Bursts of creativity

Looking back through history, cities have creative bursts, possibly only for a short period, whose resonance remains in the public imagination. Take San Francisco. Its long drawn out creativity since the 1906 earthquake reached a certain apex in the summer of love of 1967, whose embodiment was found in Haight Ashbury. Long enjoying a bohemian reputation, the city became a magnet for counter-cultures in the second half of the 20th century. During the 1950s, City Lights was an important publisher of beat generation literature. San Francisco was the centre of hippie and other alternative culture. The 'San Francisco sound' emerged as an influential force in rock music, associated with acts such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. They blurred the boundaries between folk, rock and jazz and enhanced rock's lyrical content. During the 1980s and 1990s San Francisco became a major focal point in the North American - and international - punk, thrash metal and rave scenes. Already known as a gay mecca at the beginning of the 20th century, this was reinforced during World War II, when thousands of gay male soldiers spent time in the city. The late 1960s brought a new wave of more radical lesbians and gays to the city, attracted by its reputation as a radical, left-wing centre. These were the prime movers of gay liberation and they made the Castro neighbourhood the gay mecca of the world. But in the 1980s the AIDS virus wreaked havoc on the gay male community. In the 1990s San Francisco was also a centre of the dot.com boom and growth of the internet. These movements shaped the world and pushed at the edge, creating innovations in lifestyles, products and services along the way. Yet much of the creativity disappeared as the dot.com crash hollowed out much of the industry that had grown up in SoMa (South of the Market). Many of those funky, ex-industrial warehouses are turning from hubs of invention to upscale apartments. In effect, the internet pioneers made the area safe for the next wave of gentrifiers.

Haight Ashbury lives awkwardly with its memories and is now merely a souvenir shadow. The hippie shops sit oddly in an increasingly middle-class, gentrified area. The remaining old and occasional new hippies look bereft of purpose. Castro inevitably declined, its self-confidence dented. Ghiardelli Square, considered the first successful adaptive reuse of an industrial building in 1964, is now a tourist mecca with little creative energy. True, new areas emerged, such as SoMa, but the new media epicentre has shifted elsewhere, to Los Angeles and beyond. Without economic, political or cultural centrality which retains endogenous talent and attracts external talent, it is difficult to maintain a global position of creative power. In spite of everything, the city has immense drawing power and creative initiatives and projects still abound, although there is a danger of tourism taking from the city rather than giving any creative force back. So the city increasingly resonates in its beauty, its memories and its past.

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