OCTOBER 2, 2013
ERNEST HEMINGWAY famously wrote of Paris, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” For half a century, Hemingway’s nostalgic vision of the city of lights has made undiscovered literary geniuses wish that they could be unemployed in Paris in the 1920s instead of unemployed wherever they live, now. Last year, Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City, offered a different kind of literary city. The main character, Julius, who resembles Cole, wanders the streets of New York, conversing with the city’s residents and falling into reveries about music, history, and literature. Most of the people he speaks with are immigrants, among them investment bankers and prisoners, shoe shiners and Columbia professors. Each conversation is evidence of the many layers of humanity that make New York the constantly fluctuating city it is. Cole’s New York is too much in motion to be moveable.
In this year’s city literature, the metropolis in motion continues to prevail. Two veteran writers published nonfiction memoirs commemorating two great American cities: Gary Kamiya from San Francisco with Cool Gray City of Love and Neil Steinberg from Chicago with You Were Never in Chicago. Neither writer attempts to give a definitive impression of their city. Instead, they convey awe at the combination of endurance and flexibility in their constantly transforming urban landscapes. Their approach is similar to Cole’s, but while the narrator of Open City maintains a judgmental distance from everything he encounters, Steinberg and Kamiya are closer to the cities they inhabit than even they might realize. Steinberg has lived in the Chicago area for more than three decades; Kamiya in San Francisco for more than four. Both seem to have the ethos of their cities thoroughly engrained in their personalities. Kamiya is blissfully in love with his city and its surroundings, as many Bay Area residents (sometimes insufferably) are, although not to the point that he can’t see San Francisco’s problems. Steinberg’s love for Chicago is somewhat more complicated. In a city known for battling egos, Steinberg is in a constant battle with his own, which sometimes gets in the way of his awareness.
“The Chicago Sun-Times hired me because I kissed a girl in a bar,” Steinberg writes. A columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, he sees his life unfold as the result of a series of sketchy networking ploys and political maneuvers, typical in a city that runs on insider culture and sometimes corruption. Kamiya, on the other hand, believes his career path was characterized by the same kind of capricious turns that led the original 49ers to riches, adventure, and maybe despair in Northern California. He was one of the founders of Salon.com and was briefly “rapturous at the idea that I and a few other ink-stained wretches will be the first journalists in the history of the world to get rich.” After the dot-com bubble burst, he was laid off. Kamiya considered it the San Francisco way to take the disappointment in stride: “I take some solace in the fact that the whole bizarre dot-com episode was in the finest San Francisco tradition,” he writes:
The city was discovered as the result of a series of comedic errors, settled by drunks and runaways and mavericks [. . .]. A few got rich, but most did not. For some 49ers, the gold rush was a disaster. But for most, it was a great adventure, one they would not have missed for anything.
These men, whose lives have become so intimately entwined with the lives of their cities, are well equipped to write about them. Deep knowledge of their environs has humbled them, and they are prepared for the unexpected. “I realized that I could play this game forever,” writes Kamiya in his introduction:
If I went to a different place in the city every day, at the end of a year I could start again and it would all feel new — an urban explorer’s version of Kierkegaard’s “rotation method.” I felt so giddy I began to be a little embarrassed.
Armed with the certainty that they will never achieve complete understanding, Kamiya and Steinberg set out into the metropolitan depths, eager to explore from the heart of their cities to the extremities.
The location of a city’s heart depends on the point of view of the explorer. The heart of Kamiya’s San Francisco lies beneath its hillsides — fitting for a city that initially drew newcomers more interested in tunneling under its land than settling on top of it. Kamiya writes of the complex phenomena that created San Francisco’s famously unpredictable terrain: “Drakes Bay and the surrounding Point Reyes peninsula are a world apart,” he writes in a chapter about a forbidding section of the shoreline:
That isn’t just a figure of speech: Point Reyes sits on a different tectonic plate than the rest of North America. […] At once toylike and eternal, this landscape is the perfect setting for an apparition from another universe.”
