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California Dreaming - South and North

One of a series of photographs by our friend Dwayne Moser from behind the Hollywood Sign. 
Photograph copyright © Dwayne Moser.

I've lived in many cities in my life, and visited many more. I love the memory of Marrakech, Havana, Hanoi, London, Brighton, Rome, Sydney, Miami Beach (as it was in the 1990s) and, above all, the city that has occupied my imagination, sleeping and waking dreams and heart for most of my life, and my actuality for about 15 years of it, Los Angeles. 

I love living in Santa Cruz now, because it feels like how I imagined Malibu might have been in the 1960s, when it was loose and groovy and surf-crazy and just easy going. 

My daughter and me boogieboarding on the beach in Santa Cruz.
Photograph copyright © 2016 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Now I find myself facing the possibility of San Francisco, and with all apologies and respect to those of our friends who live there, I just don't get it as a city. 

A couple of days back, I posted a photograph I took of graffiti on the decaying sea wall of San Francisco's western beach (quite a striking beach, were it not for the graffiti, although little used by locals, I understand). It seemed to me an affront to nature, to everything I hold dear - especially in a city that has some of the world's most expensive real estate. I deleted it after an hour or so, because it made me feel so angry. 

San Francisco can't fix their graffiti, or they just don't care. Santa Cruz, which has a lot less money than San Francisco (though it's hardly poor, by any means) doesn't really have a graffiti problem. Most people here really care about the environment, about the glories of the giant redwoods that surround us and about the wonders and teeming marine life of Monterey Bay. 

Carville, the early San Francisco settlement of discarded street cars.
Photograph courtesy of San Francisco Public Library.

The sand dunes along San Francisco's west side are nice, and look as if with a little more global warming, they might reclaim large swathes of the city quite quickly. The area known as Sunset and also Richmond, I think, was once called The Outside Lands in the late 1800s/early 1900s and was a desert of sand dunes in which a few outliers lived, in early horse-drawn city street cars they had taken and buried in the sand. (The early settlement was called, not inappropriately, Carville; read more about it here.) Very few people made it out there, or wanted to. I like the sound of that. 

Charong Chow and Alexander Chow-Stuart at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.
Photograph copyright © 2016 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

I cannot connect with San Francisco, though I've tried over the years. I loved the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and I like Telegraph Hill, but not with the passion I feel for the Griffith Observatory in LA or the Chateau Marmont or the Hollywood Sign or even just driving down two of the most iconic roads in the world, Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard. 

I loved LA in my mind before we ever moved there, from books (Raymond Chandler especially, but also Gavin Lambert and Kevin Brownlow), from movies (so many, but obviously Sunset Boulevard, the electrifying Bogart-Bacall movies, Rebel Without A Cause, Chinatown, of course, John Milius' magnificent surf epic Big Wednesday, David Lynch's fabulous Mulholland Drive and, my lifelong favorite movie, Robert Altman's magical reinvention of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye) and from its history. 

I'd read so many books about early LA and the history of Hollywood and water and boosterism and the strange dream of turning a desert town into a major, but entirely unique (especially topographically) metropolis. Then came Joan Didion's The White Album, and I was in love - or perhaps more in literary lust. Didion's writing electrified me and made me love LA, Charlie Manson and all. (San Francisco had Altamont, but I never cared so much.)

PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) at Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles.
Photograph copyright © 2016 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

The only book I really love about San Francisco is The Maltese Falcon, and half the time I can imagine it relocated to LA. LA can do fog, too, in the early mornings off the ocean. 

In terms of SF icons, Haight-Ashbury was a brief period in the 1960s when people dropped acid and wore flowers in their hair. I quite liked Scott Mackenzie's song, If You're Going To San Francisco, but it's not something I'd listen to for thrills. And I never really listened to the Grateful Dead. 

I do not get San Francisco's geography. It has no heart or soul for me, and above all I miss the sprawl of LA, its heft, its mighty canyons (we lived for years in Laurel Canyon and Topanga Canyon) - I think it's the only city in the world where you can have deer come down to your house, and eagles, too, and be in the garden of the Chateau Marmont, with the ghosts of John Belushi and Errol Flynn, within about five minutes. 

The canyons are remarkable. Mulholland Drive, which snakes along the top of them and the Hollywood Hills, is remarkable. I cannot think of a single street in San Francisco that sends a shiver up my spine - unless it is raining or the wind is creating a sub-Arctic windchill factor. 

The graffiti and the homelessness and the crime are a major problem for a city perched on the edge of Silicon Valley, poised as *the* tech city of the early 21st Century (though Seoul and Shanghai may take that crown: the futuristic Her was shot in Shanghai and Los Angeles not San Francisco). Even with California's resistance to property tax, you would think a city with the repressed bling of San Francisco could do something to fix the broken windows, as Bill Bratton might suggest. 

I don't connect with the Beats (well, I do like Kerouac and Ginsberg) or with City Lights or any of that period, for some reason. Give me Charles Bukowski in a lowlife LA bar any night or following morning. I don't know what it is, but I've never been able to find the "center" of San Francisco, either literally or figuratively. In LA, it's not supposed to exist (although beautiful Union Station sometimes feels like it for me), and I've never wanted or needed one.

Topanga Canyon Beach, Los Angeles. Photograph copyright © 2016 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Point Dume, Malibu, Los Angeles. Photograph copyright © 2016 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

I guess I'm a Southern Californian at heart, despite having lived very happily in Santa Cruz and Sonora for some years. Santa Cruz and the northern tip of Monterey Bay still feel like Southern California to me. (That way, we can grab wonderful Big Sur and Carmel as ours, too.) I place the geographical divide of Southern and Northern California in Davenport, which is the last point along the coast going north that I truly love. 

This is a long post, and if you've read it you must truly be my friend or just have nothing better to do on a Thursday. We may move to San Francisco at some point soon, hell, I may even find myself liking San Francisco one day...but I don't especially like urban, I don't really care about great restaurants (once in a while is nice, but I love the ocean more than food), I hate graffiti, I love the insanity of sprawling LA freeways more than the boxed-in carstrophobia of driving in San Francisco, and other than the early gold rush period and the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco's history doesn't really rattle my chain...or balls. 

I've needed to write this for some time. It's not so much that I'm missing LA (it remains vividly alive in my imagination and soul) it's that I'm not missing San Francisco. Maybe I left my heart there, or my hat. Maybe I'm Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. I need a bell tower. I need visions. I need a Geoffrey's in Malibu, with a view of the monstrously beautiful Pacific...or in the garden at the Chateau Marmont, the precursor to and model for the Garden of Eden. 

Another in the series of photographs by Dwayne Moser from behind the Hollywood Sign. 
Photograph copyright © Dwayne Moser.

As Joan Didion wrote so perceptively in The White Album, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." My onetime pal Bret Ellis (throw in an Easton and a few poker chips or baggies of chips) borrowed a little of her style and came up with an equally unforgettable opening line for his LA romance, Less Than Zero: "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles."

I'm afraid to merge into San Francisco. I feel it may consume my soul, what remains of it. But in one of the great ironies of life, maybe I'll be surprised and find buried gold, or hopefully an entire mine. Or maybe I'll help restore The Outer Lands to their rightful place. Sand drifting, covering everything - even the graffiti.

Our old address in Laurel Canyon: Willow Glen Road, Los Angeles.
Photograph copyright © 2016 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

If you enjoyed this post, please follow me on Twitter @alexanderchow. 


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