Holding On To San Francisco

6 Feb

SanFranI’ve lived in San Francisco for coming up on ten years, which sounds kind of intense when I say it out loud. Ten years! That’s a while. That’s long enough to think of a city as home. I’m not sure I really do, but it seems long enough, is what I’m saying.

Sometimes when I’m in a cab, or meeting someone at a party or something, I’ll say, “I’ve lived here for ten years.” It feels kind of cool, like I’m one of those grizzled old-timers that I most certainly am not. Truth is, I love this city, but I still feel like a newcomer. I spent eight years as a musician and a teacher, working at a school in the Haight and running every day in Golden Gate Park, so I guess that part of San Francisco does feel like home. I’ve spent two more years since then as a writer, working too much and spending too much time indoors and exercising less often than I probably should. That part of San Francisco also feels like home, though perhaps a less pleasant (but more profitable) one.

Ten years is a long time, whether it feels like it or not.

***

People are always carrying on about how San Francisco has changed, and of course, this is the wont of people who live in cities, to talk about how their cities have changed. The New Yorker recently published this very funny series by Simon Rich in which he imagines an early 20th century New York immigrant named Herschel falling into pickle brine and awakening, perfectly preserved, in 2013 Brooklyn.

Herschel meets his great-great-grandson, who happens to be named Simon. Simon is a Brooklynite screenwriter who embodies pretty much every cliché about the peculiar sort of aimless leisure enjoyed by the possibly mythical Post-Hipster Brooklyn Creative Professional.

“Please,” I say. “I must know. What path have you chosen for your life?”

Simon smiles proudly at me.

“I’m a script doctor,” he says.

I shake my head with astonishment.

“That is so wonderful,” I say, my eyes filling up with tears. “I am so proud. I cannot believe my descendant is medical doctor.”

Simon averts his eyes.

“It’s actually just a screenwriting term,” he says. “ ‘Script doctor’ means I, like, punch up movie scripts.”

I stare at him blankly.

“ ‘Punch up’?”

“You know, like, add gags.”

“What sort of gags?”

He clears his throat.

“Let’s see.… Well, the script I’m working on now is about a guy who switches bodies with his pet dog? So I’m adding all these puns, like ‘I’m doggone mad!’ and ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you!’ You know, things like that.”

A long time passes in silence.

“So you are not medical doctor.”

“No,” Simon admits. “I am not.”

In its opening moments, Birch’s piece hinges on a single joke: That if a man who arrived in New York city in 1912 saw it today, he’d be unable to cope with what it’s become. By taking a fish-out-of-water approach, Birch casts the life of a New York creative professional under a pitiless lens. (Of course, this is later turned on its head when the narrator’s very out-of-touchness eventually helps him become a hip, sought-after pickle vendor.)

While that makes for good comedy (“Are you a cilantro person?” the great-great-granson asks his perplexed ancestor), the crux of the piece–that the past was so different from our time that the only similarities are comical–is quite different from another recent article about urban change and upheaval.

***

Author Rebecca Solnit has written a well-observed and flatly depressing essay at The London Review of Books about the state of San Francisco in The Era of the Google Bus.

They make for a fine metaphor, those busses: Sleek, high-tech vessels that transport city-dwellers down to their tech-company campuses in Silicon Valley. It’s a harsh encapsulation of the transformation that San Francisco has undergone during the last five or so years, and of the parasite-like feeling of invasion and otherness that those companies can inspire.

Here’s Solnit:

The Google Bus means so many things. It means that the minions of the non-petroleum company most bent on world domination can live in San Francisco but work in Silicon Valley without going through a hair-raising commute by car – I overheard someone note recently that the buses shortened her daily commute to 3.5 hours from 4.5. It means that unlike gigantic employers in other times and places, the corporations of Silicon Valley aren’t much interested in improving public transport, and in fact the many corporations providing private transport are undermining the financial basis for the commuter train. It means that San Francisco, capital of the west from the Gold Rush to some point in the 20th century when Los Angeles overshadowed it, is now a bedroom community for the tech capital of the world at the other end of the peninsula.

The influx of what some friends of mine have come to call “app-money” has changed the city, to be sure. But while this phenomenon feels entirely current, Solnit also argues that these sorts of boom-time troubles are nothing new to San Francisco, and may even be an ingrained part of the city’s culture.

