Photo: RUSSELL YIP
Herb Caen in the Crown Room atop the Fairmont Hotel in 1996.
Excerpted from a Herb Caen column — June 27, 1971
I KEEP READING in learned journals that nostalgia is the hottest movement in the land these days, but I’m not buying. It all seems phony to me, just another exercise in merchandising, a high-pressure plot to put our ladies back in wedgies and ankle-strap shoes, not to mention those awful suits with padded shoulders and nipped-in waists (I’ll take the beautiful hippie girls who let it all hang out). Not a tear came to my eyes as I read Life’s “Nostalgia” issue, and as for the vaunted revival of “No, No, Nanette” on Broadway, that’s a bore, too. Can you really get choked up in 1971 over a song with such lyrics as “Day will break and you’ll awake and start to bake a sugar cake for me to take for all the boys to see”? What’s a sugar cake? Why does she have to get up at dawn to bake it? And I’d rather not think about the kind of “boys” who’d want to see it.
THE MAIN REASON I think the Big Nostalgia Kick is synthetic is that we don’t see any signs of it in San Francisco. If it were really happening it would have happened here first. We’ve led the way in so many wonderful things — rock music, Love Children, cirrhosis, bridge-jumpers, bare boobs, junk art, junk clothes, turning on at the Opera House — that it’s ridiculous to think we couldn’t have kicked off a nostalgia boom if we’d really wanted to. After all, San Francisco practically invented nostalgia. It’s just that we played “Remember when?” for so many years — while the rest of the country was going crazy with progress — that we’ve tired of the game.
WELL, NOBODY can accuse San Francisco of living in the past any longer. In fact, where we seem to be is in a mad rush to destroy every vestige of The City That Was, The City That Knows How, Poor Pitiful Pearl of the Pacific. We can’t tear down old buildings fast enough to make room for new ones that are every bit as distinctive as Pittsburgh’s or Atlanta’s. As the man said when he first entered the restaurant atop Bank of America’s World Headquarters: “Instant Cleveland!” And now the rusty steel bones of the Transamerica pyramid are beginning to rise, its lower extremities already girdled in white Plastic Inevitable that puts you in mind of hotel bathrooms. When the pyramid was first announced, Mayor Alioto, drawing on his rich Florentine background, enthused: “It will be our Giotto Tower!” Well, he may have meant Irving Giotto.
WHILE NOSTALGIA is said to be sweeping the country, it’s a dirty word in San Francisco ’71 (watch out, here comes M. Justin Herman again with his swinging steel ball!). Redevelopment is the name of the game, and if you just had your old house shot out from under you, it’s for your own good, old-timer. “You have to be realistic,” as this big building said to me just the other day over lunch at Jack’s, an old restaurant that survives, miraculously. “Realistic.” I didn’t know how to answer him. Realism to him apparently means congestion, confusion, sterility. One antiseptic building, bustling by day, stone cold dead by night — replacing dozens of little buildings where mama and papa ran a grocery, Joe had a bar, Sam did the laundry, George owned a bookstore and hundreds of people lived, laughed, loved and rejoiced in a “neighborhood.” Gone, all of them, to where?
MAYBE NOSTALGIA is out here because it’s too painful to contemplate the dream and consider the reality. Once there were giants who built well — for the ages, they thought — but their landmarks, the solid evidence of their achievements, could disappear overnight, and they did. Now, it’s only when the fog steals in to blot out their ersatz replacements that you dare think of the past — alone, in a bittersweet reverie.