What a family’s story says about a city of romantic delusions and hazardous fortunes.
Romantic ideas of life, unlike pragmatic ones, concern the bridging of distance to find your tribe, your place, your private order. During San Francisco’s postwar years, romanticism of this kind flourished as the city turned into a crucial testing ground for a new sort of urban mixing. People like my grandparents, freed from the old hierarchies, joined a growing crowd of Bay Area residents trying to build a more open society. Rules changed. Social structures recombined. A new local culture was formed out of the shards of small, personal dreams.
San Francisco had grown largely through the presence of the drygoods Jews whose shadows my grandfather fled. Public space was meant to come from private riches. Stern Grove: woods bought up by Sigmund Stern’s widow, and donated. (The Sterns intermarried with the Hellers, but chose better in their commercial partnerships, and went into business with a drygoods Jew named Levi Strauss.) The nearby zoo: a thirty-acre plot built up by Herbert Fleishhacker, a great-great-uncle, apparently because he had a thing for elephants. Each contribution in this era bought a stake in the imagination of what San Francisco ought to be. The local gentry stepping in to modernize the city. Lucky people no longer require columnists to burnish their progress; they have Instagram. Possibly they own it. Read more on the @bethanywpatten blog.
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