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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

San Francisco: Gateway to America?

'Season of the Witch' explores the Weird City on the West Coast

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If New York is the City that Never Sleeps and Chicago is the Second City, San Francisco emerges in our collective consciousness as the nation's Weird City. Forever synonymous with the 1960s and the “Summer of Love,” San Francisco is often portrayed in works that focus on a very specific historical moment, one when young people from across the country flocked to the city to find a home in the region's burgeoning counterculture. Such works have provided a detailed account of '60s-era culture in the Bay Area, but they give us little sense of how the city looked before this turbulent decade—and how it evolved once the hippies fell from national prominence.

It is this lack of historical perspective that David Talbot addresses in his excellent Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (Free Press). Beginning his narrative in the 1930s—and ending in the late 1980s—Talbot makes a convincing case that understanding San Francisco is key to understanding 20th-century America. Of course, Talbot gives San Francisco during the 1960s its due, covering well-known characters like Janis Joplin along with lesser-known groups such as the politically minded Diggers. Yet Talbot also addresses the other forces that reshaped the city during this moment, including urban renewal (or “Negro removal,” as its opponents in the Fillmore District called it) and the commercialization of hippie culture.

It is this willingness to explore the dark side of the City of Love that stands as the greatest strength of Talbot's book. This is particularly the case in his treatment of two of the city's most infamous residents: Jim Jones and Dan White. Talbot's account of the rise of Jones and his Peoples Temple religious movement is absolutely masterful, allowing the reader to see just how and why this unstable preacher achieved such prominence. Well before Jones convinced his most ardent followers to drink the Kool-Aid in rural Guyana, he had become a critical part of the Democratic Party machine in San Francisco—delivering votes for such leftist politicians as Mayor George Moscone and activist/city Supervisor Harvey Milk.

In 1978, fellow city Supervisor Dan White would go on to assassinate both Moscone and Milk. Talbot makes it clear that, while undoubtedly unstable, White was also part of a broader backlash emerging in the late 1970s to the liberal politics that had come to define San Francisco. The growing power of the gay rights movement in the city—which had found its champion in openly gay Milk—antagonized working-class, religiously minded, white Catholic residents of the city. At the same time, a budding anti-tax movement took issue with programs designated for the city's minority populations. White's frenzy of violence, Talbot points out, came to illustrate the passions invoked by the culture war that gripped the San Francisco region.

This culture war would soon become part of a national campaign, one in which Republican leaders—in California and elsewhere—would cast San Francisco as Sodom By the Bay. The rise of AIDS in the Bay Area (which Talbot describes in heartbreaking detail) further contributed to the belief that San Francisco was a den of sin and vice. Yet in his portrayal of the grassroots efforts to deal with this crippling epidemic, Talbot highlights how a handful of activists succeeded in bringing global attention to a disease previously associated with homosexuals and drug users. In the process, Talbot not only gives us a nuanced account of the city that he clearly loves, but he also gives us a cultural history of late-20th-century America.
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