She quotes The Annals of San Francisco, which recalls the city in 1849 and the challenges posed by the California gold rush:

As we have said, there were no homes at this period in San Francisco, and time was too precious for anyone to stay within doors to cook victuals. Consequently an immense majority of the people took their meals at restaurants, boarding-houses and hotels – the number of which was naturally therefore very great; while many lodged as well as boarded at such places. Many of these were indeed miserable hovels, which showed only bad fare and worse attendance, dirt, discomfort and high prices. A few others again were of a superior class; but, of course, still higher charges had to be made for the better accommodation.

Sounds familiar. And okay, the gold rush has its share of differences from the current tech-boom (Solnit acknowledges this), but the similarities remain remarkable.

***

The San Francisco apartment-hunt woes reported by so many are in fact accurate, for what it’s worth. I’ve been searching for my own place off and on for the last four or five months, and the scene is grim. I began with my sights set possibly on the Haight or north of the Panhandle, only to gradually pull my scope back to include the Inner Sunset (where I currently live) until recently acquiescing to the notion that I’ll probably only find an affordable park-adjacent place closer to, or possibly in, the Pacific Ocean.

(And let’s not kid ourselves about “affordable” here–we’re talking about a decent, non-in-law apartment with working heat, a living room and hardwood floors, and we’re talking about $1,700 to $1,800 a month not counting utilities. A similar apartment in the Mission would cost a thousand dollars more.)

***

I was recently out at a bar in the Mission with some friends, both of whom work in video game development. It was a new bar, one of the ones cropping up in the large buildings east of South Van Ness, where they have a kitchen and good beer and lots of space to make up for the fact that you always worry a little bit about getting murdered while you’re walking there. The bar was crowded, and there appeared to be some sort of event going on. Young people wearing name-tags were tipsy and schmoozing, many of them milling around our table. I had several butts right up in my periphery. It was as though we’d stumbled into the middle of someone else’s two-year college reunion.

There was a dearth of available seating in the bar. We were guarding our spare chair with our jackets, which is about as territorial as you can get these days without actually sitting on two chairs at once. But lo, a fairly drunk young woman sauntered up and plopped down in our spare seat, assuring us that she just needed a place to sit for a moment while her cohort found her a chair. She gamely struck up a conversation.

“What do you guys all do?”

“I make video games,” said one of my friends. “You?”

“We make apps.”

Her friends signaled to her: They’d procured her a seat. She left us for, I have to presume, greener pastures.

So, you know. This sort of anecdote is one of those “perfect” stories that reduces a complicated social and economic phenomenon to a single sound byte:

“We make apps.”

It’s the bar-conversation equivalent of Solnit’s Google bus.

***

But yes, but yes; it’s a lot more complicated than that. Maybe some of those apps are amazing, maybe they help children learn or help the disenfranchised find enfranchisement. Maybe they help people in hospitals get better care, or help new parents monitor their baby’s health. And it’s not like video games are usually some high-minded artistic pursuit. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

When I tweeted Solnit’s article yesterday, I got a few responses from people ragging on “tech douchebags” who had invaded San Francisco. Those fuckers. Those douchebags. They make apps. Fuck them.

But of course, many of those douchebags are totally nice people; I’m friends with a lot of them. They’re not actually invaders from outer space or Utah or wherever. A lot of them have lived in this city longer than I have. Plenty of them grew up here, or in the Bay Area.

I put Solnit’s article on Facebook and my friend Jess, who takes a shuttle every day to one of the tech-boomiest companies around, left the following comment:

If you’re one of those shuttlers who grew up in the bay and deserves to live in San Francisco just as much as the next person, it comes off like she’s shaking her cane in your face and telling you to get the fuck out of *her* city. I get that its me taking it personally, but in the end it’s ABOUT me so I can’t help it. I lived here well before I obtained my South Bay shuttled job and it sucks to read people blaming those of us working there but living in SF for woes that could be blamed on 15 different factors if you research and investigate properly.

I certainly understand where Jess is coming from; if you work in the tech industry, I can imagine it’d be more or less impossible not to take Solnit’s article personally. If you make apps, it sucks to see someone categorically lambast all app-makers. (I do think Solnit’s article was more nuanced than that.)

