Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Center and Edge: The San Francisco Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area is often considered historically and culturally anomalous: episodes and incidents like the Gold Rush, earthquakes, and numerous countercultural movements appear to set it apart from the rest of the country. In fact, the region is both iconic and archetypal; a sprinkling of remarkable events and unique geography should not prevent one from seeing the mainstream on the coastal edge. Here, as with other 'Sunbelt' centers, the postwar era has largely been defined by decentralization, shrinking manufacturing, and the growth of technology and service based industries. Fierce battles over urban renewal, highway construction, and gentrification in city centers are representative of similar fights across America. Likewise, the so-called standardization of the built environment persists in the Bay Area as elsewhere. Thus, while San Francisco stands at the root of the region's image and legacy, to think of this dense portion of Northern California in the traditional form of magnetic city center and dispersed suburbs belies pivotal demographic shifts in postwar American growth. The Golden Gate may still stand as the touristic icon of the Bay Area, but the region's evolving population, industries, and economies have complicated the older model of periphery and core.

This sense of being at once the center and the edge applies equally to the area's visual arts scene. San Francisco, rich with its own tradition of artists' colonies, bohemian culture, and a vigorous modernist community, led the West Coast for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but was generally thought of as lesser counterpart to New York. In recent decades Los Angeles has surpassed San Francisco in its cultural reach, fostering innovative practices tied to the contemporary global economy seemingly far better than its northern neighbor. And yet, San Francisco has remained an artistic center, its hilly topography and ocean-bounded geography providing natural fodder for continual meditations on the urban picturesque. Likewise, the city's diverse ethnic, cultural, and identity-based communities and longstanding liberalism are still thought of as quintessential elements of a creative core. Even as the South Bay dominates as a technological hub, the rise of San Francisco's 'Multimedia Gulch' in the mid-1990s and current prestige of many SoMa area companies are reminders of the city's continuing draw for inventive entrepreneurs.

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