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San Francisco, Amtrak and New York: A cautionary tale

I decided to have a cross-country Amtrak adventure last month.

My own private writing retreat on the rails.

Wanting to travel East to witness my niece Rachel’s marriage to her longtime partner Alison, in a hip, beautiful Brooklyn wedding, I reserved a roomette on the California Zephyr out of Emeryville, connecting to the Lakeshore Limited in Chicago.

I’d done this trip before, after doing a play at the Curran Theatre years ago, and I adored every moment of that journey.

Naturally, I thought this trip would be just as much carefree fun.

And for the first day, it was.

Gorgeous scenery, our wondrous country passing before me, the small town vignettes, the rosy dawns, the Sierra Mountains! Fabulous.

Then, the exigencies of freight over passenger convenience became evident, and I feared missing my Chicago connection. I didn’t miss it, however, because the Lakeshore Limited was seven hours behind its schedule, so I had plenty of time to sit and ponder the awesome architecture of Chicago’s Union Station. Instead of the 6 p.m. planned departure, my Lakeshore Limited left at 1 a.m. the next morning.

Finally, I ended up being angry at the freight trains that kept getting in our way, and feeling sorry for the Amtrak employees who have to put up with disintegrating schedules and the foul feelings engendered in their passengers.

Eventually, I got to my former hometown (at midnight, instead of the expected 6 p.m. arrival time), and was met by friends whose home on the Upper West Side would be mine for the next week. I was glad to see their shining faces in the vast, dirty, moist, and roiling cavern that is Penn Station.

Some things never change.

I soon discovered, however, that Manhattan had indeed changed. Why this surprised me, I don’t know — I’ve experienced how New York City can morph in an instant. I just didn’t expect to see such enormous architectural changes that would affect the way my body felt as I walked familiar streets. What’s happened to New York City — the Big (and getting bigger all the time) Apple — in the time I’ve been away, stunned me.

New York City always felt large and wondrous, but now it looks gargantuan and forbidding, like the fictional Gotham City out of the latest and darkest Batman movies. It’s as if a team of ambitious art directors got together, conferred with those shadowy “real estate interests” that now rule Manhattan, and out of that meeting came an agreement: New York City residents don’t need anymore sunshine, no more sky, and no actual room to live in.

As I saw the dozens of new monstrosities that have changed New York City’s skyline, I became self-righteous: There’s something obscene about millionaires and billionaires sitting around a conference table signing agreements that would make themselves richer, and mere mortal New Yorkers more starved for living space. As I’ve heard, many of the new buildings have apartments that cost an arm and a leg and barely have any room for actual arms and legs to rest comfortably in.

But New York City being what it is, those who are willing to pay a lot for little come anyway, so the buildings are full, which accounts for the next thing that made me glad to return to San Francisco: the herds of people populating the New York City neighborhoods that used to be not so crowded! Sure, Fifth Avenue was always tough to walk down, and Times Square, was always a mob scene to negotiate on matinee days. But now? Even the relatively calm Upper West Side is packed, at all hours, with all the new people living in all those new buildings. Not long ago, there was at least a higher crime rate in New York City, which served, perhaps, as a deterrent against newcomers. Crime is down these days.

I know, I know, I sound like the old timers I used to sneer at when I was young to New York. And it troubles me somewhat that I have not grown in my love for the city at a pace with its actual growth. What’s wrong with me that I cannot accept how it now looks and feels?

Nothing! That’s what’s wrong with me: Nothing.

I feel sane.

And glad to come home to a beautiful, spacious and gracious San Francisco. Yes, I know it’s expensive, far too expensive for some, but there is not only a soul here, and a spirit liberal with wit and intelligence, there’s also plenty of room for sunshine. And sky. Let’s not forget the San Francisco sky. And that’s available to everyone!

So, “powers that be?”

Please, don’t grow San Francisco taller. Don’t crowd it with monstrous objects that block the view. Don’t insert an architectural air hose and blow San Francisco up into a grotesque beach ball of a city. In other words, as much as I once adored living there, please don’t allow here to become another New York City.

One per country is enough.

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