Jess also shared this Business Insider article by Owen Thomas, entitled “San Francisco Needs To Stop Apologizing For Being The Best City On The Planet.” It’s written partly as a response to Solnit and partly as a plea for San Francisco to change their zoning laws and “stop allowing companies to give employees free parking at work, and stop requiring parking in housing developments in San Francisco.”

Here’s Thomas:

Yes, San Francisco is getting expensive, and more so all the time.

But really—we’re going to blame Google’s buses for the city’s housing crisis?

That’s what writer Rebecca Solnit argues in an utterly ridiculous screed in the London Review of Books that pretends to be about the crisis of capitalism in San Francisco but turns out to be a handwringing diatribe about her search for a home to buy.

The reason why house prices in San Francisco are going up is because the supply is limited and the demand is insatiable.

The supply is limited because of archaic zoning rules and cultural attitudes toward growth.

Thomas’ article is a remarkably bloodless counterpoint to Solnit’s artful melancholy; he’s clinical where she’s emotional, practical where she’s nostalgic. I suppose that’s due at least in part to the different editorial parameters of Business Insider and The London Review of Books.

But yeah, sure: Solnit seems more interested in eloquently describing a problem than she is in offering solutions. Thomas is more interested in offering actionable advice than he is in figuring out what this means for the city’s soul.

***

While I did find that Solnit’s article resonated with me more than Thomas’, I have to admit my own personal stake in the whole thing is murky at best. I came to San Francisco fresh out of music school, excited to spend a few years here gigging and practicing before moving to New York. I eventually fell into teaching (and fell in love with my life here), and I spent seven or eight years playing jazz and teaching music at a private school in SF.

I’d love it if that meant those years were some ideal embodiment of the long-lost artistic side of San Francisco, but whatever, that’s not true. I taught at an insanely expensive private school, working with the children of tech millionaires whose very companies were driving the boom that would eventually make it so difficult for me to continue living here. They were paying my rent, even as their companies were indirectly increasing it.

Working as a musician in the city felt much the same–sure, it’s great to pack clubs and make money through ticket sales, but the very techies that are driving gentrification in the mission and indirectly getting rent-controlled musicians evicted are the young people in the audience, paying $8 for drinks and dancing the night away. It’s difficult to make a living as a musician in San Francisco without feeling at least somewhat sponsored–the $75 dive-bar gig I played may have been a fantastic musical experience, but it was the Oracle party later that week that paid $500 per man. It was Oracle that paid my rent, even as they were indirectly increasing it.

Now that I write for a living, I still feel like I’m in an odd in-between state. I spend pretty much every day being curious and being critical and making jokes and telling stories. But of course, one of the primary things I write about is video games, so I spend a lot of time doing what amounts to tech journalism. And beyond that, the very company I work for, Gawker Media, is at least partly transitioning into being a tech company. My overlords may be based in New York and not Silicon Valley, but if you go into a café in the Inner Sunset and see a dozen bespectacled white and/or asian people banging away on Macbooks, there’s a fair chance I’m one of them.

But then, a journalist isn’t one with his subject-matter, and it’s no different for me. I love video games, but I’m not a member of the video game industry. I’m fascinated by technology, but I’d never say I “work in tech.” I’m just a musician who landed a cool writing gig. I sometimes admire and sometimes resent Silicon Valley, but I’ll likely never be a part of it. If this whole thing falls apart, I’ll probably go back to playing and teaching music.

***

As you may have gathered if you’ve made it this far, I’m ambivalent about all this. I can’t claim expertise in economics, or culture, or history, or even in San Francisco, despite that much-ballyhooed decade of mine. I have lots of friends who work in tech. I don’t like gentrification in theory, but I also don’t like that the Mission feels unsafe. And I’m leaving out a ton of stuff about this city’s fraught relationship with race.

