Weekend Reading: Savvy Perspectives on a Changing San Francisco

Spiral Sunset

Let’s take a moment took to survey the City of San Francisco, which we can see so clearly from our elevated perch in Bernal Heights.

As you know, San Francisco is a place that was, in no small part, created by great economic booms. (We even named our NFL team after one.) We are now in the midst of the latest boom, fueled largely — but not entirely — by the growth of our local technology industry.

Fun Fact: Did you know that since 2007, the City of San Francisco has generated more new private sector jobs than 47 out of 50 states? Only Texas, New York, and North Dakota created more jobs than San Francisco. Wow. That’s kind of nuts.

Yet as every true student of San Francisco history knows, prosperity is an awkward thing. Prosperity brings new problems in San Francisco — most of all in the domains of housing and urban culture. Our current boom is no exception, and there has been ample grousing about the perils of gentrification, evictions, displacement, cultural homogenization, and the goddamn kids these days. Bernal Heights often appears as a backdrop in these teeth-gnashing pieces about the changes taking place in San Francisco, and some of the most cranky grumbling has even come from our very own Bernal neighbors.

So what is to be done? How did we get here? Who is to blame? What are we becoming?

Thankfully, a few thoughtful essays have been written recently that transcend the ideological hysteria and self-absorbed nostalgia that have dominated the conversation thus far. If you’re in the mood, they make for good weekend reading.

The first is a must-read piece of analysis by Kim-Mai Cutler, entitled “How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained).” It’s a longread that masterfully combines quantitative data with historical perspective, economics, and policy analysis to clearly explain how and why San Francisco ended up being so darn expensive right now:

Everyone who lives in the Bay Area today needs to accept responsibility for making changes where they live so that everyone who wants to be here, can.

The alternative — inaction and self-absorption — very well could create the cynical elite paradise and middle-class dystopia that many fear. I’ve spent time looking into the city’s historical housing and development policies. With the protests escalating again, I am pretty tired of seeing the city’s young and disenfranchised fight each other amid an extreme housing shortage created by 30 to 40 years of NIMBYism (or “Not-In-My-Backyard-ism”) from the old wealth of the city and down from the peninsula suburbs.

Here is a very long explainer. Sorry, this isn’t a shorter post or that I didn’t break it into 20 pieces. If you’re wondering why people are protesting you, how we got to this housing crisis, why rent control exists or why tech is even shifting to San Francisco in the first place, this is meant to provide some common points of understanding.

This is a complex problem, and I’m not going to distill it into young, rich tech douchebags-versus-helpless old ladies facing eviction. There are many other places where you can read that story.

It does us all no justice.

If you read nothing else on this topic in 2014, Kim-Mai Cutler’s essay is the one to curl up with. The smartness will make your brain so much bigger you may need to buy new hats.

On the cultural side of the ledger, left-leaning San Francisco journalist (and former Bernal neighbor) Gary Kamiya just published a refreshing perspective on San Francisco’s current circumstances, and the phenomenon he calls The Change:

The Change is an unconquerable force of nature, like death. And much of the reaction to it recalls the first three stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving: a combination of denial, anger, and bargaining. If we yell and rage loudly enough, if we find someone to blame, if we replace reason with hyperbole— [Leftist writer Rebecca] Solnit memorably compared newly arrived techies to ivory collectors in China—then somehow the city we know will come back. This reaction is not surprising. Cities are always dying—their phenomenology is harsh, irrevocable, tragic. The building or business that you saw yesterday, that was an old friend for decades, today is gone forever. Enormous changes are never easy to deal with, and it’s human nature to want to fight back, to assert control. So it’s understandable that many progressive San Franciscans, people whose values and vision I share, are kicking and screaming and spray-stenciling sidewalks as they watch their city turning into something they don’t recognize.

But cities are also always being reborn. And as I wander through our new city, I find myself open to it. I’m not convinced that it is really going to become a soulless simulacrum of Manhattan (or worse, Atherton). I’m curious to know what San Francisco in 2025 or 2050 will look and feel like. I’m interested in the young people who are pouring in. When I wander through Dolores Park on a hot Saturday afternoon and watch the throngs hanging out, talking, drinking wine, smoking weed, and listening to music, I don’t examine them suspiciously, trying to figure out which ones are the bad techies and which ones are the good baristas (except for the people playing that inane toss-the-beanbag game—they gotta go). As I walk through Nob Hill or the Mission or mid-Market and see the fancy single-family homes or the sleek high-rise apartments that are sprouting up here and there, I don’t inwardly groan (except with real estate envy). Mostly, I view them with equanimity, as if they’re seedlings growing in the forest.

For even if it were possible to keep San Francisco exactly the way it is—and it isn’t—why would anyone want to? Any such attempt would be antithetical to the very things that I value most about the city: its youth, its vigor, its ability to reinvent itself. Responding to the Change by calling for a culture war—as several leading voices of the left have done—is a recipe for personal bitterness and public divisiveness. Ultimately, it transforms tragedy, which is painful yet fruitful, into politics, which is painful and fruitless.

The intelligence and perspective Kamiya provides will have you thinking for days.

Happy reading, and have a great weekend.

PHOTO: Telstar Logistics

19 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Savvy Perspectives on a Changing San Francisco

  1. I think arrivistes arrive in SF quite vulgar and cocky and then a good fraction of them disperse back to NYC, or points undetermined, at the next economic downturn. They are more or less tourists and we benefit from their money while they’re here the same. But the fraction that remains gradually, osmotically absorbs the cultural values of the city and after a dozen years or so become the valiant defending their precious city against the impositions of the unwashed and greedy.

