Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Bernal Heights, Neighborhood Nostalgia, Urban Taxidermy

For Christmas my parents gave me a new Arcadia Publishing book about my old SF neighborhood, where they still live.

It is interesting to see the area develop from farmland into a working class neighborhood, and then slowly into a kind of bohemian area. Finally, though you can't really tell it from the pictures, it's evolved further, as housing prices have turned it into essentially a wealthy suburb (I have colleagues who live there for the atmosphere--even more over on Portrero--and reverse commute to our office in Mountain View) with an urban vibe.

I have mixed feelings about the neighborhood's, and the city's evolution--and lack of it. I'm glad that the top of the hill was kept undeveloped, and I enjoy the Victorian/Edwardian/typically-San-Franciscan houses, and I'm sad to see how the Eastern side of the hill, once downright backwoods-y and bucolic, was bulldozed for the 101. On the other hand, is an obsessive conservatism for the physical form of a city really right?--Especially when the result is an artificial shortage of housing, and an affordability crisis that makes it out of reach to many who'd like to live there? If a few blocks of painted ladies were torn down for four-or-five story apartments or condos, it would be an aesthetic loss, but a boon to the city's health. What do we say about a city that has preserved Victorians but exiled the working class, and is quickly shoving the middle out the door?

I am writing this on a visit to southern California. Today, in Torrance, in the middle of a suburban wasteland, I saw a new development--of rowhouses! If Densification can occur in the suburbs (and despite the screams of NIMBY's it is creeping into the Bay Area in such unlikely places as Sunnyvale and Dublin), maybe even San Francisco can escape the paralyzing notion that its neighborhoods achieved a state of physical perfection a half century ago which must be inviolate forever.

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