From where I sit in the early morning, huddled under an aging green fleece blanket by the large, drafty, front window of my friend’s apartment on 21st Avenue, I hear the gulls screeching their way down Judah. They seem to follow the streetcar out to the Pacific like so many screaming, swirling children. If I glance over my shoulder, I take in a long line of row houses in various shades of yellow, pink, blue, and beige. Thick coils of unattractive power lines criss-cross from one enormous street light to the other and then dart over to the houses themselves, bringing the power required to light the Christmas trees and yellowish front porch lights, clouded with spider webs. There is no grass in this view, only city sidewalks. The more attractive homes boast shrubbery or unusual small trees out front. There are no large, leafy deciduous trees, other than what can be seen of the beautiful foliage in Golden Gate Park, peeking over the rooftops, located just two blocks south.
I distinctly remember seeing this neighborhood for the first time when Matt and I moved to San Francisco in 1997; I found it aesthetically displeasing to say the least. A friend of mine likened it to some strange world in a Dr. Seuss book – and she had spent her life in Berkeley, just across the Bay. Ironically named the Sunset neighborhood – being the foggiest piece of land of San Francisco – it did boast more affordable rentals, proximity to the park, and an impressive business district around 9th Avenue and Irving Street filled with fantastic cuisine, excellent coffee, and wonderful independent shops. So when Baxter was a little over a year old and we realized that raising a child in Marin County (where I was working) did not suit us, we found a relatively (for San Francisco) affordable 2-bedroom here in the Sunset. And this is the neighborhood we happily called home until moving to Chicago eighteen months ago.
This window I sit by, it could easily be overlooking the last street we lived on in this neighborhood, which is 5 blocks directly east. It’s even located in the same spot on the west side of the street. We have had the mind-blowing good fortune of staying here – rather than a hotel – while my friend is on a ski trip with her husband; they are allowing us to use their flat as a home base for the San Francisco portion of our California vacation.
And so we walk by the school where Baxter went to kindergarten on our way to a favorite restaurant or to visit friends who still live just a couple of blocks away. Matt sees the school’s garden, completed, and marvels over all that has been created around some large rocks he once volunteered to haul over to that part of the playground, where visionaries planned a garden that didn’t yet exist. Until now.
With the kids back down at my parents’ for a couple of days without us, Matt and I walk down Irving St. and express delight over tiny shops that are somehow still in business, and shock over old favorites that no longer exist. Quietly, we take in new awnings and business logos. We eat dinner in a fabulous new restaurant that just months ago was a favorite cafe, sitting now at a table that has a familiar view of the park but has been completely transformed. Looking out at the same intersection of 9th and Lincoln while eating beautifully prepared fresh fish instead of a scone and a latte.
And so, as I sit under this green blanket and listen to the familiar N-Judah roar by, seagulls screeching in its wake, I am acutely aware of what San Francisco is to me now. It’s a beautiful city full of friends, family, and memories. But also a place where I now have an almost constant inner struggle: how can I take in all that is new – and simultaneously appreciate all that is old?
If I were a person who was purely fueled by nostalgia, I would have refused to go into that fish restaurant last night; there was a part of me that resented the café for closing down, for not warning me in Chicago that this was going to happen, and somehow blamed the restaurant for my loss. It’s easy to resent the sense of surprise we feel about the changes that occur in a beloved city that we only visit once or twice a year. But we’d heard that it’s a great new restaurant – friends in the neighborhood are excited about it – and when I stopped to think about it, I realized that at the end of the day, I would prefer to grow and change right along with San Francisco.
Even from afar.