For Something Burning in the Night
My grandparents were, by and large, emigrants from China who came to Singapore fleeing war (quite literally, in one instance—family lore has it that my maternal grandmother was running from Japanese soldiers when she came to a fork in the road, whereupon the Virgin Mary appeared and guided her to safety. Believe of it what you will. I've always been just the slightest bit skeptical.)
My parents, in contrast, were seeking something other than refuge when they arrived, separately, in Canada. Whatever it is they might have been searching for, I suppose they failed to find, since they returned to Singapore shortly after my birth. Which is all to say that when my sister and I decided to journey west, we were left to chart our own paths through continents, cultures, and all else in between.
Perhaps because of the difficulty in tracing my ancestral history, or possibly because I have lived in six cities spanning three continents in the past decade alone, I have struggled often with the idea of belonging. What does it mean to belong to a place, a city, a country? When does a city transform from merely a place one lives to a place one calls home?
For a long time, the word "home" meant so little to me that I used it to refer to wherever I was spending the night. I hailed hostels and hotels as home, Airbnbs in strange cities, cabins in the woods...home, for me, carried with it no sense of permanence, only comfort and convenience.
When I moved to the Bay, after two transient years in London, and three equally-transient years in New York before that, and four also-transient years in Montreal before that, I told myself that this time would be different. I would set down roots, and do all the things that one does when home is not just a place to lay your head at night. I bought a nice couch, and a typewriter, and even started collecting paper books again, perhaps imagining that if I just accumulated enough stuff I would be compelled to stay.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote about my anxiety at the prospect of moving to, and living in, San Francisco. I was spending a lot of time thinking, then, about a "right to the city" and what that meant both for me, a forever-immigrant, and for those who were fortunate enough to have roots spanning generations. I worried that, in a city so divided, newcomers would be seen as having little to contribute. I worried that I would, in fact, have little to contribute to a place so storied and singular in our collective imaginations.
I have lived in the (East) Bay for almost half a year now. And while I have enjoyed, and am enjoying, the many marvels of Northern California—playing tennis in shirtsleeves in early February; weekend ski trips to Lake Tahoe; endless hikes within an hour's drive—I find myself unable to reckon with the city's immense contrasts. All around the Bay there are people my age becoming overnight millionaires—sometimes billionaires—or at the very least making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. At the same time, in the midst of this almost vulgar explosion of wealth, people are being forced out of their homes onto sidewalks, underpasses, and whatever meager bits of public space there are left for them to claim. As others have pointed out, it is not clear that enjoyment is the proper response.
"I was feeling down on my hometown," begins a native daughter's piece on the Crosstown Trail, in which she describes San Francisco as a fractured city of appalling inequality. She goes on to write: "I’ve felt powerless watching the city’s life unfold this decade. The street scenes of homelessness and the fact that I walk past them...is horrific."
Horrific seems like the right way to describe it. I hadn't put it in quite those terms to myself, but living in the Bay has been very difficult, precisely because its casual cruelty to the less fortunate is horrific, and also because I am unquestionably part of the problem. Everyday I walk by my many unhoused neighbors, unable to offer any assistance whatsoever, and everyday I am wracked with guilt and frustration.
In her Times piece, Nellie Bowles describes the Crosstown Trail as "a walk across a broken city, created by people who believed they could put it back together." I have never been an idealist, and in fact idealism that fails to incorporate a hefty dose of realism strikes me as fairly jejune. Nonetheless, months of oscillating between anger and despair have found me in need of a good dose of optimism, however naive, so a few weeks ago, I, too, set out on the Crosstown Trail.
It's a warm, sunny Monday morning—President's Day—when I arrive at Candlestick Point, the southernmost end of the trail. My Uber drops me off along a road lined with RVs, many of them packed to the brim with the detritus of lives I cannot begin to fathom. The tantalizing smell of bacon frying and the cheerful sound of the morning radio wafts from one, but the rest are boarded off and seemingly abandoned.
Walking westward along the trail, I eventually enter a residential area and turn onto a street named Executive Park Boulevard. It looks pretty much exactly like what one might imagine an Executive Park would—a wide, tree-lined boulevard replete with new-looking condo buildings, the kind that have revolving glass doors and in-house gyms. It strikes me for the umpteenth time that, even on the very edges, the city's contrasts are near inescapable.
Miles two and three, winding through Visitacion Valley, are a marked improvement. I encounter many older Asian ladies in floppy hats and loose long-sleeved shirts, out on their morning walks. Some are friendly and greet me in Cantonese, which reminds me of my grand aunts, who are the only other people who speak to me (or, perhaps more accurately, over me) in that dialect. Others keep their heads down and pump their arms purposefully.
I begin to understand a little of what Bowles means when I enter the first of the six community gardens along the route. I almost miss the entrance—I am not following the trail as faithfully as I should or could—but the garden is so immediately enchanting that I cross the street to get a better look. The greenway, of which the garden is just one part, winds upwards, with little vegetable patches scattered throughout. It feels well-loved, and beloved, and that alone is enough to imbue me with a tentative sense of hope.
I could sit in the garden all day basking in that glow, but I want to see more, so I continue upwards, through John McLaren Park, where I'm rewarded with both views of the Bay to the east and views of the city to the north. A few more miles later, I arrive in Glen Park, which has previously been described to me as a "little village." That seems fairly accurate, because what it might lack in size, it makes up for in charm—there is an old-fashioned diner, a hardware store, and, of course (it wouldn't be San Francisco otherwise), a taqueria. I eat a crepe standing on the sidewalk to take the edge off my hunger, and then spend half an hour browsing the stacks at Bird and Beckett before remembering that I'm meant to be hiking, not shopping, and anyway the load on my back is already plenty heavy without adding another book or three to it.
Glen Park, the neighborhood, sits on the edge of Glen Canyon, the park, which is the next stop along the trail, and approximately the halfway point. It feels slightly surreal to be immediately enveloped by trees and trails when, not a minute ago, I was walking along city streets with stoplights and trash cans, but I'm not complaining. It's one of the things, in fact, that I love best about San Francisco.
In the original scroll of On the Road, Kerouac allegedly wrote that "Everybody wants to get to San Francisco, and what for? In God's name and under the stars, what for?" It's a question I have been pondering over the last little while, and what my journey across the city has accomplished thus far, if nothing else, is to remind me of all the reasons I wanted to come here in the first place—I am falling in love with San Francisco all over again.
But San Francisco, I'm coming to realize, doesn't need my adoration. Didion once wrote that “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” What the city needs, I think, is people willing to do the hard work of remaking her, maybe not in their own images, but into a more just, equal, welcoming place—one that doesn't portion out a person's rights based on wealth, tenure, or political capital.
Bowles writes, of her time on the trail: "I cannot help but feel the truism: cities are made by people, often just a few determined ones fighting small, decades-long battles, block by block. I realize that while they have fought, I've been submitting."
I wonder, as I sit on a high rock looking down on the canyon, what submission looks like, and whether I have been, too.
Last week, Governor Newsom gave his State of the State address to the California Legislature. He dedicated the majority of it to homelessness, but one line in particular stood out to me: "most of us," he said, "experience homelessness as a pang of guilt, not a call to action."
For me, at least, that has thus far rang true.
I don't yet know if San Francisco will ever belong to me, or if I will ever call it home. But I do know that if I want it to, I cannot stand by while it continues to fracture. Amongst the many other things I don't know is what the work of remaking the city looks like for me. But I'm committing to doing it. No matter how hard, or how uncomfortable. I hope you'll join me.