Another geologically themed chapter is devoted to the geologist Clyde Wahrhaftig and a little-known scenic outlook, Billy Goat Hill; “both the man and the place represent everything that is best about San Francisco.” Before his death, Wahrhaftig shared his passion for minerals with a young student, Doris Sloan, who is now a professor at Berkeley. Sloan accompanied Kamiya to Billy Goat Hill to tell him about the city’s geology, and about how Wahrhaftig overcame his and his field’s sexism and gave Sloan the opportunity to become one of the world’s first female geology professors. Years later, after the suicide of his lover and fellow geologist Allan Cox, Wahrhaftig would continue to break down barriers. “I would not wish on anyone the life of repression, self-doubt, and dissimulation that Allan and I had to go through,” he said in a coming-out speech to the Geological Society of America. He received a standing ovation.
Kamiya found the peak of Billy Goat Hill to be the ideal vantage point in a search for his city’s secrets. Steinberg sees (or saw — he has since quit drinking) Chicago best from his barstool in, coincidentally, Billy Goat Tavern. His city lives and breathes on a fuel of human emotions and human vices. The heart of Steinberg’s Chicago seems to lie in actual human hearts, often his own heart. He constantly deals with internal struggles that reflect those of the city around him: with vice, prejudice, corruption, and addiction. (He wrote a book about his struggles with alcoholism, entitled Drunkard.)
When he remembers how he used to think, Steinberg seems to poke fun at himself. He describes his reasons for attending Northwestern instead of Columbia: “I suspected that Morningside Heights, Columbia’s home, was just a fancy way of saying ‘Harlem.’” His disapproval of his Japanese-speaking brother’s engagement to a woman he met while working in Japan: “I remind him that she isn’t American, isn’t Jewish, is five years older than he, doesn’t speak English, and had never gone to college.” The present-day Steinberg frequently puts the young Steinberg in his place. After graduating college, he slams himself as “just another unemployed guy — worse, an unemployed guy with no idea what to do next and a useless silver spoon tarnishing in the corner of his mouth.”
Steinberg has changed, and so has Chicago. To Steinberg, decay and transformation are interlinked processes. He’s working in the decaying and dying business of print media, and maybe this is why he continuously takes note of the complexity of decline. Take manufacturing. When Chicago was still a manufacturing city, he loved the factories and finding out how they worked. How, he wondered, does a potato chip make it all the way down an assembly line without crumbling to bits? Many of the factories that he wrote about have since closed, but he doesn’t see this as the end of manufacturing. Those who predict as much are “a case of being blinded instead of illuminated by the past. Trends shift. Incomes will rise in China, eventually; politics will change. There are already signs of renewal.”
Steinberg can see the possibilities brought on by endings, and that’s probably why he’s also the most enthusiastic obituary writer who ever lived. He uses the deaths of important Chicago people to remind readers how their city has progressed, how it might have progressed more. “Few things are sadder or more haunting than to imagine what Chicago might have been like had anyone listened to Leon Despres,” he began the obituary of a former alderman who advocated for desegregation in Chicago long before it became a reality. Steinberg wrote these lines well before Despres died, in fact carried a draft of the obituary with him when he went to meet Despres for an interview. Without being asked, he would begin work on obituaries years before his subjects were deceased, interviewing friends, colleagues, and if possible, the subjects themselves.
The impression that Steinberg wants to leave is that the city and the man have both changed for the better. But as I read, I sometimes wonder if some of the past prejudice he now mocks still lingers. In one chapter, he condemns hostility toward new immigrants from people who come from immigrant backgrounds themselves. Just pages later, he talks about the kind of bigotry that made Chicago as segregated as it still is today with suspiciously apologist language. “It’s easy and probably accurate to say that white people who preferred to fight or flee rather than to have a black neighbor were bigots,” he writes:
But in their view they were only trying to avoid losing the only place they ever had and keep from being trapped in a decaying slum. Seeing how many neighborhoods did indeed deteriorate over the years, you can’t say that there wasn’t a hard reality behind that concern, even if it was a self-fulfilling hard reality.
