San Francisco: I'm Trying So Goddamn Hard to Never Leave You
In 1945 Leo F. Dumas returned home after three years of almost relentless fighting on North African and European battlefields, yet he felt lost. Severely wounded in Tunisia, he had been awarded the Purple Heart but still carried shrapnel from a mortar round in his forehead. He had also earned the Bronze Star and Silver Star for distinguished valor in combat but the psychological wounds -- what doctors would later diagnose as severe post traumatic stress disorder -- had him awakening night screaming in cold sweats. The world just didn’t seem to fit together anymore; the small Minnesota town where his French Canadian family had settled felt constricting and held little opportunity. How do you settle back into an old life after sleeping in foxholes and storming beachheads?
Then a letter. Leo’s younger brother, Cheetah (I’m serious that was his name) had settled in California. A few weeks later Leo made the journey to San Francisco to start the rest of his life.
To a shell-shocked World War II vet, San Francisco was better than paradise. It was a place you could reinvent yourself and not have to worry about fitting in. The working class city was crammed with just the right amount of weird: sailors, poets, drifters, bikers, misfits, and criminals prowled the streets. Jobs were plentiful and housing was cheap. In the city Leo found a career with the teamsters union. In the East Bay he was able to buy an affordable house. He also found my grandmother, a wild Irish Catholic woman who worked for the Navy and shared his passion for raucous postwar life. Like anyone in their late 20s they raised hell in San Francisco: dropping entire paychecks at restaurants, stumbling out of nightclubs, dancing to live music until the sun came up. To no one’s surprise, my father was born a few years later. I would follow in the early ‘80s. Besides a two-year stint in UC Davis for college and a two and a half year “vacation” to New York City for work, I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area my entire life.
And despite the fact that San Francisco has changed dramatically in the last few years, I have no plans to leave. Yes, the city is constantly maligned by overpriced apartments, clueless tech bros, clogged freeways, and $5 slices of toast. Yes, every single one of my closest friends have abandoned San Francisco for places like New York, LA, Austin, and Vancouver. But I still think it’s a place worth living in. What we’re seeing here is a city that’s in the throes of a particularly angsty growth spurt. But just as with any petulant teenager, this phase will eventually pass and San Francisco will, like, figure out who it really is now, man.
That’s not to say things haven’t been turbulent -- especially with Tech Gold Rush Part Deuce™. Much has already been said about the locked-in-a-padded-room-eating-your-underwear insane prices for everything from rent (average for a two-bedroom apartment is $4,800 per month; the nation’s highest) to food (the $80 for a meal at a mid-range restaurant is double the nation’s average). Never mind that there are a grand total of zero homes priced in the city that public school teacher making the national average of $59,700 per year could afford.
Beyond the numbers there is something else happening to San Francisco. Something darker. In the Mission District, landlords attempt to buy out longtime tenants in order to overhaul units and charge exponentially more for rent. When that doesn’t work they’ll employ the Ellis Act, a legal loophole that allows landlords to evict tenants and convert rent controlled apartments into condos. A few years ago, Mary Elizabeth Phillips, a 98-year-old woman and longtime resident of a rent controlled apartment near Dolores Park faced eviction under the Ellis Act. It was only after a lengthy legal process and intervention by protestors and activist groups that she was allowed to stay in the apartment through “the end of her life.”
In 2014 a video surfaced of a group of men -- some wearing Dropbox t-shirts -- attempting to bully a group of neighborhood kids from the Mission Playground Soccer Field, claiming they reserved the field through an obscure smartphone app. There are neighborhoods where the tension is so thick between longtime residents and the nouveau riche transplants that I half expect someone to throw a garbage can through the window of the closest pizza restaurant.
There have been countless articles, think pieces, and, ugh, hot takes written about the growing schism of wealth and culture in San Francisco. Yet! It’s not all gloominess. In the early '90s -- often remembered as halcyon years before start-ups -- the homicide rate was considerably higher. (1993 saw 129 killings alone.) Today things are actually much safer. There were just 48 murders in 2013 and 45 in 2014. And while there have been uneven drops in other crime like burglaries and muggings, the city as a whole feels safer. Twenty years ago you would never see many people jogging around 24th and Mission at night. You would never see anyone strolling around Howard and Sixth Street during the daytime. You would never walk through certain parts of Golden Gate Park -- day or night.
