Diversity in close proximity

My first reaction to San Francisco was awe at the social traffic. The city is so small, there are so many people, and all levels of society seem to collide right on the street.

Any downtown Starbucks has smartly-suited men and women sharing lines with others towing shopping carts; MUNI hosts a hodge-podge of city dwellers; the calendar is filled with free, public festivals. I admit I’m using appearances to measure diversity, but I maintain that this city exhibits a lot of it. San Francisco’s hills are more than just a workout; they are a symbol of SF society, the way they touch the sky and return right back in the span of a block. In many ways, I am impressed by this tiny city’s all-togetherness.

As my time in SF progresses, I see a flip side. I’m registering the different neighborhoods as I walk through them. There’s the Marina and the Mission and the Tenderloin and all the other “the” bubbles, each with specific features and reputations. Most stand in stark contrast to each other. I feel it as I move between Noe Valley (so many mothers strolling toddlers) into the Castro (the most famous gay neighborhood in the U.S.) into work in the Mission (blanketed by murals of Hispanic symbols and culture). They overlap, of course, but their divides are clear: I need only open my eyes to the change of people, the style of houses, the writing (if any) on the walls…

This remarkable chemistry of neighborhoods contributes to San Francisco’s hotspot status, but there are other side-effects, too. Aimee and I considered them as we walked toward a bus stop at the top of Pacific Heights, where glittering mansions live. Some of them are just plain gorgeous. Aimee remembered a local study that researched how some families in the Mission were actually oblivious to this neighborhood’s existence at all, just north of them. We realized: Well, would they need to come up here? Still, it was strange. There is evidence that demographic groups can be extremely unaware of each other, even within miles of each other. Then, we boarded the 24, where I scanned many faces of very different individuals, each in their own little worlds, traveling momentarily together.

I’m enchanted by the idea of San Francisco’s neighborhoods – distinct in personality, meshing in interesting ways. At the same time, some differences are more entrenched, more socioeconomic and less picture-perfect. I’m glad I have this chance to live in San Francisco to qualify my presumption that physical proximity alone leads to true cohesion. The community I do see should be credited to our intentional efforts, not being accidentally close by.

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