It’s Saturday night and the San Francisco Public Library feels like the hottest place to be. “I’ve never seen the library this crowded — ever,” I overhear as I squeeze my way through the crowded atrium to a talk called “Poetic City.”
The seven-hour event is called “Night of Ideas.” Organized through a partnership between the library, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the French Consulate, the event is advertised as “A free and festive night to exchange ideas in the heart of the city!” The inaugural event was held in Paris in 2016.
I wind through the stacks, past a long line of people waiting to buy doughnuts — glazed and sprinkled, a little too close to the books. In the elevator, a volunteer in a turquoise shirt asks which floor we’re headed to. “I don’t know,” says a girl, clearly overwhelmed. She’s holding a shiny program that lists dozens of options for talks, performances and attractions. “Where should we go?”
The volunteer smiles. “Well, floor three is where the bar is,” he says.
I get off on the second floor to hear nine poets answer the question: “What is the poetic city?” Instead of offering a definition, the poets mostly mourn for a city that no longer exists. In their readings, they dance around themes of gentrification, the inequality wrought by the tech boom, and San Francisco as it used to be, before shops selling $5 pour-over coffees replaced affordable homes.
“I refuse. I resist. I remember. I reclaim,” said poet Flavia Mora.
Tiny Grey Garcia calls herself a “poverty scholar,” having lived on the streets. “Can I get a witness,” she says in a voice that doesn’t need a mic, “who’s barely making it but somehow still does?” She calls the event “hipster” and says everyone’s complacent in the “gentriFUKcation” that’s taken over her city.
“If you have a trust fund, see me after, and I’m not even joking,” Garcia says.
“What was so broken here that you needed to fix it?” asked trans poet Ash Philips, whose shirt is decorated with flamingos, and who makes the audience laugh when they say, “Can you at least take your airpods out when you speak to us?”
At the end of the panel, poet Thea Matthews takes the mic one last time. She asks listeners to raise their hands if they’ve moved to San Francisco within the last five years.
“Thanks for your honesty,” she says. “The truth is, you’re the gentrifier. And you need to look within yourself and ask yourself what you’re doing for the community, for the people you displaced.”
She paused. “It’s amazing how people just see through us.”
The audience listens.
I walk away to stretch my legs and let the poetry sink in.
Between bookshelves, a modern-dance troupe is wearing all-white outfits. Onlookers waiting in line to buy beer watch, entranced.
I am struck by the intellectualism and artistry of the evening. A French woman asks me if I have seen her friend. I have not. Will she answer a few questions for this story? Yes, but she would prefer to be anonymous. “I like the randomness of this event,” she says. “That it is about everything.”
It gets late, and I go to other panels — one called “Equitable City,” about the radical idea of making things free; and one about preserving LGBTQ+ spaces and bringing the historical past into the present.
At “Equitable City,” John Law, the co-founder of Burning Man, says he thinks it’s too late for San Francisco — the damage of gentrification has been done, he says. “Maybe it’s not too late for Oakland.”
Marina Gorbis, the panel moderator, disagrees. She thinks tonight’s event is proof that people care enough about their city to do something to make it truly equitable.
“This is actually doing something,” she says, looking around in awe at the hundreds of people gathered on a Saturday night to talk about the future. “So keep doing it.”