Rebirth of the Outsider City: Part I, San Francisco

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San Francisco is lost. Experts and commentators are calling it already. The city is, of course, doing better than ever economically, and it’s a leader in the nation in job growth, wages, and standard of living. It’s the hot spot for young professionals and trend setters and always at the epicenter of all things “next” and “big.” But San Francisco is also not what it used to be: an approachable, inclusive city, and a safe haven for creative counter culture.

One could make the argument that, gold rushes notwithstanding, there’s never been a better time to live in the City by the Bay. Yet being able to do so comfortably is quickly becoming an unattainable pursuit for the kinds of people who helped make the city famous. San Francisco appears to be permanently placed on the path toward its ultimate and untimely demise, and there’s likely nothing anyone can do about it.

It’s not climate change or the mega drought or an impending doomsday earthquake that’s taking one of the great American cities away from us. It’s politics. And it wasn’t even intentional.

Take a moment to consider San Francisco and its culture. Bohemian lifestyles, avant garde artists, and radical progressive political movements should come to mind. Throughout the 20th century, San Francisco has been a lightning rod for dissidents, free thinkers, and trouble makers. A Mecca for liberalism and aggressive inclusion, young people flocked to San Francisco in mass following in the footsteps of On the Road beatniks and Deadheads.

It wasn’t just hippies and hipsters who shaped the city’s vibrant culture. Immigrant and minority groups, many of whom were escaping persecution and discrimination in other cities across the US and the globe, were able to find refuge within San Francisco. Mission District, for example, is historically a bustling and energetic working class Hispanic neighborhood where daring and provocative murals still line the sides of buildings today.

San Francisco’s neighborhoods were, and are, as varied as the different groups who inhabited them, but most had one thing in common: they were affordable. Part of the draw of San Francisco was its low cost of living. During the height of white flight and the mass move toward suburbanization that defined the mid 20th century everywhere in America, but particularly in California and the Bay Area, groups continued to flock to San Francisco to help shape it into what it is today. But that identity is on the demise.

The cost of living in San Francisco today is astronomically high, and you don’t have to live there or be a real estate agent to know it. San Francisco often comes in first in the rankings for most expensive US city, a far cry from the forward thinking urban utopia that the artists and radicals helped build. Though the political identity of the city remains largely the same, the landscape has changed dramatically, and many feel strongly that it’s not for the better.

Gentrification is a dirty word for a lot of people for understandable reasons. It often comes at their expense. It’s not a cut and dry issue, however. The tech boom has been an undeniable benefit to San Francisco . . . no one is going to argue for a weaker economy. But no one wants to get priced out of their neighborhood either.

It’s true that rebellious counter culture is a big part of San Francisco’s identity. But these days, conjuring up images of the city likely invoke ritzy, overpriced coffee shops and upper middle class consumerism as much as they do of gay pride parades and open air music festivals. The city is transforming into a bizarro mirror of itself. Those two sides are at odds with one another, and the rebels are losing.

The tech companies take a brunt of the blame from irritated residents for their role in rising property values and higher rents, but they’re hardly all to blame. Their local conception and migration may have been inevitable anyway. Arguably, part of what attracted feisty upstart tech companies with subversive thinking leaders like Larry Page and Steve Jobs in the first place was the area’s famous progressivism. Though high income tech giants have been linked to the issue, the city itself has done more than its fair share of foot shooting.

San Francisco might have been able to sustain the flux of immigration to the city had developers kept up with the housing demand. But, ironically, communities and left thinkers organized to prevent new develop as they saw it as a threat to the city’s identity. Zoning ordinances were put into place to block larger apartment buildings that were viewed as unsightly blemishes and an affront to San Francisco quaintness.

Development became the poster child for big business and special interests. Neighborhoods banded together to stop highways and high rises from reshaping communities. The unfortunate side effect was that property values skyrocketed. With not enough options to choose from, the limited residencies available in San Francisco became increasingly unapproachable for the bleeding hearts who fought to save them.

Now, living in San Francisco is nearly impossible for anyone not already making a sizable salary, which is giving a city known for its inclusion and open mindedness an atmosphere of exclusivity for all but the highest earners. According to Zillow, the median home price in San Francisco is at a staggering $1,076,000. The average monthly rent is $4,600 or $4.17 for every single square foot of space. For prospective, average home values in New York City are half that at $572,800. Nationally, the median average is $179,900.

It’s no wonder then that the middle and working class residents are up in arms. They’re losing access to their own neighborhoods and the rate of displacement is only increasing. But, beyond the drab economics of San Francisco’s transformation, something else is happening that has residents concerned: the loss of their city’s culture.

San Francisco simply can’t continue to be the bastion of creative expression it’s known for if the people responsible for making that happen (artists, musicians, status quo challengers) can’t afford to be there. Such pursuits tend not to have the most lucrative payoffs. Instead, these groups’ ranks have thinned considerably in mass exodus as they watched San Francisco become something much more elegant, yet much more sterile. In time, some fear that the creative energy of the city will give way to a bunch of people pitching apps to one another in an insular space, devoid of the type of culture that fostered such great innovation.