Ethan Watters, Urban Tribes and The Grotto

In 2003, San Francisco author Ethan Watters published his book entitled “Urban Tribes” which is the result of his personal research in to the somewhat tribal communities formed by people during their post college and pre-family life years. Although not new, this book is worth noticing, because the trends it explores are central to the community which makes up a large portion of San Francisco’s population. Also worth noting is another endeavor related to the author, The Grotto – a local artist’s community which he helped to form more than ten years ago, and a community which remains strong to this day. It appears that Watters has moved on to another stage of his life – marriage and the birth of a new child – but the effect of the work of his Urban Tribes years remains important to those of us living through that period of our lives today.

The complete title of Watters book is “Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment”. This sums up the core point of the work. It is about the changes that we have gone through as a society including the extension of post-high school educational years and the delay of starting our own families. Needing to be part of a social fabric, we have created our own communities composed of friends who become so close that they are like families. In the language of the early gay movement, these are our chosen families.

San Francisco is a transient city and many of the people who are spending time here are right in the midst of this Urban Tribes stage. They come for grad school or first jobs or the art and nightlife scene. And they form their own vibrant communities. It is evident from the number of strictly platonic posts on Craigslist alone that people in this city are seeking a group of friends to stand by them as they navigate this exciting – sometimes harrowing – time of life.

Throughout history, one of the motivating forces which drives art is struggle. Internal and external struggle sometimes combine in shared creative effort to create whole artistic movements. The “Urban Tribes” period is one which is sometimes marked with such struggle, struggle which is shared among people of this generation at the same time that it is felt individually by the generation’s many members. As such, this generation is one which is highly creative. Even those people who do not consider themselves artists frequently engage in writing / blogging, photo sharing and other creative pursuits.

In addition to his own writing, Watters “Urban Tribes” years resulted in the formation of The Grotto. Together with two friends, he rented a workspace in which they joined together in support of each other’s creative activities. This was no ordinary artist’s retreat but rather a place where it was expected that one would come to work. And work they have – there are now over twenty people sharing this space, and together they have produced numberous creative works. Being aware of what other creative people are joining together to do in this city can help us to remember that we are part of a collective whole here, in a time of our lives when it may feel like we are only drifting on our own.

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