Coming of Age in SOMA (South of Market)

Aging in Place

Holidays and the end of the year make me think about ritual and renewal and continuity and change — I am beginning to sound like an alumni magazine!

My office recently moved to San Francisco’s South of Market (SOMA) tech zone, where I met the future — for a while we were in a glass cubicle on the fourth floor of an “incubator building” full of ambitious web developers near Second and Mission. The five-story 1910-era structure has a cool modern vibe with exposed brick walls, bamboo-topped steel desks, a basement Fussball lounge and the odd Saarinen potato chip chair. It’s Google-lite in miniature.

It and the surrounding streets are teeming with young men and women, occasionally on skateboards or pulling suitcases, or waiting at the entrance to the venerable Palace Hotel as black SUVs, Mercedes, and Town Cars come and go. An urban planner friend tells me that the Nob Hill hotels are now scrambling to compete with SOMA hostelries like the Palace, which are closer to tech hubs like Pinterest, Salesforce, and Twitter, “where everyone wants to be,” as the VISA ad says. At noon the buffets at local Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese eateries are full, while lines for taco trucks parked at the curb start forming by 11:30 with nobody apparently minding the wait because it’s a chance to talk with colleagues and check emails or play Candy Crush Saga.

And suddenly I have realized that I’m a lot older than my neighbors. Indeed, one day the 30-something maintenance worker who restocks the kitchens and bathrooms  on every floor turned to me  – not having spoken to me before – and said with all earnestness: “It’s so inspiring to see a man of your age still working.” Receding gray hair. Still vigorous; not yet stooped. Well, I can see how I stand out – Rip Van Winkle in the middle of freshman rush.

I had never given my age much thought until that moment, except for the time I thought I was a year older than I actually was and my wife kindly corrected me — which was a delightful gift! But now it occurs to me that of course your environment is a powerful determinant for shaping your world view. Duh! And I can remember thinking the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead — who wrote the influential Coming of Age in Samoa — did look awfully old as she walked up the aisle of the Yale Law School Auditorium leaning heavily on her crook-shaped walking stick to lecture our introductory anthropology class. Which reminds me, when our younger daughter was two years old we visited a small state park. In the visitor center the ranger turned to a child near us and asked: “And how old are you, little boy?” The boy replied: “I’m two.” Whereupon our daughter rushed over to him and said: “You’re not two. I’m two.” I guess part of growing up is realizing that there can be two twos, or put another way – that there can be more than one monoculture. Exposure is definitely broadening.

My 94 year-old mother recently settled into a retirement home after more than sixty years living at the end of a long and winding country road. She said: “The really interesting people here are the ones over 100.” (I can only hope…) That was before she started complaining about the food and had one of her sons find her old copy of Mastering The Art of French Cooking to give to the chef. “Here,” she said, “This is how you make creamed spinach.”

So what’s next? I’m not ready to leave home yet! But someday, if necessary, it ought to be a place that’s well designed, feels genuine, and is easy to move around in for young and old alike. With good design and decent planning there ought to be a way for younger families and retirees to occupy the same complex. Good light, a stimulating outlook, places to be comfortably together and easily apart — with practical sound-proofing where needed — are among the basics. Such a place certainly doesn’t need a hotel ambience, gurgling fountains, or white marble statues of Hebe, the goddess of youth. There must be a better way. So, as the tryptophan kicks in after your feasting maybe you will dream it up! Meanwhile,

holidayphotoWe’re in the caves at Kenzo Estate, the elegant new Napa Valley winery by Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects. Hey, now that I think of it, a winery is actually a form of “assisted living”! We toast you and the future!



One response to “Coming of Age in SOMA (South of Market)

  1. Wow–that is the most personal thing you’ve ever written. It’s wonderful.

    love, the aforementioned wife

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