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Explore it, exploit it, understand its very nature

by Joel Pomerantz

June 17th, 2010

I love being asked why I’ve chosen to live in San Francisco. I’ve been heard to say, “Better than having snozen to die elsewhere!” (For you word algorithm geeks, choose : chosen ∷ snooze : snozen.)

But let’s take a step back and look at who we all are, living here.

It’s rare to find a crowd of humans in this city that’s made up of lifetime locals. When it comes to the subset most often of interest to me—innovators—it’s no different, and includes a big part of the population. Many native-born are generally glad to have hatched into a froth of creative innovation. Meanwhile in great numbers, people deciding as adults under their own power to live in San Francisco task themselves with the ambitious infusion of ideas. The result is a stimulating bubbly specific to San Francisco.

San Francisco is where “cultural creatives” flock, trying out their ambitious world-changing ideas. Whether by wonderful coincidence or some grand scheme, no other place is like it. Over the century and a half of its existence, people have chosen to move here—or stay here—to carry out lives notably different from lives led elsewhere. And I mean led.

But it isn’t mere coincidence. When I was picking where to live, I specifically decided to join the ferment. That decision coincides with a similar path taken by countless others because of attractive local features that predispose us in this geographical direction.

Sure, we’re responding to the schemes of many powerful people over the years—schemes like Brannan’s news sheets announcing the Gold Rush, distributed more on the East Coast and in London than locally as a way of attracting adventurers, laborers and a commercial market to make him richer, or schemes like De Young’s Midwinter Fair of 1894 to advertise the mildness of our inclement weather, with similar goals. But in the mix of motivators drawing ambitious and dreamy folks from far and wide, these grand schemes are minuscule compared to the collective effects of the compounded culture that has been created. And even smaller when compared to the grandness of the Bay Area’s natural environment that motivates exploiters and communers alike.

I’m suggesting that the two real magnets are the accumulated culture and the specific local nature.

As an example of the former, allow me to use my own reasons for having picked SF. I wanted to be someplace where I didn’t have to work as hard to make a big difference, and I wanted that difference to have its impact beyond my local space. In San Francisco, there are four potency enhancers for social justice efforts acting to multiply the effects of our creativity and problem-solving:

1) community moral support: people are open-minded and welcoming
2) being a hub: people come and go widely
3) being a fishbowl: people watch what we do
4) we publish

These are the cultural vestiges left by many generations of unusual San Franciscans. (And I don’t mean 25-year generations of birth cycles; rather, innovation and boom cycles come through in highly accelerated intervals, which is why it may take six birth generations to be a true New Englander, but only six years to be a San Franciscan.)

You can easily see that my personal concern with “accumulated culture” comes out of values expressed in the progressive social justice crowd. They are the crowd that caused me to migrate, in particular those who are wishing to invert the long-standing power structures of the world that strongly favor the unscrupulous, the profit-driven and the chronically wealthy (often one and the same).

But similar motivations to migrate have influenced those with other interests, even the many powerful supporters of the status quo who reside here, along with their regional counterparts in places like the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

The second magnet, drawing keen minds here, is nature. As any good magnet (or magnet metaphor), it not only draws, it repels. “Earthquakes.” That’s the one-word-answer so often given to the question, “Why don’t you move here?”

The drama of such natural forces, along with a slight but enduring “wild west” reputation, helps to maintain an active repellent. Only those seriously interested in being here choose to. A continuous influx of diverse adventurers dating to the Gold Rush dynamically form the mood of the population.

With newly measured global impacts from human activity, we live in a loudly ticking time of increasing awe associated with the reactive strength of nature. In San Francisco, the awesome power of nature has been, from its start, more apparent than in most well-known cities.

We’re surrounded by one of the richest ocean ecosystems, the Farallons Sanctuary. Our encirclement is completed by unevenly developed bays and assertive mountain ridges, ever visible except when obscured by the even more insistent blasting fog.

[I hereby propose a three-season vocabulary in San Francisco: ‘Chança rain season’, ‘Blasting fog season’, and ‘October’, which normally starts in September.]

We have wild mammals of nearly a ton swimming into tourist zones without hesitation. In an hour or two on bicycle we can reach dozens of canyons spread with unsurpassedly massive trees. We’ve got cliffs, dunes and springs undermining and overwhelming urban infrastructure without pause.

If that’s not enough, we have dynamic nature in our own bodies, brains and the artifacts of our everyday lives. This lends no extra power to the attraction reeling us to San Francisco, but much power to the importance of understanding our relationship to nature.

And that is what Thinkwalks is about. People came here. Why? How did this place come to be the city it is out of the nature it still is? The city is a design printed on natural fabric. Thinkwalks explore the strange interweaving of urban and natural history, with all its tangles and tatters.

For more than a decade, I’ve led occasional tours as a sort of hobby. In late 2009, I realized that in among all the cultural artifacts that are so important here, there is a natural dynamic most locals crave in their lives. Once I realized that, it was only a small step to shift my tours from their former focus on visitors to their obvious clientele: nerdy San Franciscans.

I fervently hope that the discoveries and discussions generated by Thinkwalks add to the opportunity to invert and subvert the destructive paradigm we face now. And I hope my small innovation has some impact on cultural priorities as we struggle against great odds to survive.

I may as well be explicit: please help San Francisco’s subversive values to endure as we face all disasters; please integrate humbling natural forces into your analysis of your role in the world; and most of all, please have compassion for one another in light of the lessons of chaotic history—a drama in which there is no separation between human and natural forces.

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