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May 5, 2008


The nature of the city

Dunes. One of my favorite mental exercises is to stand on a hilltop in San Francisco and try to imagine what the area looked like two hundred years ago. Erase the houses and streets. What would I see? Dunes. Lots of them. All overthe Outside Lands, now home to the Sunset and the Richmond). Even downtown. In the 1840s,

the right-of-way of Market Street was blocked by a sixty-foot sand dune, at the location of the Palace Hotel now, and a hundred yards further west stood a sand hill nearly ninety feet tall. The city soon filled in the ground between Portsmouth Square and Happy Valley at First and Mission Street. The dunes were leveled and the sand used for fill.

These dunes were not the endless reaches of desert sand found in Dune or Lawrence of Arabia. Or the sandy expanses that I grew up with on the East Coast, in places like Jones Beach and Fire Island. San Francisco’s dunes were fairly stable hills, covered with a green lacework of tiny plants, spread like antimacassars over an overstuffed easy chair. Bush lupin. Monkey flowers.

Climb to the top of Turtle Hill, at 15th and Noriega. On a clear day, you can see tomorrow. The majestic scenery contrasts with the poignancy of the view at your feet. Some of these small plants — the dune tansies and the Franciscan wallflowers — are marked for extinction. Although far more humble than the proud and gorgeous rose so beloved by Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince, their fate is no less precarious.

There’s a wonderful website run by Earth Island Institute called Nature in the City. Its goal is

To conserve and restore the nature and biodiversity of San Francisco and connect people with nature where they live.

Good idea! But the preposition in the title is disturbing. And so is the one in the final phrase of the mission statement. “Nature in the City.” “Connect people with nature.”

Not so long ago, people accepted the mind-body dualism proposed by philosophers ranging from Plato to Descartes. The idea was that human beings were composed of two separate entities — the mind and the body — and ne’er the twain shall meet. Made us kinda special, compared with the other, dumber critters of this world.

But no more. Modern science and New Age metaphysics have both demolished the theory. The human mind and body are now taken as a package deal, as one and the same thing.

Now the dichotomy has shifted from inside us to our relationship with the outside world. It’s we versus them. People versus nature. Remember Terence’s old saying, “I am a man, so nothing human is strange to me”? It suggests other things are indeed strange — because they’re nonhuman. The statement lets human beings off the hook for whatever happens in the rest of the world.

This dualism is an issue that the environmental movement is only beginning to address. But as long as we think in terms of a human-nature split, we’re going to have a hard time rectifying the damage that our actions have caused.

The times they are a-changing, perhaps out of necessity. San Francisco “The City That Knows How,” would to well to look slightly to the south. Every year Sustainable San Mateo County issues an “Indicators Report” on the state of the county:

The sustainability of a region typically is measured by markers, or indicators, of community vitality. These include assessments of resources such as air quality, water quality, and biodiversity; social and economic indicators such as housing affordability, crime rates, and unemployment.

Sometimes clichés say it all: We’re all in this together. Sink or swim. That’s the nature of a city.

MediaWatch. It all started in a piece by Carl Nolte published on March 7, called “One Rincon residents are moving in,” where one of the new residents said,

“I feel like an urban pioneer.”

Nolte continued the image, but his tongue seemed rest firmly in his cheek.

Then along came C.W. Nevius, in a column published Sunday. Nevius has found some spirits who are kindred to Nolte’s. One

calls herself a pioneer — ready to take to the edge of the urban frontier, stake out a small piece of property, and hope that it will turn out to be a place they can make a home.

Another, an architect, says,

“They’re homesteaders. Modern homesteaders, charting a new course.”

Nevius chimes in:

They’ve certainly got that pioneering spirit.

Calling gentrifiers “pioneers” is so old hat. Way back in 1996, geographer Neil Smith published a book called The New Urban Frontier. Even then, the term was a bit moldy. Smith notes,

In the language of gentrification, the appeal to frontier imagery has been exact: urban pioneers, urban homesteaders and urban cowboys became the new folk heroes of the urban frontier. In the 1980s, the real estate magazines even talked about “urban scouts” whose job it was to scout the flanks of gentrifying neighborhoods, check the landscape for profitable reinvestment, and, at the same time, to report home about how friendly the natives were. Less optimistic commentators indict the emergence of a new group of “urban outlaws” in connection with inner-city drug cultures.

Moldy or not, words have meaning. In this case, Smith adds,

The term “urban pioneer” is… as arrogant as the original notion of “pioneers” in that it suggests a city not yet socially inhabited; like Native Americans, the urban working class is seen as less than social, a part of the physical environment. [Frederick Jackson] Turner was explicit about this when he called the frontier “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” and although the 1970s and 1980s frontier vocabulary of gentrification is rarely as explicit, it treats the inner-city population in much the same way.

And it still does.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Friday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008