I made quite a few trips to San Francisco during the late 90s into the early 2000s, but hadn’t been back in a very long time – probably close to 15 years.
Last week I was there for a conference and a long weekend and got to spend some time exploring the city. I won’t claim a comprehensive review, but I did have a few takeaways to share.
1. Fewer homeless than expected. Based on the rhetoric you read in the papers, I expected SF to be overrun with aggressive homeless people. This wasn’t the case. There were visible homeless to be sure, but no more than I remember from 15 years ago and no more than I see in New York. And they were not particularly aggressive in any way.
2. A curiously low energy city. It’s tough to judge any American city’s street energy after living in New York, but San Francisco felt basically dead. Tourist areas around Union Square and the Embarcadero were crowded, and the Mission on a Friday night was hopping, but otherwise the city was very quiet. Haight-Ashbury was nearly deserted and many neighborhoods had the feel of a ghost town. It’s very strange to be walking around a city with such a dense built fabric but so few people.
3. San Francisco is too small to support a centralized economy. The Financial District has a number of skyscrapers, and SOMA is awash in construction – the biggest changes I observed were in this district – but central San Francisco is too small to serve as a global city business center. And the city as a whole is not big enough to support that kind of a resident base. The bottom line is that San Francisco’s constrained geography renders the construction of a CBD in the style of a Chicago or New York very difficult. Also, at only around 856,000 people – an all time record high – the absorption capacity of the city is limited. Contrast with NYC at 8.5 million, LA with 4 million and Chicago with around 2.7 million in much bigger geographies. Also, the transport geography of San Francisco does not include the type of massive commuter rail system that NYC, London, Chicago, etc. have. In short, I don’t see SF having the capacity for a much greater degree of employment centralization.
4. Major construction is undesirable in San Francisco. As I’ve written before, San Francisco is one of America’s most achingly beautiful cities with a very unique building stock. It’s also, like Manhattan, mostly fully developed. So new construction in most places would involve demolition of the existing building stock. No surprise SOMA is where the construction is, because there’s room to do it and/or lower quality buildings to replace. To make a serious increase in the quantity of residential or office space would involve significant damage to the character of the city and would not in my view be desirable. Nor, given the point above about its small size, is it likely to make much of a difference anyway. It’s hard to see how the city of San Francisco itself changes its trends without an economic pullback.
5. San Francisco doesn’t feel like it has the services of a high tax city. Taxes are high in San Francisco, but it many ways it doesn’t feel like it. In New York, our taxes are high, but the level of services is highly visible, at least in Manhattan. Just as one small example, SF’s storm drains were often partially blocked with leaves, and there were pools of standing water even on Market St. In NYC, BID employees or building supers regularly clear storm drains and sweep water into sewers. Our parks are in better shape. I was surprised to see that SF still has curbs with no ADA ramps. In short, while the city is beautiful and such, it doesn’t radiate the feel of high services.
6. Barrier and POP transit system. I ran into a curious situation while riding transit. Muni, the city’s transit agency, has a light rail system called Muni Metro. It runs as a subway under Market St. Because it runs on street elsewhere, the trainsets are pretty short. I rode the subway portion, which has a barrier system. But then on the train my ticket was checked again by a conductor. Why have barriers if you are running a POP system on top of it? I’m glad I saved my ticket.
7. San Francisco Opera. I attended my first opera in San Francisco. The San Francisco Opera is a very globally respected company. The opera, Janacek’s The Makropulous Case, was very good. It was well-patronized but there were plenty of empty seats too. It has the feel of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where the majority of attendees are subscribers. The average age was very high – much higher than the Met Opera, which although suffering a serious attendance problem draws quite a few young people. The SF Opera’s patron base is getting up there. I also took a look through the program. I did not see a single tech company on their list of corporate sponsor, nor did I see any tech names I recognized on their major donor list. Opera in San Francisco appears to be an old money affair, with the emphasis on old. This doesn’t bode well for the future of this flagship cultural organization if it can’t find a way to tap into younger attendees and donors. I’d have to caveat this somewhat given that my investigation is very limited. But this is a trend affecting many similar organizations.
Chris Barnett says
Minor point: because of geography and geology, SF never had the concentration of public docks and rail yards as other coastal/port cities. Those sites today can be hot redevelopment zones (as in London, NYC/North Jersey, Philly).
