The Bay Area is big. It sprawls. People here like to look down their noses as Los Angeles, like to sneer about how auto-oriented they are, and yet for all the public transit here the Bay Area is a truly suburban auto-oriented place.
Part of it is merely success. The 20th century was good to the Bay… or perhaps I should say, it bestowed money and growth upon it. As a result, the region grew rapidly, and most of this growth was mid century style sprawl. To cite just one example, before the War, Berkeley was still largely an agricultural town surrounded by orchards and tomato plantations; this is why there was a massive Heinz factory down at Ashby and San Pablo. Vast stretches of now urbanized lands (Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, Fremont, Hayward, and so forth) were agriculture not all that long ago, and their “urbanization” was not dense nor on the framework of the streetcar network with its human-scale, storefront inducing ways.
There are, sure, dense places. Oakland is made up of streetcar strips. So too is San Francisco. Yet the former has until very recent times suffered a long and difficult life, and the latter has become of late so expensive that I suspect most businesses are merely hobby-horses for people with day-jobs in tech. I doubt there is such a thing as a single genuinely middle-class person left living in San Francisco proper.
The downside of this scale is that in so many ways the entire region does not feel world class or special. Instead it often feels prosaic, dull, workaday, and culturally impoverished. When I think of Portland, I can think of a dozen or two bars, a few dozen cafes, scores of restaurants, herds of shops and stores and places to visit. The vast majority of these are within easy walking distance of each other, or at worst a brief bus ride. But here? Here you had better plan your outings in advance, and you had better have a car, because collecting a shopping list might take you trips to hell and back. There are, quite plainly, fewer distinct and functioning neighborhoods per square mile than the Portland region, and they are much further apart.
Yet the bigness has other aspects too. This is the kind of place that feels like it is on the world stage. What role it plays? That remains in doubt, but it does have some part in the play. This is a place where you can do a double take because you swear you just saw Rebecca Solnit walking by carrying a to-go carton of Thai food. This is a place where you can go, for $5, to hear Nate Silver speak about revolutionizing political polling. This is a place where the bay gets shut down by billionaires playing with multi-million dollar sailboats. Where new transit lines cost $100 million per mile. Where the latest iPhone is designed. Where the future of the American automobile is being crafted. Where the way that we live and work is being upended, constantly, by technological and communicative revolution.
It ought to be exciting but strangely it seems more mundane. Because the odd part of it is that although all of these things are true, although San Francisco and her region really are that important… the place is also not all that remarkable, and in many ways it is, at the human level, a desert. Cities are meant to be places where convergence occurs, where talented people cross-pollinate to create artistic and creative new movements. But the very bigness that the 20th century reshaped this space into has prevented that, inhibited that, physically driven the entire region into a dysfunctional and disjointed thing. In the beautiful Bay Area, the whole is now less than the sum of its parts.
In Japanese gardening, there is a principle that the larger the garden, the finer the level of detail must be achieved. Small gardens are meant to be mere sketches suggesting the larger idea, but large gardens afford the opportunity–and therein, the obligation–to bring a more perfect execution into existence. For the Bay Area, the philosophy is antithetical. Here, the bigness means a certain roughness was and is necessary to fill in the whole. Too often, too little butter has been spread across too much bread, so that talent and ideas only rarely gain critical mass.
All of this leads me once more to observe that Portland may be, for the present, the perfect geographical size. It is just large enough to be metropolitan, just large enough to escape being another Boise or Spokane. Yet it is also just small enough to be moved, to change, to adapt, to allow ideas to flower and grow, to allow serendipity and collaboration.These are all qualities that largely escape the Bay Area, qualities that are not so easily achieved when your two most dense urban areas are increasingly reducible to a yacht club and a forgettable Midwestern downtown.