A trail of two cities

June 8 2001

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On 25 May 2001, I boarded an immaculate 747-400 Megatop amid all the pomp and clamor of the new San Francisco International Terminal, and emerged eleven hours and sixteen time zones later into the pre-rainy-season gloom of Tokyo’s Narita Airport. In those eleven hours I had transversed more than the empty Pacific: I felt like I had undergone a shift in my understanding of what a city could be.

Morphologies, yes, but also stances and strategies and perhaps most importantly, names. Sharif had given me Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities to read on the flight; one of Jean’s parting gifts had been Karl Taro Greenfeld’s invaluable Speed Tribes. Calvino’s classic is a dialogue between the peripatetic adventurer Marco Polo and the aging emperor Kublai Khan about the nature and protean aspect of those places of human habitation we call cities; the Greenfeld volume is a snarky and revealing travelogue along the Darwinian chain of young Japan’s less demure subcultures, from wannabe Yakuza to "A/V" (porn) starlets to the uber-geeks known as otaku.

daze between stations

The contrast and tension between the two books, and the life of the city I was leaving behind, provoked a thought that didn’t really begin to crystallize until I had been in Tokyo a week.

I was leaving a city that had just emerged from the biggest economic boom of its history, greater still than the one which had occasioned its rise to prominence. I was also leaving a city that had seen much of what made it distinctive in the first place given up to that boom.

I was arriving in a city which had seen more than one cycle of boom and bust in the churn of its history, but which retained a vivid sense of selfhood throughout. It seemed to possess some essential core of identity that persisted throughout the most radical sorts of changes, some pattern that kept reimprinting itself despite the greatest possible variability in the medium in which the pattern coalesced.

And so I came, inevitably, to the matter of names.

“Therefore, the inhabitants still believe they live in an Aglaura which grows only with the name Aglaura and they do not notice the Aglaura which grows on the ground.”

double bubble fever and the shibuya flu

Japan, like Texas, is a nation that insists on its uniqueness, its exceptionalism; it is only fitting that the capital of such a place be equally exceptional. Feudal Edo becomes Tokyo becomes the anime’s cyborg Neo-Tokyo, but in each new molting it only seems to become truer to itself, as if some Platonic Tokyo awaited in its perfect hyperspace, drawing being to becoming in a horizon-spanning act of urban hegemony.

Ever since the 1950s, Tokyo has been expanding at a metastatic boil, annexing landfill from the very sea itself; my map informs me that the spit of city just visible from my office window is formally entitled “The 13th Reclaimed Land,” and I no longer wonder that so many among that school of architecture known as the Metabolists were Tokyoites.

And yet, perversely enough, this city which has been nullified and remade time and again over the last century - by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the B-25 raids that started in early 1942 and the B-29-delivered firestorms of war’s end, even by the unparalleled economic expansion and urban development of the late 50’s and early 60’s - displays a resilient core of selfness.

One gets a real sense of the mercantile bustle and “floating world” shimmer of old Edo in every ersatz Eiffel Tower that pierces the local sky, every utterly transient teenage fad that washes over Shibuya like influenza. Certainly, that is, more of a sense than one has of the rollicking Barbary Coast or bohemian post-war “Frisco” that you might pick up from a stroll among the new live-work lofts of the Mission or the Gaps and Ben&Jerry’s that proliferate unchecked in the Upper Haight.

“The new abundance made the city overflow with new materials, buildings, objects; new people flocked in from outside; nothing, no one had any connection with the former...”

San Francisco seems to have simultaneously located its soul in the glorious past, and definitively cut off the branches of that very past’s organic evolution. And less than any willful act of forgetting, it is the arrival of successive waves of new residents that seems to have most effectively cauterized the stump of history.

Every Wharton MBA piloting a new Z3 through suddenly eased traffic on 101; every Cambodian refugee making do on Section 8, six to a squalid Tenderloin room; every manager rotated in from Atlanta after NationsBank took the reigns at BofA: how much of a sense do any of these people have of the city in which they live? What Tales Of The City will they tell?

life in the subduction zone

The San Francisco I moved to for the first time in late 1990 - moved to precisely for its reputation for openness and its willingness to tolerate the experimental, the provisional, and the frankly weird - is nowhere to be found among the lineaments of the new city. Not in the painted ladies embalmed for the picture postcard, not in the spanking new redbrick baseball stadium in the heart of SoMa, absolutely not in the fondly recreated and thoroughly neutered decadence peddled as street life in the Haight or the Castro.

Where is the Bay Area of Emperor Norton, of The Maltese Falcon, of the General Strike, of the Beats and the Merry Pranksters, of the Manson Family and the Black Panthers and the SLA, of Harvey Milk, even of the Avengers and the Dead Kennedys and Survival Research Laboratories? That place seems rather thoroughly subducted, pushed under beneath two or three successive waves of arrivees, none of whom came to town seeking anything but Opportunity.

I have come to wonder if anyone who touches down at SFO from here on in, who rolls down those last westbound miles of Interstate 80 on balding tires and the final fumes of an empty tank will ever again find “The City” anything but a place with mild weather, good jobs, pretty hills and an unusual degree of ethnic diversity. I wonder, and as someone who loved the kinky, self-important peacock city I originally moved to, despair a little. San Francisco, from the founding of its mission, retains the one name; yet its legendary past seems lost to the present in a way the spirit of Edo does not.

“And the more the new city settled triumphantly into the place and the name of the first...the more it realized it was growing away from it, destroying it no less rapidly than the rats and the mold.”

- all quotes from the Harvest edition of Invisible Cities, translated from the Italian by William Weaver.

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