The tech stuff is inane. I despise the tone deaf, endlessly optimizing, bro culture of Silicon Valley. I live in the Mission where the tension alternates between simmering dirty looks and Google-bus vandalizing boil. Valencia Street is awash with a startling amoung of white dudes sporting technical fleece who only seem able to communicate in meaningless buzzwords. (Let’s reduce burn so we can maximize revenue streams and make an EPIC exit, broh!)
What stings me the most is that San Francisco is (and always should be) welcoming to the type of person typically associated with tech: nerds, dorks, dweebs, whatever ugly term that’s been applied over the years to someone who loves getting into the guts of code. San Francisco is the home of people who feel like freaks and outcasts, always has been. It's the small minority tech bros who've ironically seen their class suddenly ascend to prominence and taken up the bullying mantle that ruin the perception of tech people for everyone.
I hate it. But whenever my urge to scream into a pillow reaches a fever pitch I remind myself of something Bill Gates said in a 2014 interview about the state of Silicon Valley:
“…half of the companies are silly, and you know two-thirds of them are going to go bankrupt, but the dozen or so ideas that emerge out of that are going to be really important.”
He’s right. If you search hard enough past the crab-pricing-on-demand services and the musical pants start-up you’ll find companies that either do something actually useful or are hell-bent on improving the world. Look at Watsi, a startup that crowd funds medical surgeries for people in developing countries. Or Give Me Tap, a company that helps build water pumps in Africa. Or L Condoms, which strives to donate condoms to women in countries where contraceptives are not easily available. Even the more ambitious companies like Tesla and Stemcentrx -- who are trying to eliminate human driving and cure cancer, respectively -- while bigger or more profit driven still have intentions to make life better for millions.
Outside of those game changers, this is not going to last forever. Multiple signs already point to a tech bubble burst. Or, at the very least, a deflation. This is the natural state of things. Peaks and valleys. Ebbs and flows. But no matter how much money flows in and out, there is something else that San Francisco retains, something deeper. Something intangible.
You can still feel it in certain places. It’s in the Tenderloin, the one neighborhood in San Francisco that still resists gentrification with a force field of drugs, prostitution, and schizophrenia. It’s in the Haight where you can still buy acid from crusty gutter punks who live in the park, God bless them. It’s dive bars in SOMA where you can easily get into a full on bar fight if you walk in wearing a Dodgers jersey. It’s the hole-in-the wall restaurant in Chinatown with a questionable health code score that sells a hot bowl of noodles for five bucks at three in the morning. It’s the ghosts of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Twain. It’s the Giants winning the World Series over and over and over again. It’s the frontier spirit. It’s the vibe that shouted “You’re welcome here!” to my grandfather when he was at his most adrift.
I’m not sure what the future holds for San Francisco, but I have an idea of what I want it to be. First off, there needs to be affordable housing. If that means striking zoning laws and building residences higher than forty feet then I’m all for it. Sorry NIMBYs, the look of the city will have to change a little bit. Tech people: cut this entitled douchebag bullshit. Yes, you are a huge economic force in the city. Yes, you are a highly educated, incredibly intelligent bunch. Yes, you are inventing the future. Cool. Grow up and make a real effort to become part of the community. Maybe try tutoring underprivileged kids on the weekends or volunteering at a shelter. Also stop doing things like writing blog posts whining about homeless people. It’s a huge, complicated problem, no doubt. Maybe you guys could, I don’t know, focus some of those millions of dollars and high IQs on actually solving some of the complex issues that plague the city. Also there should be BART lines everywhere, running through Golden Gate Park and stretch all the way to Ocean Beach. (Yes, I know this is an insane pipe dream and would take decades to build and cost a jillion dollars but let me have my fantasy thank you.)
It’s been more than seventy years since Leo arrived in San Francisco and I seriously doubt he would recognize the place. But that’s a good thing. Cities should never be static. The gritty, dangerous Warriors-era New York of the ‘70s has virtually nothing in common with the glitzy (albeit overpriced) playground it has since become. So I’m staying. For now. Will I be here forever? Hard to say -- I’d either have to write the next Harry Potter series or win the questionable SF Dream House raffle in order to own a home here. But my family has been here for three generations and I feel like my DNA is intertwined with the city. Despite the sky high rent and the tech bros and even the $5 toast it is home. And god damn it, it’s never, ever boring.
Daniel Dumas is a writer improbably based in San Francisco. His work has appeared in GQ, WIRED, Golf Digest, AFAR, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal Magazine. He has also written for several adventure themed TV shows including Booze Traveler and I Survived a Tornado. His Twitter is a loose collection of puns and other lame jokes. His Instagram is actually much better.