All I know is that I love living here, and I’ve been privileged to be able to. And I mean, I have had some fairly iconic San Francisco Moments in those ten years. I played “Where the Boys Are” with Connie Francis to a sold-out crowd at the Castro theater. I took a group of high school kids backpacking in Yosemite and spent the entire time talking about Star Wars. I performed at the Bay to Breakers post-race shindig in Golden Gate Park, and was featured on their poster all over town the year after. Once Joan Rivers berated me on stage at the Herbst and another time I played flute while Petula Clark played finger-cymbals and danced. I got ordained and performed my sister’s wedding in a meadow overlooking the Bay. I got stoned with my best friend and sat on the bench atop Grand View Park. Those are all pretty San Francisco things to do, I think.

It’s gotten more difficult to keep it all going in recent years. It’s gotten harder to live here. But I know that I plan to stay, at least for a little while, and that while I find myself envious of those whose six-figure salaries make living in this city (or indeed, any city) a foregone conclusion, I’m also okay not being one of them.

I wish San Francisco could live up to its funky, romantic, Tales of the City image more often. Solnit’s version, the “city that poets can’t afford,” is the one we’ve got at the moment. I’ll likely feel forever stuck between those two San Franciscos: One that might never have existed, and one that does, but of which I’ll never quite be a part.

For now, I think I’ll keep looking for a decent apartment. Something near the park. And I’ll remain a San Francisco barnacle, holding on to this beautiful leviathan for dear life and enjoying the view while I can.

GGBridge

10 Responses to “Holding On To San Francisco”

  1. Andrew Sipotz (@Stanrule1) February 6, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    As a resident of SF for 9 years and as a producer of “apps” (games in my case), I’m genuinely full of resentment when I read blogs like this. The tech sector in SF, once ruled by dotcom era start-ups, is still firmly in place in the Soma and financial district. Creative artists, those visionaries are still attracted to the city and life here, but they’re not just musicians and painters. They’re entrepreneurs, with an insatiable appetite to create something incredible. No less creative or inspired than when you first came to this wonderful city.

    This is still the same place as I remember stepping foot here as a college kid 9 years ago. We’re still quirky, we still admire and absorb the ironic. We’re still a city that celebrates the unique and artistic among us.

    Our housing costs have gone up, and yes it’s due to simple supply and demand with an extra dose of ridiculous zoning laws. But we’re also a city that prides itself on being “small”. The only solution for housing is to build more high-rises, and for every high-rise that goes up San Francisco will lose a little bit of what makes it such a unique place.

    This is where we are today and some critical decisions will have to be made. We can’t continue being “the greatest city in the world” if we don’t adapt to what the current world is, a place steeped and absorbed in tech. We should celebrate the influx of young, hungry tech industry types. Next time you’re at the bar, sit with one and listen to their story of why they love San Francisco just as much as you do.

    • Kirk February 6, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      Hi Andrew,

      In this essay, I hoped to convey the ambiguity of my feelings about all of this, and certainly didn’t intend to vilify people who make apps, or games, or who have found success working in tech. (And for what it’s worth, I don’t think I did.)

      I don’t think my love of San Francisco is in any way better or more valid than anyone else’s; I don’t even think that’s possible. I can’t quite grok the whole idea of “city ownership” as it tends to come up surrounding these conversations.

      It’s all very complicated for me, like it is for a lot of people, and this article was an attempt to share some of my conflicted feelings and maybe shine light on them.

      Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to read, and to respond.

      • Andrew Sipotz (@Stanrule1) February 6, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

        Don’t get me wrong Kirk, it’s a great read. And reading it I get a strong sense that we’ve walked a similar path coming here and being part of this community. We’re both frustrated by some of the sacrifices that have to be made to keep being here and we’re both cautious about how change is affecting our lifestyles here.

        Tech is part of our lives here and you’ve done a great job being part of that. I know you harbor no ill feelings towards the “I make apps” crowd. Change is part of who we are, we’re adaptable to the world around us, both from a technical and cultural standpoint.

      • Kirk February 6, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

        Cool. Glad to hear I didn’t come across as doing any lambasting or anything. Yeah, it does sound like we’ve walked similar paths, at least timeline-wise. And I agree, just like ambiguity is good, it’s good to adapt. I’d say “SF is nothing if not adaptable,” but I realize that I’m not actually sure if that’s true. But I hope it is!

    • JP February 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

      Your sense of entitlement is ugly. I hope you can look at the plight of older or poorer people being evicted from their homes to make room for wealthy tech industry people, of Adobe Books closing down because their landlord doubled their rent, and see that something bad has happened to the culture here. Ambivalence doesn’t seem like a morally credible response here.

