Every day, it seems, there’s another story about how difficult it is to live in San Francisco. The rents are too high, the government is a bloated beast of inefficiency, families are fleeing, there’s a bedbug-esque techie infestation, and the rents are too high. Oh, and the rents are too high. Perhaps worst of all, as someone who loves this town and its eccentricities, San Francisco has become distressingly normal.
That said, the city’s population is approaching 850,000. It was 675,000 in 1980. It stands to reason that the city is doing something right to attract 175,000 more residents, even if most of them are Academy of Art students. So what’s luring all these new people?
Despite what most city residents think, San Francisco natives do exist. I know because I’m one of them, and a huge percentage of my network was either born here or has lived here longer than the Internet has existed (much longer, in fact). So I asked them. I emailed more than 50 people who know this city better than Willie Brown knows hats and compiled a list of things that have actually improved in SF. I make no claims to this being statistically sound. Instead, think of it as the collective wisdom of old-school San Franciscans, the top 10 things that are better now in San Francisco than they were then*, if you will. (*Note: your “then” may vary.)
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1. Less crime
Aside from all those snatched smartphones and the murder stats in the city’s Southeast, San Francisco is demonstrably safer. Of course, crime has gone down across the entire country, and a body or two does wonders to keep rents in check (amirite Richmond?), but the city is a lot less menacing and, as a quality of life issue -- or a just a staying alive issue -- how is that not a good thing?
2. Prettier waterfront
Once upon a time, a hulking, double-decker freeway defaced the Embarcadero like a varicose vein. Crissy Field was a landing strip, not a thriving estuary. There was no bayside ballpark (okay, that’s not technically true, but no one really misses baseball at the ‘Stick. And, if you do, you’re a masochist). Plus, the bay itself is cleaner. Not clean, but cleaner -- kind of like Haight St.
3. Safer parks
Our parks are wonderful. But they haven’t always been that way. Take Buena Vista, for example. Back in the day, its lower section was a warren of surly skinheads and its upper reaches a bramble of lurking sex cruisers. Today, it’s a glorious mountain of trees where the vista is indeed buena. (And, uh, okay, there're still a few sex cruisers. What? Some things never change.) Our parks are better managed and maintained, our playgrounds more child-friendly, dog runs exist, and more people are out enjoying them. Of course, that means there’s the occasional trash mountain left in Dolores Park, but that’s still better (if only slightly) than it being a dirt-pocked field of used needles and hustlers.
4. "Better" weather
I hate to say this (particularly in the middle of a historical drought), but the weather in SF has gotten pretty awesome. Winters are less wet, summers less cold; summer used to cause seasonal affective disorder, but ever since our fossil fuel addiction started murdering polar bears, our weather has been SoCal-errific. I won’t complain about the weather until Ocean Beach starts at Sunset Blvd.
5. Not as much (dog) poop
Sure, poop still happens and, unless you're a stool gourmand like my dog, there’s still too much of it mucking up our streets. But honestly, there’s a lot less of it. This is true largely because, while there are a lot more dog owners (good lord are there more dog owners), they are better dog owners. When I was a kid in the '70s, we opened the front door and our dog walked himself. We were utterly blasé about the fact that he was depositing turds throughout the neighborhood. So good job dog people (except for you bastards who bag your dog’s poop and then leave the bags lying there like a double shot of environmental degradation. You people are the worst).
6. Fantastic food
The food’s good, full stop. But it’s good beyond the mere matter of taste. The revolution that Alice Waters launched in ‘71, built upon adjectives like local, organic, heirloom, and a host of others that make white liberals salivate, is now ubiquitous. If you can afford it, you can eat guilt-free. Try doing that in Peoria... or Colma for that matter.
7. Better biking
So many more bike lanes! Yes, bicyclists can be obnoxious, but as annoying as scofflaw bikers sometimes are, they’re half as annoying as they would be if they were all driving cars.
You know how it’s too damn expensive to live here and all the cool people have left? Well, they just moved across the bay to do rad things like make art and culture and stuff. The trick to not hating on the loss of San Francisco’s creative class is to be willing to hop on BART and experience Oakland’s revival. Yes, it sucks that Oakland is cooler than SF now (and Sacramento is cooler than Oakland). But cool’s always been overrated, primarily by the cool kids.
9. SF is relevant again
This one’s a little less obvious, but it’s true. San Francisco has had four epochs of national cultural relevance: the gold rush when it was founded and got its first taste of greed. WWII when its shipyards and military bases were bustling for the war effort. The late '60s when freedom (both personal and political) placed love beads around the neck of white, middle class American hypocrisy, and again today when the Internet came of age right here in our backyard. Rents are low in Detroit and Cleveland because the world has moved on. The Bay Area matters and there are people here doing some really important work. Okay, most start-ups are about as helpful as a third grader, but some of them are kind of cool. Don’t believe me? Google it.
I promised a top 10 list, but there aren’t 10 reasons San Francisco is better now than it was when I was coming up. All the complaints are true. Living here is hard. Most of your friends have left and those who have stayed are terrified of being displaced. It’s expensive. It’s draining. Muni is... Muni. The tech bros are legion. I get it. I hear you. I agree. But the next time you’re immersed in a fugue of malcontent, go grab a burrito, head to the nearest (mostly poop-free) park, and enjoy the lovely weather. It’ll do you good. Or just move to Oakland so you can live near real San Franciscans again.
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T.M. O'Donnell is available for dinner parties, birthdays, and BBQs in the greater Bay Area.