Thursday, December 15, 2011

The American Prospect

Judith’s and my choice to spend our sabbatical in San Francisco, where we have family and a free place to stay in the SoMa district, has stirred up quite the economic tornado in my psyche.

For those of you familiar with San Fran, you already know that Market, which cuts a northeast to southwest diagonal through the city, was known as “The Slot” for being the location of the first underground metal cable trough in which constantly whirred the cables pulling trolleys up from the waterfront and into the city. North of The Slot is where the rich folk lived and worked and remains home to Union Square, Nob Hill, etc. South of The Slot was where the immigrant communities, the docks, the warehouses, tenement buildings, saloons and gambling halls were to be found (as well as Jack London’s birthplace). That is until the 1960 and ‘70s, when the national phenomenon of “urban renewal” grabbed San Francisco by the throat, shook it a few times, and succeeded in ripping its working class guts out of its downtown area.

Today South of The Slot is known as SoMa or South of Market, mirroring the trendy SoHo (South of Houston) neighborhood in New York City, another converted warehouse district. But what you’ll find in SoMa, instead of the gorgeous and historic cast iron warehouses-cum-expensive lofts and shops of SoHo, are newly built condo-scrapers; the blocks long Moscone Convention Center; and a large mall-like development known as the Yerba Buena Center. And mostly you’ll find high tech conventioneers (lots of ‘em); tourists; and, well, the 1% who can afford to live here.

And for a month, me and Judith.

We’re just up Folsom Street (which for you may conjure up images of Folsom Prison; for me, a gay person from the 1970s, Folsom Street was known as the leather district or, er, the “meat district”) from a fine restaurant named Prospect, a second restaurant launched in 2003 by award-winning chef Nancy Oakes of Boulevard fame. San Francisco today is a foodie’s food town as many fruits, fresh produce, wines, etc. all hail from the surrounding region, and Oakes and her restaurants sit near the zenith of foodie heaven.

The trick with all of this foodie-ness (in which we of course happily partake) is, well, the amount of hunger and homelessness that immediately surrounds it. You can literally cross one block, at 5th Street on Market, and go from fancy-dressed shoppers bustling in and out of the Apple Store, Abercrombie and Fitch, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue to sidewalks empty of any other than men in sleeping bags, blankets, and cardboard on the street.

This is not even to mention that the leather bars and baths anchoring the west end of SoMa were closed by the City in the early 1980s thanks to the AIDS epidemic. That same epidemic considerably weakened the gay component of SoMa’s working class and artist communities, eliminating some of the strongest community resistance that originally existed to the gentrification of this neighborhood.

In light of all of this, the name Prospect captured my imagination.

“Prospect” as a noun means “a. an apparent probability of advancement, success, profit, etc. b. the outlook for the future: good business prospects.” Or how about “something in view as a source of profit,” or “a potential or likely customer, client, etc.”

And then there’s the verb form of the word, also highly appropriate both historically and currently in this neighborhood: “to search or explore (a region), as for gold; to work (a mine or claim) experimentally in order to test its value.”

In other words: to be a gold digger! An optimistic gold digger: a prospector with prospects!

And that’s pretty much who surrounds us now, South of the Slot in SoMa: a lot of people with enough money to make them believe they can and will always have more. Surrounded on all sides by folks who have nothing: not homes, or warm coats, or food to eat. Soup kitchens underfunded by federal budget cuts at the same time they are being overwhelmed by the working poor: people who work full-time but at jobs that don’t pay enough for them to feed their families.

We’re on an island of prosperity kept afloat by the surrounding sea of despair. And I have to tell you, much of the time I feel I'm drowning.

Interestingly, the Latin root of “prospect” is “prospectus” which meant to foresee, to see far off, to watch for / provide for / look out for. What if an “American Prospect” on life could shift from self to other; if we could really look ahead, see the future, and want to provide and look out for each other?

The challenge is crossing The Slot.

It doesn’t sound difficult, but it is filled with whirring machinery which seem to separate these two worlds as widely as if they were on separate continents. Instead of pulling us together, the ceaseless motion of the Slot’s cable divides us--until we trip, stumble, fall into it.

Take for instance how we best know the term “prospectus” today: as “the formal legal document required by the Securities and Exchange Commission about an investment offering for sale to the public.”

So much for the long view.

Might we define an era as “The American Prospect?” Can we cross The Slot?