Why San Francisco doesn’t need to be the loneliest city.
When I moved to San Francisco 10 years ago it was easy to make friends. I’d chat with a dog-walker in the local park and we’d arrange to meet for drinks the following week. I’d sit next to someone in a café and we’d hit it off and they’d invite me to their birthday party. I’d see someone around the neighborhood and a hello would turn into how are you would turn into a hike on Crissy Field.
I’m not overly friendly. I’d come from the UK where you just don’t talk to people if you are not introduced or don’t share the same school, class, or social background (yes, it can still sometimes be like that). At first, this constant chatter was off-putting; all the insistent talking in the line at the check-out, in groups milling outside a restaurant waiting for a table, on the bus on the way to work (though the MUNI stories are usually of a different ilk), was annoying and unwanted. But I adapted and started to like it and it made it easy being new here, making friends and building relationships.
But now I suspect it’s different. San Francisco is building out of itself all those accidental meet-ups, of human contact and varied social interactions. Living here, we’ve crafted a situation where you no longer need to leave your apartment, for anything. Not for food, or entertainment, not for toilet roll, or milk, not for people. You no longer need to engage with life on the street, with those also living around you. Strolling along, checking out texts — not looking up and about.
Think about it, waiting for coffee, are you looking down at your phone, reading this on your device, are you even aware of the people next to you? Do you talk to people who are not your family (far away), your colleagues who you are forced to spend time with, or friends made in the recent past, at schools of various grades and levels? This city is doing away with the most valuable commodity of all, the people who call it home. That city I fell in love with all those years ago, the people that made it’s unique, crazy, wonderful self, is maybe becoming the most lonely city of all.
The writer Ruth Whippman (also a Brit) argues in her forthcoming book America the Anxious that the single most important thing for our mental health and happiness is social connection, not mindfulness or working out (two go-to’s for well-being in this city), so the very thing that we’re neglecting in our lives and negating in our cities. Which leaves San Francisco susceptible not just to loneliness and social isolation, but depression, stress, anxiety, and dare we say it boredom and disconnection.
They used to say, people move to New York to be someone, to Los Angeles to be famous, and to the Bay Area to be themselves. But is that still true? It seems that people now come here for the lure of career and tech and money. That other piece, that makes San Francisco unique — that part of being and thinking about who we are, and the relationship between self and society that has long fascinated San Franciscan’s (think about those hippies long ago), did that go the way of flowers in the hair? Do people now esssentially come to San Francisco to be by themselves?
This is a city that has a responsibility to make thinking about people it’s core. The ideas that are being cultivated here have an impact: what is produced in San Francisco has global ramifications. People look to San Francisco as a city that incubates ideas and pushes them out into the world. As a place that has liked to talk about how to live life well, and that has been as comfortable talking about emotional intelligence as Web 2.0, San Francisco needs to keep its self-awareness and sense of self.
It needs a cohesive place to discuss issues of how to live a meaningful life, or how make a difference, or how to figure out what really matters — the big questions of everyday life — with each another. But it’s kicking out its artists and cultural producers, it’s makers and thinkers, those people and part of society that has traditionally taken on that role.
We’re developing Storefront Institute so that it can fill some of that void, be a fixed point in this shifting landscape, to provide a space for conversation and ideas, for making and doing, for learning and reflection, for people coming together. And we have some good company to do this: Case for Making over in the Outer Sunset, Workshop in NoPA, 18 Reasons in the Mission and Makeshift Society in Hayes Valley, amongst them. You just need to seek these places out and make sure that they thrive too.
And for all the above, yes, there’s probably an app, and use it, but not in isolation of your community and the city that surrounds you, that you loved once and can love again. But only if you step back into it, in all its messy and complicated and fascinating and, yes, probably inconvenient and not user-centric ways.
By Claire Fitzsimmons, C0-Founder and Director Storefront Institute, a new cultural start-up that curates innovative programs about the practice of our everyday lives. Want to know when Storefront’s next sessions are, sign up for our newsletter.