      Please consider what you say when you say “creating something incredible”. Is it really, in the grand scheme of things? Or are you just creating slightly more effective or entertaining ways of extracting money from people like you? Consider Chris Whitman’s piece about how we value what tech companies do relative to other things in society:

      http://christopherwhitman.net/blog/?p=549

      I totally agree that we need to build more housing in SF. However it’s the middle class, not the rich, who are the drivers of gentrification and change. Crime goes down in neighborhoods when lots of people who make reasonable wages move in, not because a few super rich people buy penthouse suites. When only the rich invest in an area, it drives prices to unreasonable heights and creates a gold rush mentality among property owners:

      http://uptownalmanac.com/2013/02/did-mark-zuckerberg-pay-10-million-move-mission

      Bubbles distort our sense of the value of things. I am eager for the current bubble to burst. Talented people will continue creating things here. Those who wrought the bubble will float elsewhere, most likely on parachutes spun from gold, as they always do.

  2. Ben February 6, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    Makes me wonder what Minneapolis will be like in 10 years… wish I knew what it was like 10 years ago, but I was in Wisconsin at the time.

  3. Eric February 7, 2013 at 1:23 am #

    Haven’t lived in SF proper for as long as you, but I put in somewhere between five and six years in the city, mostly on the saddle between Nob and Russian Hill but a couple of months in the Lower Haight. (I’ve also lived in Berkeley, Santa Rosa and, now, Petaluma.) A lot of the stuff people say now about how SF has changed is the same stuff they were saying when I got there in 1999 and dot-coms were taking off.

  4. Kate February 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    Really eloquent, Kirk, and awesome juxtaposition of Solnit and Thomas.

    I’ve also been in this town for 10 years (first in the Inner Richmond, then the Upper Haight, Richmond again, and now Mission for about 5 years), and your article really resonates with me. As you say, it’s complicated. I live in a rent-controlled apartment, and don’t love seeing new condos popping up around me, but I’m really looking forward to the giant complex at the end of my block opening this year. I’m crossing my fingers that my part of the neighborhood gets a tiny bit less…filthy. But at the same time, it likely just shifts the problem.

    I’ve been poking around these ideas of occupation, class, and location directly correlating with The City we each live in. While SF has absolutely changed in the time I’ve been here (heck, so has my hometown… it would be very problematic otherwise), I feel like my perception has equally changed depending on various life factors—being at college, employment status, having expendable income (or not), having a flexible daytime schedule, having a flexible nighttime schedule, being single, being married, etc. These are all intrinsically tied with my perception of place.

    The SF of my college years is a different place than I currently live, and it’s a different place than the SF I lived in 5 years ago. Part of that is because I didn’t know about Strong Beer Month while I was in college, Sushi Bistro was still Deep Blue Sushi, and I could (barely) find a decent place to live (mostly) within my means. But an even larger part of it is because of the schedule I kept, the area of the city in which I lived, and my financial status of the moment. And also my personal lifestyle preferences (living the life of a starving artist was awesome—in my mind).

    I don’t think I have a point here, but thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

    • Kirk February 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

      Hi Kate,

      Thanks for reading, and for the thoughtful response. I was talking to my sister yesterday about how hard it is to nail down the way a city has changed in part because we change along with the city. Is SF really that different, or is it just that I’m different? It can be difficult to say. Probably some combination of the two. Anyway, thanks for the note, and for stopping by.

  5. PJ February 8, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    I was born in the east bay, raised in the tri-valley, and now am a Texan. But visiting S.F. still feels like a vibrant experience, especially on the couple amazing windless and warm summer days I caught last summer. From a (now) outsiders point of view, what makes S.F. amazing is the setting – no big city in the U.S. has the scenery and vistas that you find there. I know the problems you are facing are real, but they arent exactly unique either, nor permanent. Hope you find a decent place to stay, but meanwhile enjoy the buzz of activity (heck more people = better chance to make friends, meet women), and try not to take for granted the amazing things that city has to offer in scenery and eating experiences. Who knows, the bubble may burst tomorrow, and you will wonder where everyone went and suddenly those hot properties will be vacant and less attractive all of a sudden.

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