Modern Ink is thrilled to have Megan Zottarelli as today’s guest blogger. Megan is a wife and soon-to-be-mother. She has been a self-proclaimed bibliophile for most of her life, an outdoor enthusiast, and an eternal city dweller. Megan reflects on what brought her to, and kept her, in San Francisco.
My grandmother grew up in the Bronx, and after moving to a small town on the central coast of California, yearned for city noise. Maybe it’s in my blood…
I grew up somewhat poor in a small town, and when our limited means allowed for adventure, we’d set about on a much-needed “creative” vacation, typically meaning camping close to home. Our biggest trip was when I was twelve, when my mother, sister and I drove up Highway 1 to Oregon to visit family friends. Passed the endless blue of the Pacific, through the soulful redwoods, my eyes glimpsed San Francisco for the first time. I peered out the window to the fog-filled horizon of Victorian archetypal homes seemingly squished together, the financial and banking buildings grasping the heavens, and a bridge which indeed appeared to be made of gold. I was enchanted, a welling of sensation arose from within me, and I yelled to my mother from the backseat: “I’m going to live here some day!” I was a world away from its bright lights, its tasty cuisine, its artful beauty. But I was gonna get there.
Years later as I became untethered from the threads of my childhood, my travels began. I studied art in Florence, Italy, and became accustomed to the fast pace of the renaissance metropolis. Once I returned stateside, I didn’t want to linger in one place. I moved to Santa Cruz for a brief stint working for the state parks among the redwoods I had driven passed years ago on that fateful road trip. Then I moved in with my grandmother while I figured out how and where to finally finish college. She was indeed influential in my choice. To the south lay San Diego, where a sunny life of flip-flops and tanned skin appeared not such a harsh fate. To the north: San Francisco. Immediately my tan turned pale; my vision turned to a hazy fog–cold, but intoxicating. The fog opened its arms to me like an unveiling, and suddenly I knew that my life simply wouldn’t work anywhere else. I could see myself bundled in mittens and a trench coat in July, running through the city streets with full command, yet I couldn’t see any details of where I was headed. My grandmother recalled her youth in New York. I remembered the self-pledge of ten years prior as a revelation of my life to come. The mystery lay before me, thrilling as my prior days of art and travel: San Francisco it was.
I moved quickly, arriving to the splendor of concrete grass and rolling hills. I studied maps of the city to navigate the confusing grids and numbered avenues. I drove my beater car, winding through the oneway streets with no left turns allowed, memorizing paths to my favorite cafe and shops. Then after receiving more parking tickets than the beater car was worth, I traded it for the faulty buses, bought a MUNI pass and attempted to live like a “local,” which essentially means someone who has lived there for more than five years, as the born-and-raised kind are a diminishing lot. I reread On the Road and The Dharma Bums, and in the typical early 20’s rite of passage fashion, became obsessed with the poetry that the heavy smoking Beats had created in North Beach decades before. I learned bartenders’ names and picnicked at Alamo Square. I went to shows and saw obscure bands that I could never see in my small town. I saw as much art as I had in Florence.
I lived in an apartment building heavily occupied by young enthusiasts like myself, and we became a quick family. We’d touch base daily as I’d often done with my own family, and meet on the back communal stoop for a smoke and glass or five of wine to recall our busy days. We forged a friendship through neighboring homes literally stacked on one another, with no privacy but with no opportunity for loneliness in a new city. I finished college and suddenly felt like I needed to settle. Some friends couldn’t traverse from being a college transplant to getting a job and affording the lifestyle of a city resident. I did what many young women in their 20’s do in San Francisco and became a nanny to a wealthy family in Noe Valley to help pay the bills.
One day I attempted to walk through the door of my favorite local bar and was halted by my future husband who asked for my ID, clearly unimpressed that I tried to come in like I owned the place. After we started dating, I better learned the daily perks of living urban: the bike rides around the city (avoiding the hills whenever possible, of course), the barbecues in the park, the Giants games, perusing old book stores, the date-nights at our favorite restaurants or trying a new spot.