So the big opportunity may be across the bay and to the south; even if it is defined as a different metro, it really isn’t given the regional transportation grid.
Think “five boroughs of the Bay Area”: SF, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Palo Alto, and think “multi node” (because earthquakes).
Rod Stevens says
As a person who grew up on the West Coast and has spent my life living, working and visiting the city, I can say one thing for sure: San Francisco is a West Coast city. Stanford students who come to the city are disappointed that it’s not New York, that it’s not bigger, louder, and more varied. But that’s the way San Francisco has always been, since the Gold Rush days, a very dense but geographically small place surrounded by the low density of the west. Yes, there are cultural institutions there like the Opera, which San Francisco built up to show off its wealth, but until very recently San Francisco was mainly a banking center, the place people went to get money for all those resource-based ventures, whether they were in the timberlands of Hawaii, the goldfields of Alaska, or the timberlands of Oregon.
What has changed most recently is San Francisco becoming the world capital of the creative side of business, whether that field is social media or the quantified self. And in the West, there’s a very big focus on the personal and the self, which is why the “personal computer” and the food movement grew up here and not in the East. That makes the neighborhoods and especially the coffee house the center of energy, and not the big corporate high-rises downtown. Yes, for about 30 or 40 years the corporations like BofA did rule there, but for the last 20 years the creative energy has been south of Market, especially along Mission, which, for decades, meant “Hispanic” to the corporate interests downtown. When, in the late 80’s and 90s, consolidation began taking banking to Charlotte, many of the new, smaller ventures started south of Market, and stayed there. The big change in the city over the last sixty years has been the re-use of the old industrial areas, and having business creep out Market to the Civic Center. Those were the places that had seen decline since the 1950s. In New York, it has been places like Time Warner Center that got all the money and attention. While there are now high-rise projects like Salesforce Tower going up in San Francisco, for many years the most notable redevelopment projects were those like the re-do of the Furniture Mart, which involved repurposing an old building, especially one on the edge of the industrial area.
It is that industrial character that so many outsiders fail to note. For over 100 years San Francisco was the major port on the West Coast, and it had a labor and manufacturing history to go with that. There was a big general strike here in the late 1930s, and the longshoreman’s leaders were some of the strongest labor union leaders in the country. The fact that San Francisco was liberal and could attract Gays has not a little to do with the varied labor history of this city, that it was a melting pot and a place of countervailing forces. That means that while there was a detente between the the corporate interests and the downtowns in the 1970s and 80s that allowed office buildings to go up, there was still a balance of power in who ruled the city. That detente is over, not in the least because the old corporations, the BoA and the Amfac’s of the world are gone or moved elsewhere. The new corporate tech elite are partly here because this is where their workers want to live, and partly because they themselves want to be here. Herb Caen called this “Baghdad by the City”. Not everyone wants to kill the golden goose.
DaveOf Richmond says
“Baghdad by the Bay” I think you mean. Also not sure about the “timberlands of Hawaii” – was there a significant timber industry in Hawaii in the past? I always thought of the old products of Hawaii being sugar, pineapples and bananas. Nice comment otherwise…..
Rod Stevens says
that should have been “sugar cane fields of Hawaii and the timberlands of Oregon”. Historically, some of Hawaii’s biggest companies were run out of San Francisco, as were big timber companies like Crown Zellerbach.
The Overhead Wire (@theoverheadwire) says
I know a lot of people come here to SF from the East Coast and they really don’t like it. They come, they complain, then they move back to NY or Boston. It’s not what they expected because no one tells them what to expect. If your brain was raised on a constant buzz, I can see where the quiet would be disconcerting.
But San Francisco is a city of neighborhood centers. Without subway lines to connect everywhere, and hills that divide, each part of the city has been separated, not held together by access. Haight Ashbury might be thought of as a center, but it’s a relic of the past. Right around the corner on 9th and Irving where the N train makes a turn is where the action is, across from the park where the DeYoung Museum and the Academy of Sciences thrive. Mission is always hot, but so is 24th street, or Hayes Valley, or Clement street. There are more, and they buzz every day.