    We could let our housing stock decay and form slums. We could be Detroit. But instead we have strong boom cycles that revitalize everything and make the place nifty, at the expense of displacement. And while living in the USA as a whole is a birthright, there is none similarly established for the city in particular. If you want to keep something precious, you have to find a way to contribute that is rewarded adequately. Everything beyond that is sentimentality.

  2. Its these kinds of posts and replies which make me so happy that I live here and am a part of an urban community which is open to different perspectives and willing to self-reflect, despite the inevitable speed bumps.

    • “making changes where they live so that everyone who wants to be here, can.

      The alternative — inaction and self-absorption —”

      I stopped reading at this point. Everyone who wants to live in SF is ever going to be able to, and the alternative is not “inaction and self-absorption.”

      What a load of claptrap.

      The world is ever changing, and that includes Bernal Heights. The things you like about the neighborhood may disappear entirely, or they may prosper. I maintain a willful detachment from such expectations, because I know the majority of change is completely out of my hands.

      I too love BH, but after over a decade of working out of my house I got tired of it – the house and the neighborhood. There’s still so much to love about living in the city, but I needed to prove to myself what I long suspected – I can be happy no matter where I live – so I rented out my Bernal house and bought in the north bay, with a wonderful view at the edge of a wilderness area and a 15 minute walk to the ocean.

      You know what? I love it. Sure Bernal is great, but the degree of self-absorption is tiresome. “Aren’t we wonderful because we live where everyone wishes they could live” seems to be the prevailing Bernal mindset. The usually negative judgement of new arrivals as “hipsters” or “trust fundies” or whatever is BORING, and it’s not what I think of when I think of SF.

      SF is supposed to be about acceptance. Acceptance of diversity, acceptance of differences, acceptance of good and bad, acceptance of that which is out of your control (like change). The mindset that the neighborhood should be just how “you” (whoever you are) want it to be, is a drag, and that’s what I miss the least about SF.

      • Dude, you should actually read the piece. I think it’s different from how you’re expecting it to be.

      • I’d rather have read the comments. The article is well-researched but poorly written. Get an editor. Her random paragraphs are a particular annoyance, but I also dislike the many unfounded assumptions (for example, “homeowners fight growth out of economic interest”).

        Synopsis: San Francisco is desirable but small, geographically speaking. There have always been rival political and economic factions shaping the city, and as cities have once again become desirable places to live, San Francisco’s smallness is a feature and a bug. It’s a feature because its size makes it easier to appreciate, it’s a bug because there’s not enough viable housing real estate. Therefore real estate is expensive, and if you think it’s bad now, just wait 10 years.

      • I think that Bernalese, man got it just about right. I agree with him. The truth is none of those who love Bernal or the entire city of SF really want it to change. They like it just like it is, or was. We’re all Nimby’s to a degree. Bernal’s “preciousness” bores me, same with my hood Noe. We’re no more special or unspecial than people in Detroit or Houston.

        But we think we are. In truth, SF is a small city, not really even “world class”, just a great American city. And, crass as it may sound, a lot of us including me can’t wait for the day when I/we sell our house for LOTS of money to the newbie who comes here to make his or her mark on The City, and I cash out off to my paradise on Maui.

        Life goes on and so does SF.

  3. Thanks for these, Todd. I had already read Kim’s informative though very long piece and passed it around, but the Gary Kamiya piece is an excellent essay in a more reflective vein that I had not seen yet.

  4. I hate to disappoint Kim-Mai Cutler because she obviously put a lot of work into her story; but, in my experience, we who come to San Francisco, and we who decide to stay here, do not do so for a “large network of weak ties” or a vigorous “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” Employment opportunity has never been the first consideration of anyone I have ever known here. If we had wanted money or career success I guess we would gone to New York or L.A. or, god forbid, Texas.

    While this city has passed from gold to silver to sugar to silicon and now on to who knows what, the best that we hope for every time is that the those who are passing through, who are here just to make a buck, don’t screw the place up too badly for the rest of us. We remain here, always, because we love this place, but mostly because, after a lot of searching, we’ve never been able to find any other place to compare.

    You might call this “the end of the line.” We call it “home.” Either way, we are happily determined to hold on, as much as possible, to what we have. So if Kim-Mai Cutlery doesn’t like the way we run this city, she can go “transform or be transformed by” someplace else.

    P.S. I love Tech, and I love the Google buses. I love what’s happened to Valencia Street, and I love the hoards of tourists downtown. I also love Prop 13 and Prop B. I seriously did not want a basketball stadium to be built on top of the water, and I’m mildly skeptical about the Central Subway. The 1,070′ tall Transbay Tower makes me a little woogy; but, hey, at least it’s in the right location.

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  6. I am tired of the argument that the “buses” are taking 4,000 cars off the road per day. this implies that all the bus riders would live in San Francisco anyway and drive, if they didn’t have the buses. That is simply not true.

      • As a tech worker that has lived in San Francisco for 12 years and commuted 40 miles for much of that time, I can say that while some percentage of those folks might have lived elsewhere without the busses, I doubt that’s a very large percentage. I know plenty of Google, Facebook, and Apple employees that lived here before the busses became a requirement for competing for top employees.

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