This is not the West End News from Cook County this week, but the West End News from the western United States, where I am visiting family for the holidays. George Burns said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” I agree with George, but probably for different reasons.
It is a genuine culture shock to travel directly from the end of the Sawbill Trail to San Francisco, California. It is truly a case of a woods bunny lost and adrift on the mean streets of one of the world’s great cities. It is fun though, to draw some comparisons between San Francisco and good old Cook County.
There are many more young people per capita in San Francisco than in Cook County. Hosting the headquarters of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and thousands of other tech companies, combined with ridiculous housing prices, has made San Francisco the Mecca of well paid, smart, young people from all over the world.
Even the casual conversations overheard in public ranged from improving driverless cars, new ways of distributing music, how recent legal precedents are affecting the marketplace, to what will be the next big thing and who will get rich inventing it. It is exciting, intimidating and a little frightening, all at the same time. It is a given that if you have an amazing idea, you can apply the appropriate brainpower and change the world. Big things are coming - the only question is, what are they and who will get rich inventing them?
San Francisco has fully embraced smart phone culture. Almost every routine, daily activity involves the help of a smart phone. It has changed the rhythm of life by making planning and organizing quick and easy.
Two parts of the smart phone culture were very handy to this Cook County visitor on the big city.
The first was the mapping app that also provides exact directions to any destinations. You can even ask it to tailor the directions for walking and public transportation. This relieves the old anxiety of feeling lost half the time in the heart of the urban jungle. Now, a pleasant voice gently and reassuringly guides you to your destination. As a side benefit, you can instantly locate food, drink, public bathrooms and look up answers to any questions that may occur to you.
Another big difference of the San Francisco smart phone culture is that it is now considered bad manners to use your phone while in a social situation. When people gather face-to-face, the phones are put away with their ringers silenced. The only time a phone is taken out is to do something that serves the group – looking up disputed facts, making reservations, getting directions and so on.
If you do take a call or text in a social setting, you are expected to apologize, explain why the call is necessary and leave the group to complete the conversation. I’m told that this is a relatively new social convention and we can only hope that it spreads to the rest of the country quickly.
Another amazing development that began in San Francisco is the way that taxis and ridesharing work.
Uber is smart phone app that allows you to just push a button on your phone when you want a taxi. It automatically summons the nearest taxi, tells you where it is relative to you, how soon it will arrive, the driver’s name and his or her average rating from all previous clients. The taxi pulls up, usually in a couple of minutes, and the driver greets you by name. You climb in and tell the driver where you want to go. You can watch your progress on your phone and it tells you when you will arrive based on your average speed. When you get there, you just get out and walk away. The app takes care of paying the fare including the tip. Both the driver and customer provide ratings. If the driver has a bad rating, he will soon be out of business. If a rider gets a bad rating, he will soon find it difficult to summon a taxi.
Lyft is a similar service that does the same thing using private cars and drivers rather than licensed taxis.
Not only is this system incredibly efficient, easy and cost effective, it also develops a sense of trust and community, even in the heart of world class metropolis.
On the less positive side, San Francisco has many, many more homeless people than Cook County. It seems that almost every block you see a person with their life’s possessions in a shopping cart. Many are obviously mentally ill.
In the parks, which are beautiful, there are what appear to be semi-permanent encampments of people who sleep out in sleeping bags with scraps of plastic keeping off the rain.
It’s not clear to me if the relative lack of homeless people in Cook County is a function of our brutal winter weather or enlightened social policies. It was shocking to see busy, purposeful, well dressed people passing the homeless routinely without a glance in their direction. Even with California’s warm climate, it seems that as a society we could provide opportunities for people with mental illness to live a more dignified and comfortable life.
It is easy to feel dazzled and envious of the fast paced life in San Francisco, but our clean air, abundant wildlife, pristine watersheds and small town friendliness would surely dazzle an urban visitor to our lovely corner of the world.
In other words, there is no place like home.
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.