Let me say upfront that this post is a rant, you may want to stop reading here if you want to avoid getting worked up about this topic.
A family member asked me what I thought about the recent HBO Film “San Francisco 2.0”, by Alexandra Pelosi. I started to watch it, but had to give up after ten minutes. Maybe it gets more balanced, and it certainly looked visually appealing, but some of the opening comments really bothered me.
There is a perception that the City of San Francisco is somehow being ‘damaged’ by outsiders. Certainly, living here has gotten harder in recent years. There is a vein of thinking which blames “Techies” for this. The film states that these Techies are pushing out the Counter-Culture for which San Francisco is famous.
That is complete and utter nonsense.
Unquestionably, the City is changing, but anyone who is honest about its history knows that San Francisco is always changing. To claim that today’s changes are bad because they go against that 1960’s Counter-Culture mirage is the worst sort of nostalgia. Like the ball player in Springsteen’s “Glory Days”, maybe the good days were not that glorious after all.
Speaking personally, I was born in and grew up in California. I went to college at U.C. Berkeley, just across the Bay. I remember coming to ‘the City’ in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Back then San Francisco was not some shimmering Counter-Culture nirvana. It was gloomy and run-down. It was dangerous, riddled with drugs and crime. There were whole sections of that City that you could not visit. The words that people used to describe it usually ended in the suffix ‘–hole’.
If you do not want to take my word for it, check out “The Season of the Witch”, for a great history of San Francisco in the 70’s and 80’s.
Now do not get me wrong. There are great things about San Francisco, and there is true value in culture of the City, even that “Counter Culture”. I have literally bought into the San Francisco dream, I have owned a home here for over a decade, and will never sell this property. I am as proud as anyone of the diversity of opinions and lifestyle that this City offers. And I am as sad as anyone that many of the good parts of the City’s history and populace are getting pushed out.
The problem I have with the movie San Francisco 2.0 and that whole line of thinking is that it seeks to lay blame on the newcomers. Why blame the Techies? Why not blame past waves of immigrants? The Chinese and Filipinos who came in the 70’s? Or the Hippies who came in the 60’s? Or the LGBT community in the 50? Or the Jews and Italians who came before them? The arguments used to blame Techies for ‘ruining’ San Francisco today are the same ones used to blame the Irish for ‘ruining’ San Francisco a hundred years ago. Utter nonsense.
To yearn for some 1960’s Glory Days is to forget a hard truth about this City. San Francisco is, and has always been, a boom town. The City’s Football team is called the ‘49ers’, named for the firsts boom times in 1859. Why do we forget that? For two hundred years people have come to this City to seek opportunity, build a new life, build a new world. Just because you were born here before the latest boom-times does not give you the right to criticize those who come seeking their own new world.
There is no doubt that San Francisco is losing some of what it once had. And I sympathize with people who have been here a long time and lament this fact. But I think we need to be honest about this. Cities are always changing, but not all cities lose their past when something new comes around. If you think that San Francisco is declining in some way because of the current economic boom, ask yourself what is the root of this problem. The problem is not the newcomers, the problem is that the City is not adapting to change. If you spend all your time in the Eastern quarter of the City – between Noe Valley and the Bay – it can feel like there is endless construction, but that is just a small portion of the City. In truth, the rest of the City has changed very little. There were less than 100 new residential buildings built in San Francisco in 2013, and the pace has barely picked up since then.
Think about that for a moment. Probably the biggest problem facing San Francisco today is the ridiculous price of housing. Yes, there are many newcomers driving up prices, but there is also nothing being done to accommodate them. Building a house in San Francisco, or even renovating an existing one, is insanely time-consuming. My neighbors, who have lived here for 25 years, want to expand their house to accommodate a growing family. By the time it is done, it will take three years of planning and approvals, a year of construction and well over a $1 million to complete. The fact that the permitting takes longer than the construction should be a giant red flat, but for many that slowdown is the goal.
And this is the part that infuriates me the most about all that nostalgia. People who are decrying the advent of the “Techies” want nothing to change. They want to limit what can get built and legislate what it looks like. This strain of conservatism has taken over the City’s planning process. They want no change, and so the City gets no change. But that just means policies that make it harder for people to live here, and drive up housing prices even more.
The problem is not the influx of Techies, any more than the problem was the influx of Hippies 50 years ago, or any other group of immigrants. The problem is 30 years of failed housing policy. The problem is that the City is not looking for a way to adapt.
And don’t even get me started about the public school system.