San Francisco is my Father’s favourite city. And so it became mine. It wasn’t by default, as is often the case when it comes to loving the same things as the people you love and respect. It was by merit. My Father made the introduction when I was about 8 years old, and it didn’t take much or long for me to fall in love with this steep, curvy city myself.
Streetcars, sourdough, Ghiradelli, Golden Gate, Lombard street, Sidewalk stairways, Chinatown, the Pacific. Things that still make my heart beat a little faster.
Long after making its acquaintance, despite the distance, I kept going back. I took boyfriends there. I took friends there. I took my husband there. I took my kids there. And I continue to take things and people back there – albeit these days, it’s often for business.
San Fran has been on my mind a lot lately. As it is with any relationship, when you fear losing it, that tends to happen. The daunting headlines about this city don’t have to fight too hard for my attention. A city with no families. A city with a similar numbers of dogs to children. A city that swaps capital for kids. And a city that I’m a little afraid our own could turn in to, to be completely honest. Afraid, because while we’re not perfect, we’ve got a lot “right” and it seems a daunting task to rewind and fill in the missing gaps of a city’s population, which is the only way in my mind, you can ever have a “complete” city.
I remember hearing urbanist, Richard Florida speak at Brickworks not too long ago and saying, “the hardest thing to scale is a city.” The hard truth, however, is that the things (and people) we love often change on us, despite us wanting them to stay the same. They grow up. And if we truly care for them, we let them. Because that’s generally the right thing to do. But it’s also up to the people that love them, to steer them onto the “right track,” to help them discover their potential, and then to step out of the way, but also step back in if you see things going sideways.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco might be a reminder of our need to step in, to speak up, and to care. Before it’s too late. It became a priority for me to see the film earlier this month at TIFF lightbox after reading an article about it. Other than that, I knew very little about the film or most of the actors. I knew I had to see it. It was a love story… about real estate. Or so I thought.
The film was a debut of producer Joe Talbot, a cross between a drama and documentary, a collaboration between two friends who grew up together in San Francisco, starring Talbot’s best friend off screen, Jimmie Fails, who plays (mostly) himself.
A quick, shallow google search will have you believe that the films focus and purpose is to tell a sad story of urban renewal, gentrification and displacement. The words that we hear so much of and so often. As we all know, a google search doesn’t always do things justice.
The Wall Street Journal claims it’s “really about San Francisco and, by extension, other American cities whose diversity and vitality are being choked by a death grip of wealth.”
Datebook writes, “It’s a young man navigating a changing city and just hoping to have a piece of it that he can call his own.”
Rolling Stone said the film “isn’t afraid to talk about the way race and relocation plays into any hotspot where the phrase ‘urban renewal’ gets thrown around.”
An LA Times reporter reminisced that “The city he knew as a sanctuary for immigrants, free spirits, artists and oddballs no longer exists. A swell of wealth, tech companies and urban renewal has carved up much of his beloved city, rendering it unfamiliar and inaccessible to those without the fat wallets needed to afford today’s San Francisco.”
All of the above is true.
Yet as the story unfolded, and while it may have taken some time to piece it all together, within minutes I sensed (and was almost relieved) that it was going to be about so much more.
In an interview Fails himself shares that while eviction and losing his home changed his life, the film isn’t only about losing your home to gentrification.
On a “nostalgic journey” it is about a search for belonging in a changing city that seems to have left them behind. It is about friendship. It is also about what home represents and the domino effect that ensues when it’s no longer there. Fails shared that after losing the anchor of his home, “It’s like we all just kind of fractured and went our own separate ways.”
I also learned more about the history of San Francisco from the film. For example, I couldn’t help but be curious about the three-eyed fish that jumped out of the water in one scene. And the hazmat suits. It turns out that the Navy maintained a shipyard in Bayview Hunters Point on the peninsula of San Fran Bay where they studied radiation and decontaminated ships that were exposed to atomic testing. Thousands of African-Americans were employed there.
The film had some memorable lines and scenes. I have two favourites.
My first was during an intimate conversation when Jimmy was told that if he decided to leave the city, it wouldn’t be his loss, it would be the city’s. This turns out to be phenomenally true in the long run. (I can attest to personally going to three different high schools in our city looking for the diversity that each one didn’t seem to have – I’d say it’s as essential for a school, as it is for a city and a country. It ranks up there with transportation and affordability in making a city “work.”)
My second echoes the theme that started this post. A city, just like a person, is something you build a relationship with. There’s a scene where Jimmy overhears two women on a bus saying they can’t afford the city and they “hate this city.” Jimmy intervened and rather than being the infamous bully bystander, confronted them and ssaid they actually have the right to hate San Francisco. If you haven’t loved a place, you can’t hate it. Also, phenomenally true, by my standards.
If I didn’t know the industry, the market and the challenges, the film may not have resonated so deeply with me. But I do. I think it would be a next to impossible for anyone to watch this film and compartmentalize what you walk away with. In fact, after the film released, Fails commented that “the more we talked to people outside of San Francisco, the more you realize it’s everywhere. It’s scary to think about that. It just seems so large and so complicated. It’s hard to know what to do about it, other than make a movie like this. Document it. Just document the city as it is, because it might not be that way for much longer.”
True. And that’s a blessing and a curse. Because a city is a living, breathing thing. Which gives you hope. Because it means that if things are bad, you can be optimistic they’ll pass. Yet it also haunts you with the fear and uncertainty that what’s “right” may be fleeting and short-lived. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to participate in or watch a documentary where we painfully look bath with regret on what Toronto once was.
I encourage you to watch the film, (a favourite at Sundance) which is no longer showing at TIFF lightbox, but available for streaming on Amazon August 13th.