My husband and I always draw stares of shocked disbelief when others hear that we voluntarily chose to move our family from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. “Why on earth…?” complete strangers will begin, gamely trying to keep their opinions of our fragile mental health to themselves. Usually, I mumble something about housing prices, being closer to family, or a lawyer’s homing urge. My husband nods in support, then too quickly voices his longing for the One Star, Two Star, Dyn-o-mite Spicy Eggplant served at this tiny place on Clement Street. No one leaves these conversations satisfied.
Of course, San Francisco is a wonderful city, particularly if you’re young. Its beauty is justly celebrated: Baker Beach, next to the Golden Gate and a constant parade of fishing boats and ocean-going vessels; Coit Tower and its nighttime views of the bay; Golden Gate Park, with its carousel, electric boats, and Japanese tea gardens. It’s also wonderfully diverse—and I mean that in a good way. One Haight-Ashbury landlord, interviewing us for San Francisco’s most coveted position—tenant—praised the Haight’s diversity as opposed to that of the Avenues, “where everyone is so homogenous.” He got things exactly backwards: There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference among those who inhabit that shrine to the 60s, but in the Avenues, a single church might offer Sunday Mass in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. A vibrant city that’s within striking distance of the mountains, the beach, and the hum of Silicon Valley, San Francisco holds undeniable attraction for anyone with a heartbeat.
In some ways, oddly enough, that’s especially true if you’ve got a conservative disposition. San Francisco’s cultural and political life admittedly sets the tone for the wrong side of the culture wars, and that tone can be assaultive. (The San Francisco Chronicle must reserve a certain number of column inches weekly for articles criticizing the Church. A typical breathless headline. “Catholic Church Still Not Ordaining Women.”) But it also sometimes seems like The Land That Time Forgot. It might as well still be 1946 at Tadich’s, a downtown fish grill with white-jacketed waiters and a mean Hangtown Fry. The same is true for Tosca, a smoky North Beach bar where Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas hold equal sway on the jukebox, and for at least half a dozen other places I can think of, from the Philosopher’s Club in West Portal to the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor in the Mission. Best of all, none of these has that manufactured feel of so many self-consciously swingin’ martini lounges or brand-new “divest”. No Disney rides back in time for San Franciscans—just the real deal.
For a time we thought that something more substantial might have survived as well. Our neighborhood, Noe Valley, is known as the place where yuppies go to have their babies, and we superficially fit that description. But it was the presence of St. Paul’s Church that really drew us to the area. The elderly ladies sitting outside the magnificent Romanesque building after Mass convinced us, and themselves, that their corner of Noe Valley hadn’t changed much over the years. In some ways, it hadn’t: The parish schoolchildren still got after-school cookies at the Star Bakery, and Hungry Joe’s short-order cook had probably never heard of a tofu scramble. One Italian neighbor had lived all of her 75 years within a two-block radius, and the four Curran girls were growing up surrounded by grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Yet while St. Paul’s parish seemed like a place we could call home for a long time, the signs were there from the beginning. Fr. Mario’s sermons echoed through a sparse congregation, and we quickly realized that there weren’t many other young children in that congregation. In an almost theatrical series of events, the cost of bringing the earthquake-damaged church up to code forced the archdiocese to sell the high school to a condominium developer and will ultimately lead to the introduction of a more contemporary internal church design. As a coup de grace, the powers that be decided that our neighbor’s lifelong Army Street address, and our own newly minted one, would now read Cesar Chavez Boulevard.
More important than that, though, was the sense of community we sought for our children, something that requires a religious foundation. Unfortunately, in this once thickly Catholic city we could muster for ourselves merely an aesthetic Catholicism, a dim reflection of a time when the streets teemed with Irish and Italian immigrants and St. Paul’s was the largest parish west of the Mississippi. Today the tenor of daily life in San Francisco is less than secular, and while there are flourishing parishes and orthodox schools and active organizations, those institutions are widely scattered around the bay. One needs a missionary soul to thrive in such an environment. Struggling for that as an adult is one thing; expecting it of one’s children is another.
I’d be the last person to argue that Washington, D.C., compares to the San Francisco of old. But here our block has more than 30 small children and lots of stay-at-home moms, many of whom are (coincidentally?) Catholic. There are any number of strong Catholic schools and parishes and groups. In short, we’ve found a thriving community in which to raise our children, one in which religion is part of the everyday lives of many people we know. Now if only we could find some Dyn-o-mite Spicy Eggplant.