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On The Impossible Task of Mining A City's Culture

March 25, 2009

What does it mean to be intimately acquainted with the culture of a city? How can a single person, even one that has lived in one place all his or her life, possibly understand how a metropolis functions on a cultural level when most of our cities are so densely populated and infinitely diverse?

Questions along these lines came up yesterday evening during a conversation with a friend regarding the cultural awareness of the editor of a local news and culture publication here in San Francisco. My friend claimed that this editor was very much up on San Francisco culture because he knows a lot about restaurants and is very outdoorsy. It's true that San Francisco's world-class culinary output and dizzying topographical beauty are two of the area's key assets. (Though I'm not sure if opportunities for hiking, sailing and biking provided by the natural landscape can really be classified as part of a city's cultural scene). But the editor's near-complete lack of interest in / knowledge of the city's arts scene surely stands as an enormous strike against any claim that he can be considered familiar with San Francisco culture?

Herb Caen, the late great columnist, has probably come closer than anyone to getting under the mad-tattooed skin of this city. Decades of covering San Francisco's literary, theatrical and pop music scenes alongside championing various civic causes like the removal of the waterfront eyesore of a freeway made him a true of San Francisco cultural maven. He was someone who had a multi-perspective view on what this metropolis' culture means.

But Caen, who died more than a decade ago, worked in arguably less complex and diffuse times than our own. The city has become much more international since his day. Technology has had a huge impact on the cultural scene. The ups and downs of the local economy have also led to further fracturing. As a result, no one in this city today comes close to grasping San Francisco culture as intimately as Caen once did. And yet if he were still alive and working today, he probably would not have as thorough an understanding of local cultural life as was possible a few decades ago.

To truly gain intimacy with the culture of a city, you have to know the culture inside out. You have to spend your life experiencing local arts events across all the genres and various ethnic and social dividing lines. But this can't be a passive activity: active participation is key. And arts are just a part of the puzzle. Each piece of culture, from a building to a song, must be understood within the greater context of its creation -- you have to understand how it springs from and fits into (or doesn't) the framework of the city in which it came to exist. Doing this requires a deep knowledge of local political and social issues. These in turn require a deep knowledge of national and international issues. The task is impossibly huge in other words.

The best we can do to understand our local culture, is get out and about as much as we can without sacrificing time for quiet reflection. Keeping an open mind and exploring the cultural scene in the broadest sense of the word is important. Eating out at fancy restaurants and cycling in the hills are wonderful pursuits. But maybe it's time for this particular editor to check out the local theatre, break-dance, or recycled sculpture scenes once in a while. Doing so might make him better at his job.

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