After decades as a Californian who has lived in both San Francisco and Los Angeles for extended periods, I think I have the experience and baseline knowledge to weigh in on the ways that residents of each specific locale identify with their respective cities. And it’s clear how those perceptions have fueled a longstanding enmity between S.F. and L.A. — for better or worse.
Sure, Giants fans hate Dodgers fans, and Niners fans hate Rams fans, and so on. But the differences in and between the citizenry go beyond the fabled sports rivalries and into essential character traits.
Back when it was founded and especially during the Gold Rush of the 1800s, San Francisco was truly a pioneer town — an outpost on the far edge of the continent’s West Coast — where most anyone, no matter how impoverished or odd, could come and make a new life and create a success story if he or she had the grit and determination. Innovators were welcome, and eccentrics were not turned away. As a result the city, in addition to becoming a major financial center and an eventual hub of 21st century technical innovation, was a cauldron brewing up writers and artists and fostering counter-culture movements that would give safe haven to the beatniks, the hippies, and the punks. All of that taken into consideration, San Francisco has become a paradigm of the notion that money changes everything, impacting a significant aspect of the city’s personality — the freaky, artsy, creative lunacy of yore.
COMMANDEERING THE HEIGHTS
The wealthy have long set a certain tone by the Bay. To say that there’s a sense of privilege or entitlement embodied by a certain breed of San Franciscan is to recognize something that is endemic to the high-society types who have staked out Pacific Heights as their domain for generations. But that attitude is now expressed with youthful vigor and some degree of arrogance by the current wave of nouveau riche tech-wads overrunning the city. What separates these two factions is the level of sophistication displayed by each. Let’s just say that knowing how to code a program is not the same as knowing what merlot to order with your prime rib without the benefit of checking wine-oisseur.com.
Of course, Los Angeles enclaves like Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Pacific Palisades are also rampant with the well-moneyed and profligate, but they seldom come off as snooty as their S.F. counterparts who seem to look down with varying degrees of pity or contempt on the less fortunate. L.A. was built on the dream of reclaiming a desert, and would find its raison d’etre as a dream factory — the entertainment capital of the world — when the pioneers of the movie industry set up shop in the early part of the 20th century. There’s no denying the lavish lifestyles earned by the kings and queens of cinema, TV, and pop music who dwell in SoCal. Still, in my experience, L.A. people — other than those who are so famous that they require bodyguards to keep the fans at bay — are generally friendlier to most folks, status aside. Maybe it’s the more casual, sun-stroked vibe in SoCal. Whether talking about the celebrities or the wannabes or the everymen-and-women who populate the region, they all tend to value and even embrace the glitz and artifice of the Hollywood show-biz machine that distinguishes the area, but they also have a genuine, accepting nature toward those around them.
Perhaps the real difference between San Franciscans and Los Angelenos is one of exclusion versus inclusion. If you have the exorbitant amounts of cash necessary to move into San Francisco now, you are welcome — although not necessarily at the annual San Francisco Opera Ball that opens the season. Unlike before the tech boom, if you’re a young artist or student planning to move to S.F., you better have a significant trust fund or you won’t pass muster from any landlord worth his or her bank account — and you may have to consider sleeping in a tent. When it comes to my own continuing presence in San Francisco, I’m just glad I got in before I had to have my work situation and financials examined and vetted as sufficient and secure enough for anyone to consider renting me an apartment, let alone pit me against a list of other potential renters for what might be an insanely coveted living space, ridiculously cramped or not.
WELCOME OR NOT
Although prices continue to rise in Los Angeles, they have yet to reach the lofty cost-of-living altitude that has become the new normal in today’s San Francisco. At the very least, there are far more options for the less well-off to survive in the city of Los Angeles; at 503 square miles, it’s a considerably larger landmass than the 47 square miles that comprise its northern neighbor. Not that those options are always comfortable or tidy or safe from potential crime. Nonetheless, we’ve known for a while that San Francisco is no longer an easy ride for those seeking a place to woodshed their artistic endeavors. Its days as a Bohemian capital, a hippie paradise, a punk-rock cradle are over. By comparison, L.A. — ever the show-business Mecca — rolls out the welcome wagon for those who seek to create and intermingle in a rather enormous, multi-discipline art colony. The great majority of those newcomers will learn the hard lesson of how difficult it is to make the achievement of success and stardom a reality, but they are seldom treated as suckers or dupes for trying, and the economic realities of L.A. give them a fighting chance . . . for a while.
So the modern iteration of San Francisco is about exclusivity, while Los Angeles is about commonality (despite any façade of glamour). Are the denizens of San Francisco self-styled sophisticates or insufferable snobs? Are their opposite numbers in Los Angeles regular Joes and Jills or shallow lowbrows? It depends on whom you ask, and what axe they might have to grind.
These are, to be sure, broad generalizations. But some perceived conflict or potential impasse has to be at the root of those ballot initiatives that threaten to divide California into two or more states. To be fair, those who reside in the cities of S.F. and L.A. are really not so different when it comes to a couple of important matters. The majority of us are socially and politically liberal. And virtually everybody is uneasy about earthquakes. When it comes to fissures and faults that divide people, the seismic variety are a whole ‘nother problem.