Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

I love to visit cities. I don't do it often enough. Fortunately, self-publishing my own comic book has driven me to visit two cities over the past two months -- San Francisco in October for the Alternative Press Expo, and Tucson in November for the Tucson Comic Con. I've been to both cities before, but every visit offers a unique opportunity to experience something new, or something familiar from a new perspective -- and this time, for the first time, I had a camera phone with me.

If I had to summarize my tale of two cities without the benefit of pictures, I'd say I found one town a desolate, almost ramshackle smattering of rundown buildings and wandering homeless, and the other, a hip, bustling city rife with art, heart, and nightlife. You'd be surprised which was which.

Granted, my weekend in San Francisco was a cold, rainy one, and the Concourse, which hosts APE every year, isn't in the best corner of town. I'm used to this San Francisco, the perpetually overcast City by the Bay, the dichotomy of Fisherman's Wharf versus the industrial outer banks closer to urban Oakland. What I can't get used to is Market Street. Market is home to my favorite corner in San Francisco, where you can find the Mint (the best karaoke bar in America) on one side, with Al's Comics, Grooves Vinyl Attractions, and It's Tops Coffee Shop (one of the last great greasy spoons around) all across the street. With this quartet of cool on one end, and some touristy shops and trolley stops on the other, you'd think Market Street would be a crown jewel in downtown San Francisco's crown. Alas, it isn't even in the throne room.

Year after year, I stroll down Market Street and am consistently shocked at its rapid deterioration. The homeless population is just plain ridiculous, especially in contrast to the growing number of large, vacant buildings that once boasted a vibrant urban culture. What would be the harm in opening some of those doors for the homeless, especially on a rainy night? Behold these theaters turned porno shops -- and even they're out of business now, victims of the economy and the Internet, I presume. Market's downfall wouldn't be as baffling if I couldn't see the colorfully illuminated City Hall just a few blocks away, with its stoic, hierarchical architecture. The final straw for my perspective of San Francisco's seemingly schizophrenic image in the City Council's recent Happy Meal ban; in a city with so many hungry, regulating food for fat kids' sake seems like a misplaced priority.

Surprisingly, Tucson offered a breath of fresh air, though my friend Nathan warned me of the city's perpetual sewer smell -- which I didn't even notice. Instead, I saw a tight knit downtown glowing with inviting neon, from the historic Fox Theater (seems like every downtown has a Fox Theater) to the Railto to the Congress Hotel. Galleries were open late, and the Screening Room movie theater was showing a film about comic book writer Grant Morrison as a prelude to the Tucson Comic Con. The graffiti claimed no gang allegiance and instead did its best impression of urban art, in many cases, successfully. I didn't see a single homeless person, not that I doubt their presence in Tucson, but as a visitor to the city they didn't make a first or long lasting impression on me -- which is rare. If Tucson wasn't an entity in itself, the last great American metropolis before the Mexican border, I'd actually consider living there someday. Any city with its own growing comics convention is a contender in my book!

Next year, if I visit the San Francisco and Tucson again, I may have two totally different experiences. I may wander to Fisherman's Wharf and experience a bit more of San Francisco's rich history -- or I may wander off Tucson's beaten path and find myself kidnapped by a band of desert meandering meth heads. They say location is everything, but so's the timing -- because, at some point in its life, every city was a great American city. Every city was once somebody's favorite to visit.

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