There are three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything, which is: Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me — now? —Craig Ferguson
San Francisco is a mid-sized North American city with a population almost exactly that of Columbus, Ohio, and a shade higher than that of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
That’s quantifiably true, and always worth remembering, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. San Francisco is a fantastically prosperous city and an economic powerhouse. If you’re running from something, you’ll end up here, the furthest west you can travel without getting wet. But this is also a place to run to: with your big idea, for a big job, or as elected officials and vagrants and cops and criminals have all told me, to simply be who you are.
And this is true even if, like your humble narrator, you were born here. San Francisco is a place to be who you are.
As such, while you and I live here — pay our taxes here, hopscotch over human effluvia here, get married here, have children here, transact business here — San Francisco, for others, exists as an allegory and a concept more than a city and county.
Nobody writes allegorical or conceptual pieces about Columbus or Winnipeg. Perhaps they should. I would read them. But they do write such stories about San Francisco. These aren’t fun stories because there’s so much in San Francisco today that’s not fun. The disconnect between this city’s vast wealth and its vast poverty — and its cavalcade of ascendant arrivistes and dwindling, often put-upon locals — is positively Dickensian. To be a San Franciscan is to become inured to misery and filth and property crime and desperation, and to navigate — by Uber, likely — between this city’s shabbiness and squalor and opulence and aloofness.
The latest entry in the growing cottage industry of out-of-town publications bemoaning the ruination of this city was a May 21 piece in the Washington Post titled “How San Francisco Broke America’s Heart.”
It strokes San Franciscans’ vanity to depict all of America as being that tied up in San Francisco one way or another. San Francisco politicians like talking about how other cities look to us as an example. And they’re right — but not in the way they’d like to think.
Believe it or not, the rest of America can go a few minutes without thinking about us. Maybe even a few hours.
The stroking would be short-lived. The Post story felt like stumbling into a Wikipedia entry on San Francisco tech dystopia stories; it was saturated with every last example of ostentatious wealth or filth or both you’ve read about in the paper in recent years. And, yes, this article really did read eerily like this 2014 Chronicle parody of the out-of-town publication pondering San Francisco genre or this faux-algorithm producing similar fare.
And yet, the anecdotes and lamentations shoehorned into this article the way Marvel Studios shoehorns superheroes into movies are true. Quantifiably true.
And that’s always worth remembering. But it doesn’t tell you the whole story.
In the 1970s, your humble narrator’s mother lugged her clothes to a laundromat not far from Army Street. Some guy walked in with his laundry basket and a Kahlua cheesecake. And he shared it with everybody while they waited for their clothes to dry.
Yes, everyone was stoned.
Your humble narrator’s parents lived on Montcalm Street in a house they rented for a dollar and a quarter. There was a literal hole in the bathroom floor — you could, if so inclined, stick your head through and see the hard-packed dirt below — and the place was a bit of a squeeze for a man, woman, and terrier dog.
Redfin currently estimates you could get $1.77 million for this manse. Presumably they’ve fixed the bathroom (but maybe not!).
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. This city is to nostalgia what Miami is to cocaine. We consume vast quantities of it. Uncut and pure.
So it’s worth noting that, while my mom was eating that cheesecake, not one but two serial killers — in fact, roving teams of serial killers — were terrorizing San Francisco. In fact, literal terrorists were terrorizing San Francisco. Police were raiding gay bars and beating up homosexuals. The Navy was busy irradiating its neighbors in the largely black southeast of the city, a situation we are still very much dealing with (and, locals will tell you, is getting a lot more attention now that luxury housing there is being sold to well-off white people). The city was railroading Latino kids for murder. The Giants had a crab as a mascot* and played in pullover uniforms on Astroturf.
Nostalgia for this era of San Francisco is understandable. We pine for the sense of community and the neighborhood eccentrics right out of Cannery Row (“a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.”). Artists and bohemians could afford to live here. Regular folks with kids could afford to live here. Teachers and firefighters and waiters could afford to live here. That’s a plus.
But the San Francisco of Kahlua cheesecake in the laundromat is also the Zebra Killers’ San Francisco or the Jim Jones San Francisco or the Dan White San Francisco. We choose to decouple these memories. But, at the time, they coexisted.
That was, in large part, the message of a rejoinder to the Post article from the Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub. With the paper’s vast archives as his arsenal, he ably documented the many premature reports of this city’s demise, and assailed the lamenting of a lost, golden age as a product of selective amnesia.
This was a good and necessary article. Institutional memory is a powerful ally. This city’s mascot ain’t a phoenix rising from the ashes for nothing.
And yet I fear that extrapolating the future from the past is growing tenuous in the here and now. Yes, San Francisco has experienced outrageous unaffordability in the past — an egg in the Gold Rush era could set you back $3, which is about $90 in today’s money (more than any avocado toast).
But this is cold comfort. The tribulations of desperate miners willing to be fleeced in our inchoate, dirt-road town do not jibe with today’s San Francisco, a mid-sized North American city with a projected budget of $12.3 billion.
Institutional memory is a powerful ally. But San Francisco in an era of $1.77 million shacks and cleaning ladies paying $3,200 rents in Visitacion Valley and tsunamis of IPOs and jarring public misery and filth in the face of it all may have transcended history. We’ve gone off book. We’ve sailed off the edge of the map. George R.R. Martin couldn’t write quickly enough and now we’re making stuff up as we go along.
The recent Post article started — as they all seem to do — with the poignant scenes of a business closing here in the Mission. In this case, it was Lucca Ravioli Co., which on April 30 shut its doors after 34,439 days in operation.
Yet another vestige of the past chased out of the neighborhood in the era of big tech and big money, eh? And yet, left unexplained in the Post story, is that this family-owned business scuttled itself, selling its land and buildings for more than $11 million. The villain here, insofar as there is one, isn’t some cigar-chomping landlord or developer. It’s the market.
That’s not the same story. But it is a story. It is the story here in San Francisco. Every business that owns property is in the real-estate business now; video-game company Zynga recently sold its building for three times what it paid in 2012 (and far, far more than it was making with its inane successors to Farmville).
But the same goes for families and individuals who own land. And, if you don’t, you’re often living in a constant state of anxiety. The clock is ticking. Your San Francisco phase may be truncated.
So, no, San Francisco isn’t dying. There’s lots going on here in the neighborhoods out-of-towners don’t visit (and even in the ones they do).
New people (who may or may not give a damn about our public schools and hospitals or any other problem not encountered while walking between the condo and the Uber) will always beat a path here. Individuals are being forced out or prospering — or both. But the city is in a boom.
San Franciscans suffer. San Francisco thrives.
And it isn’t rotting, either. Quite the opposite: The city, increasingly denuded of its creative class and its middle class and its children, is still gorgeous. Like a lake permeated by acid rain, the pristine nature of swaths of San Francisco obscures a lifelessness of sorts.
San Francisco is built between two major fault lines. Everybody knows what lies in our city’s future.
But nobody knows what happens before that. Or after.
*Astute commenter Laura A. Ryan correctly notes that Crazy Crab didn’t make his appearance at Candlestick Park until 1984, which was quite a different time than the 1970s. In the 1970s, however, the 49ers did sign O.J. Simpson, so there’s that.