The Laboratorium
March 2001

California Dreaming


John Phillips, best known as one-fourth of the Mamas and the Papas, passed away this week at the age of 65, from heart failure. Phillips was the songwriter for the group, and was also responsible for a song made famous by his friend Scott McKenzie: "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)."

In spite of all the lyric baggage attached to it by the John Phillipses of the world, something about San Francisco remains distinctly unsettled. As a city, its geography is the embodiment of someone else's obscure and unfulfilled desire.

When you drive into the outdoors from other cities, the goal is to forget that there is a city nearby. Get far enough away, and the city ceases to exist. San Francisco only truly comes into being when you leave it: the journey outwards is necessary to find a vantage point from which the city makes sense. Looking down across the Golden Gate from the Marin headlands, San Francisco swims into focus, a shining city amidist fogbound hills.

Ascend to the top of Twin Peaks or of Buena Vista and you see why they put a city here: these sharp hills by the sea have an allusive poetry to them. From these vantage points, however, you can also see, perhaps, how it is that the landscape's potential has remained uncompleted. The city spills out everywhere, endless elongated rectangular city blocks rolling over everything in sight.

From ground level, you can see the hills: in fact, you go chasing after them as you might chase after a rainbow. See, there, where the ground rises up to the west, let us go there, for there must be something magical just beyond. And then you go there, and you are in another neighborhood rather like the one you have just left, or perhaps it isn't even a different one, it's so hard to tell where one leaves off and another begins.

There are lines of demarcation here and there -- Divisadero, Lombard, Market, and the rest -- but they mean nothing, they represent nothing more than that someone chose to put a street here. For all its natural and man-made beauty, San Francisco leaves surpisingly few traces of urban purposefulness. Only rarely do its topography and its architecture burst through into anything more specific than a general suggestive notion of Frisco-ness. Even its monumental architecture and its characteristic landmarks are abstract symbols that can scarce be bothered to stand in relation to each other.

They came to this beautiful headland in search of paradise, and they built it for themselves the best they were able, putting up their three-story Victorian houses with angled roofs and gorgeous woodwork. And then, they turned around, ripped out their first floors, and put in one-car garages. You go to San Francisco and you think: this is a city that had a strong sense of purpose and mislaid it.

What, then, of the California dreamers? If they came seeking peace and love in this landscape, then why are such qualities so hard to find in its incomplete sightlines? In the midst of the most gorgeously sculptural hills on earth, what made them content to build beautiful houses on streets without trees?

Perhaps this: that dreamers they were and dreamers they remain. That the city as the object of their fantasy cannot coexist with the city as the subject of their daily lives. And that those who come to San Francisco and achieve peace brought the seeds and the soil of their contentment with them, like flowers in their hair.