My first trip to San Francisco in 20 years felt like a disappointment until I found a new kind of magic in the city.
1980s San Francisco, Then and Now
San Francisco, 1988. I arrived at the bus terminal bedraggled but so relieved. I'd travelled to San Francisco from New York on what I’d saved from my summer job. “It can be done, just take the Greyhound,” I was told. As a student from Malaysia on my maiden trip to the United States, I couldn’t fathom the distance.
Fast forward to 2018. I flew business class to San Francisco from Hong Kong, where I’d worked since graduation. I’d always wanted to relive the wonderful moments in San Francisco, not realizing how much the city had changed. Or how much I’d changed, for that matter.
As the airport shuttle sped past suburbs towards the city, it looked just like any other city. Where was the sense of awe I once felt about this wonderful city? Still, I shouldn't jump to conclusions. "It's only day one, be patient!" I admonished myself. My expectation was high; I wanted to recapture the feeling of wonder of being in San Francisco for the first time in my life, all those years ago.
First stop, Union Square; what had felt so grand seemed to have shrunk. Through the eyes of a young girl so far from home, the square was massive and the malls were huge. The Square, although surrounded by buildings on all sides, had a relaxed air about it; people were sitting on the grass soaking up the summer sun. I’d hoped for a trip down memory lane but instead saw sights typical of many cities: Apple, Tiffany, Nike, and the like.
Hence I dreaded going to Pier 39, my favourite spot. No longer impressed by Union Square, I suspected it might just be as disappointing. In my mind, it was a rustic, easygoing place beside the sea where people enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere, not obsessively taking selfies (smartphones had not been invented then) or preoccupied with souvenir shopping. With an ice-cream in hand, walking aimlessly to the sound of lapping waves. It was a moment etched in my memory, frozen in time.
As I approached Pier 39, my pace slowed. This can’t be right, I thought. Two-story wooden structures lined the pier jutting out to the sea. I stopped and stared. In the distance was a cluster of figures beside the railing. Ah, must be the seals, I reasoned.
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I stared at the wooden buildings but there was no hint of recognition as I searched my archaic memory. Standing amidst rows of restaurants sandwiched by shops full of cheap souvenirs, tourists taking selfies and parents with kids, I was bewildered. Before my very eyes, Pier 39 had turned into something else: commercial and soulless.
I came away defeated. I felt cheated out of the memories of my youth but I should have known the city would not stand still—the internet age had arrived, together with "Manhattanization" (construction of large skyscrapers in the financial district). From 2000 to 2018, more than 15 buildings taller than 30 stories were built, with more in development.
I longed for the San Francisco from decades past, but gradually it made sense. I was no longer the student who travelled to the US for the first time in her life. My botched attempt to walk down memory lane had not taken away that sense of novelty which could only be felt by a youngster on the cusp of adulthood. It was unrealistic to recapture the feelings of a bygone era. Nevertheless, each voyage could bring fresh discoveries.
On my last morning in San Francisco, as I stepped out of my hotel at Union Square, the sound of a saxophone filled the air, along with the smell of bacon. I smiled to myself, with the joy I once felt when experiencing a beautiful moment.
© 2019 CC Leau