Change is a bitch. Or maybe more like a cheetah, stalking us from tall weeds.
Once, on safari in Tanzania, I saw a cheetah stealthily tracking and killing an antelope, a Kirk’s dik-dik. The dik-dik was cartoon-like in its behavior, happily bounding, in spurts, away from its herd. I could almost hear the animal humming, “do do-do do-doo.” Behind it, 50 yards away, the cheetah lay low in the grass, creeping forward whenever the dik-dik moved or turned its head downwind. It was as if the herbivore had tied a cosmic rope to the carnivore, and was reeling it steadily towards an outcome that’d been determined a long time ago. Then, in a blurry burst of speed, the cheetah was on the dik-dik, jaws crunching into its neck.
Change is always deadly. Something – a marriage, emotional blockage, drug habit – has to end for something else to begin. That death is often welcome, but it can be hard. Adolescence is an exhilarating, depressing, profound, and sometimes dangerous journey through change. Divorce can have many of these same elements, as can relocating to take a new job.
As with time, change cannot be stopped. We can stay inside our rent-controlled apartments, gripping the arms of our La-Z-Boy chair while watching Seinfeld re-runs and sipping a can of Coors Light, and change will still be forced upon us, if only reflected in the steady growth of hair and nails, and deterioration of our bodies. We can’t, as much as we may want to, “…turn back time, to the good ol’ days, When our momma sang us to sleep…”
When my wife and I moved to Kansas Street almost 20 years ago Potrero Hill was a different place. The closet restaurant – the only one within six blocks – was the Garden of Tranquility, which was neither. The Whole Foods on Rhode Island Street was an automobile repair shop, and then a hole in the ground for many years. The Potrero Power Plant chugged away; Mission Bay was swampy and scarcely populated. I loved it. But it changed. I did too.
Rearranging a relationship with a beloved place can be as hard as doing the same with a person, even if that bond was brutal. Butte, America, a documentary film about a dying copper mining town, captures the fading residents’ longing for a time that, from an outsider’s perspective, seemed like Hell. Butte was the site of the worst hard rock mining disaster in U.S. history – the Granite Mountain fire, which killed 168 men – for decades was seized by conflict over working conditions, sparking some of this country’s most violent labor confrontations, while the land the miners and their families lived and worked on was being steadily turned into a toxic waste dump. Yet as the town disappeared into history, its long-time residents tried to hold tight to the ghosts of good times and well-fought challenges, willing them with all their hearts to stay.
In Dogpatch and Potrero Hill, the cheetah of change comes mostly in the form of economics, the relentless stalking of profits to be made from underutilized land. Some recent changes – such as the flowering of new restaurants – have been welcome; others – like traffic congestion and the loss of unstructured space – not so much. Either way, the smell of death and rebirth is everywhere, at Showplace Square, Pier 70, and even, gratefully, the Potrero Annex-Terrace complex.
As we battle with the City, developers, and one another over the shape of what’s to come, we should be mindful not to grasp at ghosts, but rather to bid them a good farewell, and attend to what can and should be kept alive: mobility of all kinds, a sense of community, neighborhood merchants, unstructured public spaces, places to play where you don’t have to pay. Change may be a bitch, but she’s our bitch, whether we like it or not.