March 9, 2007
The White Light City

San Francisco . . . The White Light City

 “Only in Greece and in the Sinai have I seen light quite as three-dimensional,  dense,  limpid,  delicate,  dreamlike,  and clear:  To say that much of San Francisco faces north over water only partially explains the effect.  I have lived in Haifa,  another city that faces north over water.  From its hills one can see extraordinary light,  but it is not like the light of San Francisco.  It isn’t as rich.  The light of Rome is richer,  but it isn’t as clear.  In Paris,  the light does magical things but only in the sky and among the clouds,  seldom descending.  San Francisco light isn’t merely bright and glowing like none other;  it engages you in its battle with the fog,  makes you an ally,  sweeps you along,  carries you with it (when you look out over the distance) as if you were not where you are standing but where you are looking.  The pellucid,  enthralling light of San Francisco is like one of those huge emerald waves in Hawaii through which surprised surfers break only to find themselves on the covers of magazines.
    Light is the soul of San Francisco.  It is responsible for the serenity and inner freedom that are otherwise inexplicable.  It energizes.  It enthralls.  It redeems bad buildings and jerry-built neighborhoods and makes more beautiful the beautiful buildings and their surroundings.  Most importantly,  it,  like the laws of proportion,  is an agent that perpetually shapes the city---through human intentions,  but beyond them.  Unlike proportion however,  which underlies even the light itself,  the light is something specific,  active,  and surprising.  Once,  I was walking in Fort Mason,  under the shade of the trees.  I came to a place on the path where the view gave out on the Golden Gate.  The metal roofs of Fort Mason itself were hardly a shade different from the color of the bridge;  beyond the bridge the cliffs were tinged in red;  and beyond them something was in the air,  an almost imperceptible glint of gold and red light.  My line of sight,  amplified by the resonance of the otherworldly red and gold,  was like the trajectory of a rocket,  which is perhaps why I suddenly felt as if I had been shot out of a cannon.  The sensation was that of flight,  of tremendous velocity,  of moving out of the dark,  out of oneself,  and into gravity-less light.  San Francisco is one of the few cities in the world where things like this happen not only to beatitudes and mystics but to newsboys,  politicians,  and donut-fryers.  If it hasn’t happened to you,  perhaps you should move to Philadelphia. “  Mark Helprin from THE TRUE BUILDERS OF CITIES 1990



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