But outside of that it’s a quiet city, an introverted city. But its also a cold city. You mentioned puddles, which means it had rained before or after or maybe even during your visit. That was probably one of only two rains in the last 9 months. The street sweepers come by quite often to take it away. But water doesn’t come much. And people stay inside for rain. But also for the fog, which chills to the bone and renders tourists frozen in the summer time. I run hot, so it keeps me normal. My mom was always frozen. We call it perma-fall.
My question though for you given this commentary is where did you go? What parts of the city were in you in besides FiDi, Mission, and Upper Haight? I often show people my neighborhood because no one would ever know to come if a tourist. And as said above, it’s a series of neighborhoods, and to get the action you have to know where to go.
Aaron M. Renn says
We walked a lot. In addition to the neighborhoods you listed we were around Civic Center, North Beach, around the Coit Tower, along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, all along the Geary corridor (and side streets) to the Pacific Ocean, Pacific Heights, and maybe more I didn’t list.
I think it is somewhat unfair to dismiss SF as 800,000 people given that it is one part of a much larger metropolitan region. The SF Bay Area probably exceeds Chicago in overall size. It may mostly be lower density, but even there, SF suburbs are certainly denser than those of Chicago.
Vincent Rollins says
Chicago metro area: ~9.7 million
Chicago (city alone): ~2.7 million
SJ/SF CSA (12 county area): ~8.2 million
Bay Area CSA (9 county area): ~7.2 million
Aaron M. Renn says
Yes, the Bay Area is large. I am referring to a centralized core on the scale of Chicago’s or New York’s. The Bay Area is going to remain a highly dispersed region in terms of economic activity and highly educated population
Mark Hansen says
One thing RE: housing stock. I once had the same thought about San Francisco, in regards to demolishing neighborhoods. But the whole Sunset District area and parts of the Richmond area are remarkably unremarkable. Give those neighborhoods a look. It’s very cookie-cutter and the density seems way too low for the area. It almost feels suburban. These are neighborhoods in SF, walking distance from ocean sunsets, and everything is “ticky-tacky,” to borrow a term. I definitely think that would be a prime area for redevelopment.
I’m a Bay Area native. I think you’re mostly right but just lacking a bit of context.
1. Fewer homeless: Yeah, it’s not THAT big of a deal. It’s just so visible in S.F.’s tourist areas (the Tenderloin is adjacent to Union Square) so that’s part of the perception.
2. Low energy: Relative to other Western U.S. cities, S.F. has a vibrant street life. Relative to the East Coast, not so much. In addition, the tech culture probably has muted things even more.
3. S.F. too small to support a centralized economy: Well, duh. It’s not centralized. “Silicon Valley” runs from Marin (Autodesk) all the way down to San Jose (eBay) and everywhere in-between. In addition, every office I’ve worked in has remote workers, from Sacramento to Sri Lanka. As other have pointed out, SF proper fulfills the role of Manhattan. Sort of. It’s actually just one highly visible node.
4. Major construction is undesirable: I agree for the most part. In the big picture, I’m glad SOMA is getting built-up, because that’s a valuable chunk of land with a lot of crappy buildings. But seriously there’s no way anything remotely desirable or historical within SF itself will get torn down for HK style towers. Way too much friction.
What’s more interesting is that, bit by bit, densities are increasing all over the Bay Area. An earthquake cottage becomes a 2 or 3 story house. A gas station becomes boutique condos. A shopping mall retrofits for pedestrians. And so on. I think the way forward for our region is more like Paris than Manhattan. One can dream 🙂
5. High tax city: Yeah, SF is probably the worst run major city in the country. Politics matter more than results. Things eventually get done, but… in truth before the tech boom SF was a bit like a cross between New Orleans and Denver. A lifestyle city par excellence. People tolerated a certain amount of inefficiency (and B-grade careers) because they liked living here. Now with the global spotlight on us, it’s not pretty.
6. Transit system: Yep, our regional transit system is a mess. It’s not centralized under one authority and the ticketing systems are odd and overlapping. It’s only good relative to most other American cities. Pretty low bar.
7. Opera: I’ve never been but yeah there is an old money contingent still in the City. VERY old as you found out. New money is going into the arts, but more into modern/contemporary art. SFMOMA, Grayarea.org, etc.