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.
Please finish the article! Thanks!
I can’t comment without toxicity so I won’t. It’s just been heart wrenching as I loved my home and never planned to leave. Don’t insult my lack of money or options and I won’t talk smack.
I’ll drop two mad crazy truths from a 43 yr resident. Hella long ass resident. Proudly used hella so…. Proof.
1 The homelessness became a crisis and poop blossomed with the increase of big tech and new residents. I won’t debate it because I watched and smelled it happen live. Stop blaming dead people for it. Your bosses and city hall did it. The character of the residents when you arrived was not something that was brought up to them as needing to be adjusted to meet new standards.
2 This is now a very conservative city. There’s nothing liberal about it. It was a refugee city for LGBQT and all who were tormented by ignorance. I was so proud to be a part of that. My whole life mind you. 70s, 80s. Yall didn’t just think this up. We’ll it’s pretty douchebaggy now. I’m not gonna mince words. People don’t care. I said it. It’s not a liberal city anymore. Not unless liberal with free t-shirt and platform matrix download at the rally liberalism. That’s an agenda none of us know anything about.
I know I hated a bit. But to the unoffended please. I’m so serial. Super serial. Remember the Castro. Learn the history and carry some of it out of respect. It will pay off tenfold for you. Everyone from old SF is almost gone. You totally won. Just toast to our memory. We were holding it down forever you know, the whole cpu thing and Eastern philosophy thing and acid. I know you like acid.
Second hand smoke danger is proven a myth. Don’t cross the street and talk smack Bout my vape pen. It makes you look dumb. Because neither are actually dangerous. Imagine if a law against being a loud ass drunk h#! who loses her phone kicked in next week out of nowhere. How would you feel? We all pay for what we take. You can’t cheat that. I love you guys anyways. You are orderly and often lawful. No littering is really nice. But you’re killing me too guys.
Haters, don’t troll please. I hate myself I promise. We used to get own like that here. Goths, freaks, drama, Dr martens, punk rock, alternative. All the stuff everyone hates. So I’ve got it covered. Promise. Loser, if I had more money I’d like it, it’s my fault, etc. I know. And no I’m not a trump voter because I don’t want to blame this retard for all the ills on earth. Obviously impossible. Just watch out. Folks are cold here now. If you like it warm work on it or get in and out fast. The give a F$&k office is closed for renovation.
Great article seriously. But it’s dead man. Really. Unrecognizable, dead, close. Very close..
I read Columbus, Ohio and Winnipeg, Manitoba and I keep thinking of Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Was I supposed to do that?
That was not my intended reaction, but that’s okay!
I don’t believe in churches or religions but I, like Jefferson and Washington,
am a deist.
I think Earth is a ‘Hell’ planet and spirits have to freely choose identities before
they are born here.
We choose our life’s mission and how much suffering we want.
Sign a contract as it were, then forget til we die.
I was put here to write about you.
And, Matt Gonzalez.
And, Krissy Keefer and Aaron Peskin and Roscoe Robinson and Jack Jacqua.
Whatever the scene is before me.
Been doing it for neigh-on three quarters of a century.
Covering the metaphoric multi-fresco panels always changing of the
San Francisco landscape was never easy.
Now, so much of it either (as the percipient article notes) …
Breaks your heart.
But, a ‘Hell’ planet is supposed to challenge you and if I
were still just writing about my Hippiedom, I wouldn’t have grown.
Someone should record all of this and like yourself?
*Once Upon A Time In The Mission painted by Precita Eyes Muralists Urban Youth Arts Program
It’s not serious to say that “the market” did this. The market didn’t make apartment buildings illegal in over 70% of San Francisco, or create rules that let anyone in the city hold up any housing project for years by filing a form. People did that, because they own property that will make them rich in an environment of enforced housing scarcity. Because they don’t want the “wrong kind” of people in their neighborhoods. Because they love raising rents. Because they’re concerned about parking. Because they prefer segregated communities full of homeowners like them.
The market only does what our land use and transportation policies tell it to do. People did this and people can fix it, but people suck, so don’t hold your breath.
Nobody in San Francisco wants to keep the “wrong kind” of people out of their neighborhoods. Nobody loves raising rents. Nobody here wants a segregated community. You can’t hold up a housing project for years by filling out a form. This is all crap.
Just a bunch of whining, making up facts, and feeling sorry for yourself.
Joe works in tech. Joe owns a single family home in SF (probably Noe Valley or Glen Park, is my guess). Joe doesnt care that the city is becoming (already is?) a cultural wasteland where no rock n roll bands will come from anymore (other than rich kids whose parents subsidize their rent in the Mission) nor artists come here to create. Every neighborhood is now pretty much the Marina and Joe is fine with that.
Strongly disagree with Joe – sounds like a Nimby. When ban buildings from being above a certain height or ban new housing from being built because it casts a shadow on your favorite park, you shouldn’t be surprised when no new housing get’s built. Housing is expensive in San Francisco because old landowners obstruct new housing from being built – just go to any planning commission meeting and see the type of people who go there and you’ll know what I mean.
If San Francisco wants to have a young middle class, it needs to build new housing. San Francisco can’t just be a city for rich out of touch geriatrics.