With no anecdotes or examples to clarify his point, and despite the qualified language, he seems to say that bigots are simply realists.
Steinberg’s inability to avoid misdirected political slant might makes his memoir even more solidly Chicagoan. Steinberg integrates his own experience seamlessly into Chicago’s political landscape, and while this shows his dexterity as a writer, it also indicates an inability to compartmentalize. One conflict that runs through a decent portion of the book involves his brother, who winds up unemployed and in need of an operation. Should Steinberg use his sway as a journalist to get his brother a job and health insurance? Yes, he decides, in a move that anyone with close siblings can understand. But to justify his decision, he goes beyond simple emotional need. Chicago is a city that operates on these kinds of maneuvers, he reasons, and “to suggest that your nephew shouldn’t get $68 million in city investments, seems almost a form of communism [. . .]. The rest flows from there, and you end up with Stalin.” For a man who needs to contrive this kind of political logic to justify his decisions, it is no wonder that his views are as muddled as they are.
Kamiya by no means avoids politics in his portrayal of San Francisco, and he leaves no doubt how he feels. For example:
The new financial info-city, controlled by disembodied capital, every square inch leveraged for maximum profit, its workers pushing keys on computers or serving lattes, is gutless and shitless.
Unlike Steinberg, who seems to see himself as a progressive despite occasional evidence to the contrary, Kamiya’s liberalism is enough to keep my own youthful leftist heart beating evenly. He justifies himself beautifully in sections describing the city’s reputation for liberalism and diversity, and how the city has repeatedly undermined that reputation in its abysmal treatment of minorities and the poor.
One of the best and saddest chapters in Cool Gray City of Love, “The Haunted House” tells the story of San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood. At one time it was one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, and the jazz center of San Francisco. In the late 1960s, the city razed the Western Addition’s homes and businesses in the midst of the United States’s “urban renewal” fever. After uprooting 883 businesses and 20,000 to 30,000 residents, the city has compensated with failed housing projects and a few unsuccessful government-funded jazz-themed restaurants. According to Kamiya, “The whole enterprise reeks of artificiality and museum culture and guilt.”
Kamiya tells the story of the Western Addition through the windows of a mysterious three-story 1890s Victorian, which he noticed years before he learned its story. The reason it looks odd, it turns out, is that it was relocated when the rest of the neighborhood was bulldozed. It was saved to preserve history: it housed one of the city’s first Japanese businesses, Nippon Drugs, and then one of the city’s first jazz clubs, Bop City. The chapter ends on a bittersweet note. “There can be no happy ending to the tragedy of the Western Addition, but there has been one for the haunted house,” he writes. The house, now located at 1712 Fillmore Street, is still home to Marcus Books, the oldest African-American bookstore in the city. The store’s proprietor showed Kamiya a photograph of John Coltrane performing in the same spot where they stood looking at his image. Even the bookstore’s story may turn out to be a tragic one. In the past few months, the proprietors have faced the threat of eviction.
The magnificent sense of space Kamiya employs in the story of this moving house is present throughout Cool Gray City of Love. He tracks politics and attitudes through the more concrete substance of physical space: “Aquatic Park is a testament to enlightened government action. It is fitting that this quasi-socialist cove graces the northern waterfront of the most liberal city in America, a gratifyingly permanent stick in the eye of Fox News.” The seven years Kamiya spent as a taxi driver surely contributed to his panoramic eye, but his sense of beauty is so consistent that I find myself wondering if he’s secretly a painter or a sculptor.
While Kamiya’s capacity for spatial metaphors is impressive, one of the best ones comes from the mouth of the geologist, Doris Sloan. “The rock is old, but the landscape is very young,” she explained to Kamiya as they walked toward Billy Goat Hill:
In geology, you have to have these two completely different time scales in your head at the same time. The underlying rock is old, but it has been through inconceivable changes over time, and the most recent changes, the ones that made the terrain appear the way it is today, are very recent — only a few million years old.
This, I think, can apply to cities as well. The urban surface may look completely different than it did a few decades ago, but the complex foundation remains and will continue to influence everything that follows.