I don’t want to sound like too much of a nostalgic old coot, even though I might technically qualify as one—the old part, anyway—but San Francisco hasn’t been recognizable to me for some time. I don’t mean physically recognizable, either. Yes, the skyline’s changed, that’s true. At the park near my house, the view doesn’t even include the wonderfully silly 1970’s-looking Transamerica Pyramid anymore. It used to make me smile every time I gazed on it. But I’m talking more about a change in the social, economic, political skyline.
I moved to San Francisco, an expensive city even then, because I wanted to become a poet and a novelist, in addition to having some vague idea of supporting myself by writing ads. It was a city famous for producing poets and novelists, Jack London, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey, Diane DiPrima, Alice Waters, by giving them a place to thrive, with culture and interesting moody weather and stupifying vistas and historic, beautiful houses.
I even met an aspiring novelist while we were both just scraping a living together, someone then obscure and unpublished, whose name, which you would recognize in a second, is now synonymous worldwide with progressive contemporary literature. I also met other then-struggling but now-famous people in the arts, including a woman who is now a jazz vocalist of much renown, and an outrageous gadfly type who now produces trendy and infamous name-branded dance parties around the world attended by anyone who’s anyone, and several journalists and commentators who were then young upstarts but now write regularly for Salon, New Yorker and Time. All of this happened without my even trying, because that’s just the kind of place San Francisco was.
And then, it wasn’t anymore.
What happened? Tech companies like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook took over San Francisco, starting in Silicon Valley and gradually moving in to suck up whatever creative talent could afford the rising rent. I was one of those creative talents who got sucked up, so I probably shouldn’t get to complain, but I will anyway.
Coupled with this was the associated demise of both the advertising and publishing industries. Ad revenue was all devoured by Google and Facebook, leaving ad agencies to wither and die; and of course magazines, without advertising revenue, did the same, or went online where they became financial shadows of their former selves.
Now, though, the chickens are coming home to roost.
Thanks to the pandemic and accompanying recession, the Bay Area’s formerly fabulous overpaid job market is now a shadow of its former self. Add in the fact that those still working not only have the technology to do so from anywhere (Hi, Zoom) but are also damn near forced to by social distancing protocol, and you have the makings of a housing market collapse.
That means it’s finally a renter’s market again in San Francisco (which I support even though I’m now a homeowner), as coders and marketers alike go home to the suburbs of Little Rock, Minneapolis, Austin, or Phoenix. Many of them are relieved since they don’t have to deal with things they secretly found pesky all along, like diversity, inclusivity, and needing to be able to talk about movies where nothing gets blown up or music that doesn’t have the words “Sweet Home Alabama” in it.
I’m relieved too, but for very different reasons. Finally this city can go back to what it was, a quirky, vibrant, naturally beautiful place where misfits and miscreants can find each other, each knowing that the other loves or at least embraces the city’s flaws. Its homeless that sadly never seem to be taken care of, its hills that never get easier to climb, its Sneetches-like tyranny of small differences. It’s a gold rush town for sure, but the most comfortable part for me is when the gold rush is over and you can just hang out and be.
And to all the kids who came here straight out of expensive colleges, mistaking their privilege for talent and their natural good looks for charm and sophistication, you’ll find your way. In the meantime, and I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, don’t let the Golden Gate hit you where the good lord split you.