For anyone who does want conceptual pieces on Winnipeg and Columbus, I’ll point to the documentary My Winnipeg (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Winnipeg) and the essays of noted Ohioan Hanif Abdurraqib.
You are 100 percent correct and this has been noted.
Great article! One correction: Crazy Crab was the Giants mascot for only one year, 1984, not the early 70s.
San Francisco is in renewal, as it always has been, as all healthy cities are. Waves of various groups have replaced one another: Germans, Italians, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asians, tech-y youngsters (of all stripes). The changes in property value, complexion, and income are natural.
Our City is expensive compared to Columbus, OH or Winnipeg, Manitoba, but merely on par with other world-class cities such as London, Paris, New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Today, we bemoan the tech industry but I remember the rule of the financial and advertising industry in the 1970s.
People “displaced”? Just like they have been for decades as property owners sell their homes to new couples planning to have babies and establish their families here. (We’ve had few children for a long time.) And we’ll see the cycles refresh themselves.
The city isn’t on par with London, Paris, New York, etc. I’ve lived in two of the named cities (most recently London), and they were both far more affordable than San Francisco.
I drafted this essay back in 2016. It speaks to the realities of living in San Francisco and what has happened to San Francisco coming from a native, who was born and raised, and still lives in San Francisco.
Photo captions would have been nice.
I Was raised by the 40’s crowd who seemed overwhelmed with the grime and crime of the 70’s. Most of their children moved to Marin, my parents went to the Central Valley for obvious reasons. I grew up back and forth, the grandchild of immigrants and Sees Candy workers, longshoremen and truck drivers. That generation scrubbed the sidewalks with soap and water, and they actually maintained things nicely with very little resources. I guess we all remember it differently.
The top menu on your website takes up almost half of my screen. Surely, you’re not so vain that you MUST have your massive logo always visible? Please be considerate to your visitors and either hide the menu (make it “not sticky” in geek terms), or shrink the logo when I scroll down. (both are easy to do).
I’m guessing that Joe does not design the website.
Really like your article. Friendly reminder we as SFers have always been in love with change
Great story Joe, nice to see our OpenSFHistory.org pictures put to good use.
Those are yours? I found them in our library and they were not credited.
Thank you, sir.
Good stuff, except for the Miami reference, a bit unnecessary.
Really good writing.
Actually, Winnipeg does have allegorical value – a formerly wealthy trade city fallen on hard times, a place most young people are trying to leave. This song speaks to it really well : https://youtu.be/xLlsjEP7L-k
Thank you! Always happy to learn more about the Great White North.
This is the quintessential Winnipeg song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLlsjEP7L-k
I was literally going to post the same song.! +10 for Weakerthans.
Not a Venetian Snares fan then? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Z02wKG6RRQ
I didn’t even have to click the link to know it was the Weakerthans! 🙂
Nice piece. Liked the family history, and the tempered view of disruptive change.
You wrote some good articles about SF budgets in SF Weekly. With two straight years of near-10% increases, would you be willing to share your perspective on SF’s current spending habits? It might be good for voters to have your perspective before they cast their next votes. Thank you.
Thank you Joe. I truly enjoyed your article.
If you have not yet read “The Barbary Coast”, by Herbert Asbury. I recommend you look it up.
I have not and I will get it from the library TODAY.
i think it’s time you write your own love letter book to the city. re-use prior articles and bits and illustrations. it is time for an Eskenazi Reader. a cheap paperback with a supercool cover that you can read and re-read and buy for others.
i’m for real.
I don’t know Kitten. You think anyone wants to buy that?
this will be long and skinny but so be it:
i know it’s a shitty time for the written word. it is just about rendered meaningless. but you DO things and your heart and broken heart and rage and curiosity and openness is in all you write about. true heart and courage now is the only thing that can get through this internet of Nothingness that’s killing all reality and life and ideas.
i avoided reading Audre Lorde because i thought it’d change me and i was always too tired to change my mind. now all i wanna know is where did everyone go? why did everyone die so …willingly casually obediently? where was is the fight?
read Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is not a Luxury” to remember WHY; along with her “Uses of the Erotic.” the erotic essay is only 4 or 5 pages and i just struggled as if it were 100 pages because i have to break myself down to UNDERSTAND her, feel her. and then she put ideas of Daniel Boorstin, Osho on Tantra, and Munch’s “Scream” all together for me.
so to answer you: yes, of course people would love to read any Eskenazi Reader. especially now that wonderfully smart, curious, defiant and angry Men are endangered, along with masculine traits. some of the only things that can help us actual humans.
i don’t know how or when it will be worth your while, i’m just writing this so you’ll be a little more aware when/if a chance comes up where publishing won’t whore you out too much and you can see a way of selling it as they go together and social media will kill you and spread your entrails all over. you need something else. you’re too human to withstand a self-promotion campaign on which current society is constantly based on.
you’ll find an.. opposite way. something new has to be born on the low now that there is no “low”. i’m doing my part over here; i know others are doing theirs.
Very well written. Keep it up.
It is expensive in all major u.s. cities…I lived in s.f for 40 years…I left because I just wanted a change….The whole world is changing…Its called leaving the past and welcoming the future…Get over it.