The Emperor Norton Moment
Last month, SF Weekly picked up the news that the The Emperor's Bridge Campaign recently had become a full-fledged nonprofit public benefit corporation (the illustration for the item: not ours). Also in November: The San Francisco Chronicle featured Emperor Norton in a piece about an event paying tribute to the city's famous Jewish citizens who "sleep" in Colma. The San Francisco Examiner did a write-up of Carter Raff and the small-batch Emperor Norton Absinthe Dieu and Bummer & Lazarus Gin that he distills at his namesake distillery on Treasure Island. And Laughing Squid and San Francisco neighborhood blog Bernalwood, among others, ran stories about a Kickstarter for a feature-length documentary about the Emperor. Just this week, San Francisco State University paper the Golden Gate Xpress is up with a profile of Joseph Amster of Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine.
But the flurry of local Emperor Norton headlines is not something that has popped up just over the last few weeks. For several months here at The Emperor's Bridge Campaign, we've been having a running conversation about how (and why specifically now), in San Francisco over the last couple of years, there seems to have been a genuine uptick of interest in, and coverage of, Emperor Norton — interest and coverage that includes the "reinvigoration," starting in summer 2013, of the call to name the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for the Emperor, but that precedes and extends well beyond that call.
There seem to have been more dedicated profiles and more mentions of Emperor Norton, locally, than before. More mentions, to be sure, highlighting the call to name the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton. More general biographical articles (with varying degrees of accuracy). And more items appealing to Emperor Norton as a talisman of a "truer," more "authentic," more "original," more "real" San Francisco.
In a November 2013 review of the freshly minted local bar, Emperor Norton's Boozeland, travel writer Stuart Schuffman, a.k.a. Broke-Ass Stuart, took an elegant crack at explaining this emergent phenomenon:
San Franciscans seem to be gravitating towards our Patron Saint of Weird and Wonderful. I think, at least subconsciously, it’s because, as we see our strange and beautiful city become increasingly less strange, we’re looking towards our past to give us hope for our future. Like the Romanov’s leaning upon the legend of Peter the Great to assure themselves of their legitimacy, we are like some kind of dynastic family, using the imagery and super fucking crazy ideas of our founding member, as a form of propaganda that says, “Keep San Francisco Weird.” The City is changing drastically in front of our eyes and those of us who came here not just to make money, but because San Francisco allowed us be our true selves, keep looking towards Saint Emperor Norton to be our guiding light.
Comes word from the data gods that, yes, Virginia, we are in the throes of a real-live Emperor Norton Moment in the Bay Area — no doubt fueled by, and fueling, the variously Emperor-themed enterprises that have arisen here during this same period, including: two bars — the aforementioned Boozeland and Comstock Saloon — that quickly have become Emperor Norton shrines (plus another, Monarch, that added "The Emperor's Drawing Room"); a popular historical walking tour, Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine, led by a guide who plays the Emperor; and, of course, the Campaign itself.
The Google Trends chart below, captured just moments ago, shows the local interest in Emperor Norton over time, as reflected in local ("San Francisco–Oakland–San Jose") Google searches on the term "Emperor Norton."
As you can see, there's a "zero to 60" leap in September 2011, and this leap — punctuated by occasional spikes — has remained consistent to the present. The trail-off at the end reflects December 2014, for which complete data aren't yet in.
This chart is not an index of the raw numbers of searches on "Emperor Norton." Rather, it is an index of the popularity of the "Emperor Norton" search across all months, measured against the month in which the search was the most popular. This means that, even though the popularity trend line is down for a given period, there could be a rise in the raw numbers of searches on "Emperor Norton." The trends are always being updated. You can keep tabs on the latest local "Emperor Norton" search trends here.
For the "Emperor Norton" search, the most popular month — which Google assigns a value of 100 — is September 2013, which includes the days before and after the 12 September 2013 vote of the California state legislature to name the Bay Bridge's western crossing for Willie Brown — a story whose news and editorial coverage very often included mention of the Change.org petition to name the entire Bay Bridge, from San Francisco to Oakland, for Emperor Norton.
Anecdotally, those who have been living in the Bay Area for many years will tell you that local interest in Emperor Norton comes in cycles — every 10 or 15 or 20 years. It would be interesting to know for how long previous Emperor Norton cycles have lasted.
As documented by Google Trends, the current Emperor Norton Moment is at 3 years and counting — and it shows no signs of dissipating.
Here's to keeping the trend going for many years to come!
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