Did I mention the food? Yuuuum. My grandmother and I used to argue for hours about San Francisco vs. New York cuisine. When I moved to San Francisco I embarked on a crash course of good eats. The city laid its best plates out for me like a feast of bounty; I had only to be brave enough to try it. San Francisco doesn’t lack for creating a true dining experience, whether it’s in a five-star restaurant or from a food truck. Now when friends or family arrive for a visit I take them on eating safaris, navigating the city’s restaurants one meal at a time on a campaign to learn about the neighborhoods through their food. Even in a city of seven by seven miles, there are endless possibilities.
The neighborhoods of San Francisco, I learned, are as defined by their food and shops as they are by their cultural aesthetic: among them, the Mission, a Latino community and growing home for hipsters and the otherwise hip; the Castro, an oasis for the gay and lesbian community; the Richmond, an Asian melting pot of Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, and Korean communities assembling their home-style restaurants on Clement Street, which some of us like to call the real Chinatown. And then there’s the Western Addition. Ah…home. It’s a community of neighbors, most everyone knowing each other from the local bars and a few establishments that have more recently defined it as a destination spot. The last ten years have seen major developments in this neighborhood. The Western used to be seen as a “high risk” neighborhood, with restricted liquor licenses and a warning to outsiders that they may be mugged. For me, the experience was quite different. I saw friends at every corner, the regulars at Fly, 821, and Chances bars or the cafe simply known as The Cafe. I learned the history of the Western Addition, the residences built on bedrock which became a quick refuge after the 1906 earthquake, and the mid-century jazz awakening that brought greats like Billie Holiday and John Coltrane to the area regularly.
I moved into my husband’s massive rent-controlled flat and transformed our backyard plot (which is hard to come by in the city) from a sand pit into an urban oasis with shade loving plants and a fire pit. We got a rescue dog and joined the dog-lover subculture of San Francisco, meeting people at the dog park for play dates and writing community boards to argue for canine rights and access to the city’s great outdoor spaces. I learned that, not surprisingly, there are more dogs than children in the city.
Nonprofits flourish here. I went from working for preschools in low-income, under-served communities, to working for HIV education, and then on to working for a veterans’ rights organization. Unfortunately part of living urban is seeing a convergence of homeless, and in San Francisco, many are veterans. And sadly working in service means seeing firsthand the way the community survives. My job is at the heart of the community, close to 6th street with its gritty residential hotels and vagrant drug addicts (although there are some great bars and restaurants too). Every city has one of these neighborhoods, a plot for the beggarly, and often where the city planning “urban revival” or “beautification” begins. But often those terms are also associated with gentrification.
San Francisco is a walking city, believe it or not. I walk the two miles to work every morning, each neighborhood revealed through the hills; leaving the Western Addition, on to Hayes Valley, then SoMa, enjoying a cup of coffee and waking my mind for the tasks of the day. Luckily living urban affords a somewhat “live global, act local” lifestyle. Although the city has one of the worst public transit systems, I’m able to go without a car (although my husband must often commute outside of the city with one), most restaurants and grocery stores feature local and organic foods, the small mom-and-pop stores still exist here, and we’ve done our best to keep out many major chains that drive away business from the smaller operations. In essence, the Bohemian individualism, the cultural diversity that San Francisco has in its roots, makes for a city with staunch durability.
Living in San Francisco is almost like living in Neverland. People here may age but they often don’t act their age. In fact, it’s more like they have a slower scale of development. I didn’t realize this until I had lived here for a few years, and I would visit my hometown to find old friends settling down and having children when I was still partying till 3AM most nights. To them, I was immature, but to San Franciscans, I was just right. Many of the juveniles are artists, designers, and people in the restaurant and bar industries. San Francisco is an eternal rebellious teenager.
As I’ve grown older in the city, I’m learning about different ways to enjoy it. My husband and I are expecting our first child this fall, a child who will learn the world through the lens of San Francisco. And I’m going to relearn the city through the lens of a parent, visiting all of the amazing children’s museums, walking to parks, paying an arm and a leg for daycare so that I can maintain my professional career, and even despising the lousy public school system. Luckily, although I have to pay more for it, I’m able to treat my future city kid to a life of cultural richness in a place of true beauty.
And now, my favorite neighborhood bar where I met my husband has a daycare center next door. I see this as a symbol of my life in the city, the old and new paired together. At any age, I’m bound to enjoy it.