Life with Qualities

From twilight zones to a sunshine rainbow, the consensus for a new, happy, uncomplicated meaning of life
Amit Sengupta San Francisco (California)

Even as the seagulls fly towards the memories of infamy of the Alcatraz prison on the hills, and the famous Golden Gate Bridge hangs in suspended animation into the blue twilight of the setting sun, you won't find a pub in the endless expanse of the sea coast in San Francisco. Not a scrap of plastic or waste paper or snack or junk/fast food wrappers. Not even a tobacco butt. People are into fitness. No one's smoking near the sea. 

This is because everyone's walking. Or, jogging, skating, cycling. Some are meditating, doing yoga. Others are preparing a trek into the mountains beyond the fishermen's wharf. Or ride their bikes into the steep uphill of mountains, only to roll back across the zigzag path.

Much of San Francisco sleeps and gets up early. The heady smell of black coffee fills the morning air even as the downtown business district near the China Town is fragrant with another day. People are drinking endless cups of coffee with the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle. Through the undulating streets which rise up and down of what is a hilly geography, you can gaze at the distance and see the skyscrapers disappearing and patches of green and blue dominate the landscape of the magnificent massive San Francisco (SF) Bay area. 

The streets fill up with walkers. Women walk briskly through the rectangular squares and simple lanes and pavements, covered with crafted municipality iron lids, and locals tell you, that despite heavy rains there is neither waterlogging nor traffic jams. No one's honking. There is a certain buoyancy and beauty in the clean air, a busy walking, everyday, with destinies defined. 

The SF Bay Region is the "most globalised" after New York, say city officials. The region has a significant Chinese, Afghan, Vietnamese, Philipino, Latino, Indian population, apart from the Afro-American population. The Indian-SF ties are growing and productive - students from India study at the various universities here including at the famous University of California, Berkeley, with its great history of progressive ideas and dissent. Almost 40 per cent of techies work at the IT hub of Silicon Valley - almost every significant technological company in SFO has some Indian connection, here or in India. CEOs and top jobs of several companies are held by Indians and Chinese, especially those with a "scientific bent of mind". 

The SF region too has suffered the ravages of the last decades of industrialisation. More automobiles, less open spaces, shrinking green and blue, intense fuel emissions, land developers calling the shots, more distances of travel and time consuming commuting, congestion, expensive housing, distorted land use, dan¬gers to air quality and clean drinking water. The poor inner cities have seen more poverty and unemployment, post recession. In recent times, low income and poor areas are being encroached by middle and upper class residents, even while the downtown's skyscrapers have threatened to swallow the city.

"There has been always racial tension. There has been great tension between the whites and the blacks, enormous sources of wealth and marginalisation, schools for the low income groups have been abysmal, people are going further and further away to chase a better quality of life, there is no cap on automobiles because it is a free country, transportation is becoming awry and disjointed with great distances from work and home. Communities are saying: My neighbour is being displaced. My park is being removed. Do we have long range planning? The situation is not ideal. As civil society groups, we really have no political power. Our job is high diplomacy and negotiations. And a new, practical, sustainable vision," says Miriam Chion, Senior Planner with FOCUS Program of the Association of the Bay Area Governments.

"What do you do with increasing transport emissions and distorted land use which affects greenhouse emissions," ask Sean Randolph, Executive Director, Bay Area Council Economic Institute. 

Hence strict regulations with public participation are being planned. Big developers have to interact with ecological groups and lo¬cal communities before a project gets an okay - it's almost always a no if it means ravaging the pristine coast, the forest or green areas, which includes parks and public spaces. Now civil society groups and active communities are hyper sharp on ecological devastation of public or private spaces. The message spreads: "Don't build anything near water, or forests or green zones."

"We are a socially conscious region. There is maturity because of our progressive history. There has been the pulsating civil rights movement of the 1960s which has left its mark. There is a strong element of social accountability and responsibility," says Chion.There is a socio-demographic shift in terms of working populations and a shift in aspirations. Professionals are beginning to reject automobiles, big houses with huge garages for multiple cars, long journeys to work. They are choosing quieter, smaller places near coffee homes, libraries, grocery stores, public transport stations. The move is to create new zones where work, home, recreation are close by and accessible. Where walking and cycling are easy.

For instance, vendors and food carts, are getting a new lease of life; informal labour, undocumented workers and labourers who have no papers, they are being redrafted into new city designs, vacant or derelict spaces in neighbourhoods are being used for cultural and arts awareness - from chaotic to calm; the new avant garde is asking locals to dump their cars and participate in community programmes with a 'do it yourself' motto, and not wait for the governments to intervene.

"You watch it. The SFO Bay region is shifting priorities. The days of post-war madness are over. It's becoming quieter, more efficient and productive, more health and ecological conscious, a quality of life much higher in con¬tent and value, unlike much of America," says a local researcher at the University of California. "We need a great, alternative vision," says Randolph. "We already have it. And we have to get a collective consensus to build that vision. We can do it. There is hope in the future."

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010

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