Many years ago I had a teacher who explained that Renaissance Venice had a disproportionate number of homosexuals. He stated, as fact, that rich old men married beautiful young women, fathered a child or two, then promptly died. The children were raised indulgently by women without a proper male role model and the boys became gay. This is the sort of rubbish that makes absolute sense to a clueless middle aged straight guy in the suburbs. It also completely misses the point.
I presented a different scenario – much to the class’s collective discomfort. Let’s say you’re a young man living just about anywhere in Europe in the 1500’s. You would almost certainly be the son of a farmer living in a rural village. If you were lucky you’d be the eldest of several siblings and you might inherit a scrap of land. You’d be married by sixteen and dead by thirty five. For reasons you can’t exactly articulate you really want out. Bad. Your options are clear and rather limited. Walk for months if you have to, but get to a bigger town. At the time there was no better place than Venice. Once you finally arrive you meet others like yourself and you build a different kind of life among the merchants and foreign traders. You rub shoulders with Arab sailers, Jewish shopkeepers, and Nordic expatriates. Spot the difference?
Venice itself was an unlikely locus for any kind of economic or cultural success. Its existence was the result of brutal invasions that pushed farmers off their fertile land and into the tidal marshes and skimpy islands of the northern Adriatic. In their desperation the refugees turned to fishing for sustenance. Because they needed to fish the inhabitants became good at building boats. Boats became ships. Ship building led to trading. Trading led to banking.
Places like San Francisco are modern day versions of Venice. Like Venice San Francisco is also a port town dominated by migrants, trade, and commerce. Like Venice which struggles to hold back the rising sea, San Francisco is perched precariously on a fault line. And like Venice, it isn’t cheap. You have to really want to be here. And if for some reason you’re persuaded to leave you tend not to go back home, but find some other emerging place with similar qualities instead.
For years I’ve joked that there’s something seriously wrong with any town that can’t manage to maintain a respectable population of Chinese, Jews, and homosexuals. Immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, and gays are indicator species. No one leaves their homeland or hometown to seek a better life in a new place if there’s no additional opportunity for commerce, advancement, or acceptance. No one willingly stays in a place that’s fundamentally hostile to their needs and aspirations. If other viable options exist people will seek them out, often at great personal cost. Some places are radically better than others in this regard.
The self selecting populations of places like San Francisco are both the beneficiaries of a rare set of accidental circumstances as well as the primary contributors toward the success of the city. The people who create new technology, innovation, and art don’t necessarily come from here. We’re from Mississippi, North Dakota, Utah, India, Ukraine, Brazil… But we couldn’t have accomplished much back home as isolated individuals in places where a tremendous premium is placed on being normal and fitting in. The city makes us. And we make the city.