.  But to also maintain the suburban standards, and to isolate themselves from the rest of us. To wear the Urban fashion (see Urban Outfitters, a favorite in mall complexes) and show they have arrived. Although in reality, the city has been here the whole time. We long-time residents just never needed the medal on our chest. That “U” was almost a scarlet letter. The city is where the suburbs exported and kept their riffraff for years. Imagine the horror when we show up in the suburbs that shunned us. Demanding they change their ways. They’ll wish they had built that housing for their kids and service workers then.

The Full Circle of Irish History

I have to admit, my favorite thing to do on Twitter is to be a smart-ass, but my second favorite thing to do by a mile is to connect with people and obtain knowledge relatively easily. I have learned a lot about hockey in particular on Twitter, but I also keep up with politics and international trends in general.

For those who know me, I have a great interest in Irish history and culture. It started as a semi-hobby garnered from hanging out in San Francisco’s Irish community (well, bars), then into a trip to Ireland where I maximized my experience by voraciously researching the country. It has culminated in my marriage to a woman from County Clare and a duty to teach the history of both my native country, the United States and Ireland, as my children are dual nationals.

Which brings me to Twitter. Two of my favorite follows are David McWilliams(@davidmcw) and Matthew Barlow(@Matthew_Barlow), both fascinating academics and informative. Big time #FFs. Mr. McWilliams is an Irish economist, writer, and media personality in Ireland and very informative about the current state of affairs in Ireland and how it pertains to worldwide economic affairs. Mr. Barlow is a Canadian historian with a very good take on oral history and the histories of Ireland and Montreal. He’s also a Habs fan, but don’t judge him too harshly. Both have credentials that dwarf mine.

Both came out with posts on Ireland this week, and although on slightly different areas of Irish history, they piqued my interest. McWilliams brought up the referendum currently coming up in England calling for the United Kingdom to pull out of the European Union(http://www.davidmcwilliams.ie/2015/04/20/english-nationalism-could-result-in-a-united-ireland ). Barlow wrote how depressing it can be to teach Irish history because of how complicated it is distinguishing heroes and villains.( http://matthewbarlow.net/2015/04/) In abridged history, this is easily accomplished. As you dig deeper though, the truth emerges. We share the same opinion on this matter.

McWilliams brought up the welling up of English nationalism with a return to a more insular foreign policy. It has also coincided, and most likely has been increased by a failed referendum on Scottish independence from the U.K. His opinion was that the current mood in the England could make Northern Ireland less hesitant to join the Republic of Ireland. I whole-heatedly agree.

The interesting difference between English nationalism and most other European countries is the creeping xenophobia of English opinion. Scottish independence would rely on remaining in the EU. When Slovakia demanded independence, the Czechs paid no heed, and both joined the EU with barely a bother. Even countries proposing independence from their current nation-state, Catalonia comes quickly to mind, rely on remaining in the EU. England wants to go it alone.

Without much research, I would ascertain the mood of those running the London financial markets are concerned. I would also think most English involved in any type of business involving Europe to be similarly concerned. But the mood of the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish has to be wary as well.

When negotiating Irish history, it is easy to forget that the Irish voted in U.K. elections and sent MPs to Parliament before independence. It is easy to forget that most Irish felt a certain loyalty to the Monarchy, mostly Protestant Irish, but many Catholics as well. The original participants in the Easter Rebellion were booed by Dubliners waving Union Jacks as they were hauled away to prison, escorted by British troops because they needed protection. The popular goal of the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond at the time of the rebellion was the reopening of the Irish parliament which had been dissolved in 1801, not the total break that happened after World War I.

The horrors of the Irish rebellion that set fear alight in Northern Ireland prompted the U.K. to carve a rump state from historic Ulster to create a majority Protestant Irish state attached to motherland. While you can argue this decision from many angles, one such reason was to protect the Protestants from further atrocities, and to keep them under the Monarchy, where most wanted to be in the first place. When you analyze how the government under DeValera let the Catholic Church trample the rights and dignity of the Irish people, and let the economy languish in a Third World state of disrepair, you can’t blame them, really? Then the reality of the Troubles? As mentioned, it is truly hard to find heroes and enemies in these conflicts, but I can’t imagine a typical Protestant rushing to put his or her allegiance to the Republic.

But fast forward to 2015. Ireland has taken a great leap forward, partly due to better domestic affairs, but much of this while a founding member of the EU. The economy is much better managed due to the opening of the economy within the EU. The infrastructure alone has visibly improved. And in the North, the border is unguarded, and commerce goes both ways, thanks to the Easter Agreements. But much of this is possible because the U.K. and Ireland are both members of the EU. If the English get their way, and are able to leave the EU (which I doubt), what would this do to the current mood in the Northern Ireland parliament of Stormont? Would the Protestant majority see being governed from Dublin as a better alternative?

The idea of the Irish Republic did not start out as a Catholic idea. It was to create a government for all the citizens on the island. This took a different turn than the founders visualized. Are we coming full circle? Will the growing competence of the state of affairs in the south coupled with the growing disfunction across the Irish Sea bring us a United Ireland. Somewhere, Michael Collins is holding a stout with his fingers crossed.

Brian L. Grieb
@blgrieb