When did S.F. become the no-go city?

Do we really want our city to be a place that doesn’t try disruptive new things?
Thanks to intransigence and roadblocks in San Francisco, George Lucas is taking his movie museum on the road to Chicago photo: Cory Doctorow

A model of Jedi Master Yoda might be remembered as the symbol of the moment in history when San Francisco decided it wasn’t interested in growing — culturally or economically. It’s the moment when the city said it wasn’t interested in anything other than protecting what it has and not embracing the dynamism of modern life. Yoda and tons of other memorabilia from the collection of George Lucas will instead end up in the Windy City. headlined its report, “Middle Finger Raised To S.F., George Lucas Takes His $700 Million Museum To Chicago.” But no, it isn’t Lucas who’s telling San Francisco to take a hike; it’s San Francisco that is telling Lucas to take a hike by running him through the ringer, subjecting him to public opprobrium during the Presidio Trust selection process, and only belatedly putting together a serious attempt to compete with other cities for the museum. Locals complained that he was just another billionaire trying to run the city; people said his museum was a waste of space; others were just still angry about Jar Jar Binks. All because he tried to build — and fund and endow by himself, remember — a museum that would have instantly become a major tourist draw to our city.

Maybe that doesn’t matter to you. Some kitsch from a space fantasy movie? Let it go elsewhere; it doesn’t feel to you like a loss to San Francisco. So filmmaker and Bay Area native George Lucas did find someplace else to build his memorabilia museum.

But maybe you do care about some other high-profile organizations and developments that went elsewhere. If you want to watch a “home” game of the San Francisco 49ers in the future, you’ll be heading down the peninsula to the team’s new state-of-the-art stadium. The team gave up on building it in San Francisco after the city made it clear that it just wasn’t going to compete on the level of other cities.

Football’s violent; maybe you prefer the more rarefied sport of sailing. In that case, you were probably thrilled to have the America’s Cup take place right on the Marina’s front dock, so to speak. But the America’s Cup, too, dropped San Francisco despite the sport’s moneyman, Larry Ellison, earlier stating his hope that it could be a recurring event here that would become linked to the city in the minds of the world’s millions of sailing fans.

It’s enough to make one wonder why anyone would bother trying to build or create something in San Francisco. Instead of welcoming with open arms the builders and creative people, San Francisco’s message has become: No thanks, we’re fine as we are. It’s the ultimate triumph of 70s self-help pop psychology. I’m fine, don’t try to change me.

But cities need to change. They need people bringing in new ideas, new projects, trying new things. Some of those things are big. Some are disruptive. Some are beautiful. Some are stupid. But unless you’re a Soviet collective farm, everyone doesn’t get a vote to block the project. Except in San Francisco, where a working majority has decided to block buildings it doesn’t like, to scare off museums it doesn’t want, to huddle down and say please don’t change this city.

But, as your six-year old might say, the city that snoozes, loses.

When San Francisco activists made it clear that they were annoyed at the effects of the influx of well-paid tech workers, San Jose’s mayor opened his arms and said his city would be thrilled to have the workers. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was in town last month — troglodyte social views and all — to try to lure our businesses to his state.

The home of Lucas’s new museum, Chicago, is not only the hometown of his new wife, businesswoman Mellody Hobson; it is a city known as the Windy City. Many people think that nickname was earned by the frigid winds roaring in from Lake Michigan. I’ve lived along Chicago’s lakefront. It is indeed very, very windy, and in February when the blowing wind feels like it could freeze the saliva in your throat, you would think the name is apt. But the real etymology of the nickname involves the city’s boasting of its greatness, especially compared with its arch-rival in the 1870s, Cincinnati.

There’s a difference between wishing for stability and having a city death wish.

Chicago was boastful, a land of braggarts, always trying to outdo its rival and always trying to be the best and have the most. That made it brash and successful. That made it ever-changing. And it made Cincinnati the home of Marge Schott.

Today, where would you rather live? Chicago or Cincinnati?

Send to a Friend Print