This Isn't Your Parents' "Tales of the City"

The Bay City Beacon  team is writing tales of the city for their generation. Some pictured left to right: Daniel Herzstein, 23; Jay Ann Leyson, 30; Andy Lynch, 25; Laura Clark, 30; Victorio Li, 20.

The Bay City Beacon team is writing tales of the city for their generation. Some pictured left to right: Daniel Herzstein, 23; Jay Ann Leyson, 30; Andy Lynch, 25; Laura Clark, 30; Victorio Li, 20.

By Joel P. Engardio

I’ll never forget the couple, baby boomers, sitting next to me at the musical stage production of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” a few years ago. The lights came up at intermission and the woman let out a joyous sigh as she leaned on her husband’s shoulder.

They exclaimed how much the show reminded them of the San Francisco they loved in the 1970s – when they could move to a new city as young people and re-imagine it with their fellow generation.

I left the theater wondering what are the tales of our city today and who will tell them? How will millennials remake San Francisco in their image? What stories from 2017 will audiences celebrate with song 40 years from now?

The answer depends on how much we resist the latest wave of newcomers.

Young baby boomers faced lots of resistance when they descended on San Francisco from all parts of the country with their revolutionary ideas, identities and lifestyles. But the boomers prevailed by telling a compelling story that turned San Francisco into a beacon for their generation. “Tales of the City” began as a groundbreaking column in the San Francisco Chronicle that galvanized readers with its immediacy, honesty and heart.

Yet some boomers have become resisters. They aren’t ready to accept the fact that another generation of arrivals will inevitably take San Francisco through its next revolution. And they still have the advantage of storytelling, running popular blogs like 48 Hills and writing high-profile columns at the Chronicle.

That’s why it is exciting to see a new publication written largely by millennials. It promises to be a beacon of their hopes and dreams. The Bay City Beacon launched online earlier this month and will debut in print January 23 with a circulation of 50,000 copies. Volunteers will distribute the paper at coffee shops, along merchant corridors and eventually at Muni stations.

The Beacon has a core team of about a dozen editors and contributors. They support housing and transportation policies to accommodate a growing population. This puts them on the “moderate” side of San Francisco’s confusingly named political camps – in contrast to the “progressive” side that tends to limit growth.

Andy Lynch, 25, is the volunteer publisher. Last year, he managed Marjan Philhour’s campaign for District 1 supervisor against progressive victor Sandra Lee Fewer. One of the Beacon’s first stories was an interview with Fewer that criticized backers of Philhour’s campaign.

It seems the Beacon is sincere about producing a balanced publication that doesn’t hit readers over the head with an ideological frying pan. At least that was my advice to them. I’ve volunteered to help Beacon editors and writers craft their stories.

Few at the Beacon have any journalism experience. If they really want to succeed, they will need to find a managing editor with real journalism training to steer the operation.

So far, the Beacon is mostly a labor of love with a few thousand dollars in start-up costs. While the number of advertisers they attract will determine their potential, they are serious about appearing professional. I was impressed with the robust discussion of ethics and standards at one of the team meetings I attended.

Their mission is to be both informational and fun. For example, Laura Clark can be a polarizing figure on housing issues as director of Grow SF. But she didn’t even mention density in her first column. She wrote about her favorite lunch spots. Clark, 30, shows that residents who don’t have decades of history in San Francisco can be in love with the city while seeking to improve it.

The Beacon isn’t exclusively millennial. Bruce Agid, 61, is a columnist. At first glance, Agid fits the “get off my lawn” archetype. He’s a native San Franciscan from a working-class family who swears by the chicken parmesan at Original Joe’s and savors the occasional cigar.

But Agid is also a visionary. He wants to build transportation for the future and he’s willing to change 40 years of restrictive housing policy to make room for the kids and grandkids of his generation.

Agid is a boomer who knows that trying to preserve San Francisco in amber goes against what our city purports to stand for. While we should honor the best of our past, a truly progressive city will always be a beacon that lights the way forward.

Also published in San Francisco Examiner January 15, 2017