San Francisco, authority and city-diffing

There’s a feeling that I’ve been getting since I came to San Francisco that’s been gradually becoming clearer. At first, I thought I was picking up on the American pioneer spirit. It seemed that there was less of sense of a central authority who would take care of things for you. Canberra has this in droves – it (and we, the residents) are drowning in it.

But I think it’s something a little subtler. And it comes not from something that’s present, but from something that’s absent. There’s hardly anyone here wearing suits.

The presence of big business and government is nearly non-existent. Well, not quite. There’s plenty of police (SFPD) and fire trucks around. And you know about it; their sirens are pretty attention-grabbing. But not the public service sort of government. Instead of the government being this massive nannying entity (hello, Canberra), it seems like it’s just one force here (and not the dominant one), doing its best to hold things together in a mostly orderly fashion.

And big business? There’s lots of Starbucks chains. Surprisingly few McDonalds. Barely any supermarkets, at least in the areas I’ve seen. Lots of independently run grocery stores. Plenty of advertising, a few slightly-larger-than-Canberra-scale skyscrapers, but not a bunch of people running around in suits.

So if government and big business aren’t the major forces, what are? This seems much more up to the individual. There’s a sense that without so much protection from the government, everyone has to fend for themselves. It seems like there’s more space for people to make what they want of it, which leads to more extremes. There seem to be more homeless people and beggars, but also a lot of character to the place. And although I haven’t knowingly met the rich, the success stories are pretty well known (Twitter for starters).

This might be premature; I’ve only been here a few days, and there’s plenty of areas that I haven’t visited yet. But it’s certainly been fascinating to be able to diff cities.

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