I have it on good authority that San Francisco once was a sleepy town, spoiled by copious amounts of cheap, demoic-free Dungeness crab, lots of low rent apartments, and minimal street traffic. I hear it all the time from people who came to this city some 40,50, 60+ years ago. “When we came here, we purchased a home for 50K and we paid a fixed 3% mortgage,” say my parents, both immigrants. “It’s the most expensive city I’ve ever lived in,” say the transplants. “And I’m only here for work and will eventually leave.”
Now many cities are experiencing what San Francisco has undergone, only San Francisco finds itself in a peculiar situation given its proximity to Silicon Valley. The city is booming but its boom attracts only the most skilled of the job market. The city experiences hellacious traffic and average rent is through the roof. In order to qualify for these high-tech jobs, you’ve got to have the right skills. Want to code for a living? Or be a Broadcaster Partner Marketing Manager? Or a SEO Content Strategist? Or a Clinical Science Research Specialist? Or a Hardware Engineer? See Carl Nolte, the Silicon Valley explosion has put the pinch on San Francisco, making it impossible for those who make less than 100K in salary a year to live comfortably in the city. And who are the people earning less than 100K a year? Teachers, social workers, artists, receptionists, administrative assistants, marketing coordinators, baristas, service workers, etc…Some of them are still able to live in San Francisco, because living with three or four other roommates makes for an idyllic stay. NOT.
At least you admitted that you conducted an “unscientific study.” You walked the streets, rode some Muni buses, talked to a select group of San Franciscans to get their assessment of Baghdad By The Bay. Well, I did the same thing. I spoke to some of my fellow workers and a few strangers to boot. And what was their conclusion?
“I find the cost of living in San Francisco to be so oppressive that my days are numbered living here,” said Frank Lesalle, an administrative assistant. “It’s a city that works best for those who fit the tech economy.”
It all began to dawn on me back in the mid 1980s. I was out of high school then but I noticed something different about the city. It’s like, coming out of the “no rush 70’s” it seemed like San Francisco had indeed skipped a beat. Suddenly, there was more traffic, the cost of living spiked upwards, and the cost of Dungeness crab and seafood down at Fisherman’s Wharf climbed into “rip off” territory.
Oh yeah, I grew up near Forest Hills in San Francisco. Where did my family go out to dinner back in the 1970s? Family-style restaurants were once plentiful in neighborhoods like North Beach. Yes, there were fewer restaurants in the 1970s but there were also few foodies.
So what do we have today in Potrero Hill? Let’s see, we have expensive restaurants like Serpentine, Piccino, mediocre French food at Chez Papa, expensive Sushi at Umi, and OK, reasonably priced sandwiches at Hazels on 16th street. Yes, we still have Farley’s, but we also have Plow, the most outrageously expensive breakfast joint on Potrero Hill patronized by foodies from every neighborhood in San Francisco and beyond.
You see, it is a yin and yang thing but it’s the pace of that yin and yang. Back in the 70s, you didn’t have restaurants opening and closing every 3 months. Take Radish, Grub, Market & Rye, Artis Coffee Roasters, Saha, April Calf, Saha, The New Spot (one of the more affordable delicious restaurants near Potrero Hill), Mazza Luna, La Rondalla, Pig & Pie, and so, so many more have all closed this year alone.
I don’t know of ANYONE who takes the array of food choices in San Francisco for granted. How could they? The only ones supporting these uber expensive restaurants are the ones working at Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Twitter, etc…These are the ones who are getting paid near or above the 100K salaries, or it’s those who are mooching off of those who can afford to eat out more than 5 nights a week. Back in the 70’s, I didn’t hear people complain about the lack of food choices in San Francisco. I saw people go out to eat and afford what they could eat. Small, “hole in the wall” Chinese restaurants were popular. Food tasted good and it was cheap! Gentrification was not a buzz word because the destruction wrought by Silicon Valley remained somewhere far off into the future and people seemed to appreciate the slowness of San Francisco, and the ability to live in a single one bed room apartment on a salary of 40k.
Today’s San Francisco soul is mired in glitz and glamour. That’s what Silicon Valley has done to our fair city. Yes, I’m grateful for developments like the San Francisco Jazz Center, the renovated DeYoung and Modern Art museums, the full flowering of the Yerba Buena Gardens, the Asian Art Museum, etc…But the biggest news made today is how Mayor Lee coddles to the high-tech industry, giving tax breaks to lure these companies into staying in San Francisco and thus exacerbating the city’s gentrification. It’s about the new fancy restaurants, charging preposterous pricing that caters to the well-paid high-tech crowd. And that is due in no large part to just how expensive it is to do business in San Francisco, hurting those who simply can no longer afford to live here.
Do you know why so many of the shopping crowds are more Asian than ever? Because it’s the very wealthy Asians who have moved to California, in particular, the SF/Bay Area and they can afford to and are spending lavishly. But guess what? Chinatown was still Chinatown back in the 70s and earlier. And were wealthy Asians filling downtown Union Square back in the 70’s? It was once a mixed city. No more. Asians constitute nearly 40% of San Francisco; the largest subgroup is of Chinese descent.
San Francisco is a city that caters to the glitz, the foodies, the 100K+ salary wage earners, and is a reflection of our country’s extreme concentrated wealth, all of which the high-tech revolution spurs in its demand for a whole new skill set that is now filled in no small measure by Asians, Indians, and others from outside the United States.
I’d like to give one shout out, if I may, to a place that does give one a reminder of long-time gone bohemian San Francisco. It is the Red Poppy. It features artists and musicians from different walks of life and from around the globe to locals eager for something different. I encourage you to drop by for an event and get a dose of old San Francisco.
I spoke with Freddie the freeloader, forever searching for the fountain of mindful peace.
“I came here in the 1980s with nothing but a guitar and my knapsack. I came because I heard through the grapevine that San Francisco was still one of the grooviest places to hang and meet with like-minded artists and creative-types. I met a number of young runaways. Now, I’m a recovering heroin-addict, grateful to those who keep feeding me, and who help me to get through the day. I do see a lot of young people here. But they are jacked into their smart phones on what seems like 24 hours a day. I see endless lines at Starbucks of caffeine-driven zombies who seem incapable of actually making a cup of coffee at home. Yeah, I do see mixed cultures and a variety of different people. But the homeless remain destitute. And the contempt shown by some of these young start-up entrepreneurs of those who live in the streets grates at me. If I’m in hell, I’d rather be flying among the clouds.”