Metropolitan Morals

A Reconsideration of Urban Studies

By Remy Bernstein


I spent this past winter break in San Francisco, conducting archival research for my thesis and trying to remain as professional as possible throughout my two-week stay. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was learning more watching two homeless men snort cocaine in the public library bathroom than from anything I found amongst all the boxes and documents and books up in the fifth-floor archives. Those two weeks passed, and I lugged my pile of photocopied personal letters, government files, and newspaper clippings back to Gambier, wondering how I would sort through it all. And sure enough, as I began flipping through the pages, my mind began to wander—in particular, to those two bald-headed, sewer-scented dudes with their Ziploc bag of illicit powder and my incredulity that such depraved activity could take place in a library, a sacred home of knowledge and history.

Perhaps I should have expected the memory of this event to endure, as it represented a great schism I believe too often appears between the incomplete, textual world presented by academia and, well, the real deal. The central library, with its proximity to the hard-luck Tenderloin District, is a well-established mecca for the city’s homeless, mentally incapacitated, and criminal populations—in large part due to its easily accessible restrooms. My research had alluded to the presence of these communities in San Francisco, but nothing had prepared me for the visceral shock I was to receive upon entering that crowded, smelly, depraved excuse for a bathroom. What was the source of this disconnect? Were my professors to blame? My sources? Or was it my own lack of due diligence or intellectual curiosity that left me painfully uninformed? Was this even a case of disconnect, or merely a manifestation of the old adage, “You’ve got to see it to believe it”? I mulled it over.

Several more weeks have passed, and as I enumerate here the laundry list of my insecurities in writing a Senior thesis, one in particular continues to linger: I don’t believe I’m writing a morally sound paper. But what does that mean? For one, so far I’ve found that my paper lacks the compassion that comes with a true encapsulation of the body politic. I have strived to present San Francisco as a microcosm of urban evolution, and specifically, show how it has perpetuated the development of a uniquely anti-suburban middle-class identity throughout the second half of the twentieth century. To achieve this goal in an academically sufficient manner, I have done my best to follow the guidelines laid out by the History Department, the examples supplied by published historical texts, and the wisdom of my Kenyon professors. The principles I have formulated largely center on succinctly presenting crucial historical trends and original arguments grounded in the analysis of primary sources. That sounds like a mouthful, but on the contrary, I’d argue it’s symptomatic of an oversimplified and inelastic rubric that has become so indoctrinated in our standards of learning that such encounters as my library bathroom experience are thrown aside as diverting anecdotes to share in passing.

This is not to criticize of our professors here at Kenyon. They are experts in their craft, and both their instruction and commitment to facilitating my progress have been instrumental to the work I have accomplished thus far. But I believe what happened to me in that bathroom should inform the way I think about the city of San Francisco in a profound way—that what I actually see and hear and even smell should tell me more about the essence of an entity even as large and complex as an entire city than anything in the written word. So feel free to disregard my potentially foolish challenge to the academic establishment, but as graduation approaches, I refuse to discount the feeling that its ways and means have left me unfulfilled.

How are we to reconcile the disparity between conventional and experiential styles of learning? Our studies are grounded in events, places, and other phenomena from around the globe. Are students taking a course realistically expected to visit the locale at issue each semester? Of course not, and that’s why there is no easy answer to this question. However, as I spend the remainder of this semester attempting to define San Francisco not only as a backdrop for a particular historical progression, but as a multifaceted organism marked by diversity and structural evolution, I hope I can slip in a mention of that public library. If I do, it won’t have been for the story, but because I think our work as students is a personalized endeavor, one that requires us to step outside the classroom, the library, and the courses themselves, and think about the imprint we, as original thinkers, are leaving on the work we produce.

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