Nobody says hi in San Francisco

I moved to a great city in decline.

I did something strange and almost taboo the other day — I waved and said hi to some I passed on the street in San Francisco. He was a middle-aged, prosperous-looking white dude, just the kind of guy you could imagine tipping his hat and giving a “Howdy do” on the streets of some 1950s town in some old black-and-white movie. But this was San Francisco, so he just sort of gave me a creeped-out look and walked on. Over the next few days I tried the same trick with a bunch of different people of varying ages, genders, and races, and got pretty much the same reaction all but once (when an old hippie stopped to chat and introduced me to his creatively named child).

Now, there are plenty of cities where people don’t say hi to you on the street. If everyone in NYC or Tokyo nodded hello to each other as they passed, they’d quickly get neck problems. But San Francisco feels like a suburb, in a way that those other places don’t — the streets are quiet and leafy and never very crowded except downtown or near bars. The city’s burghers have worked very hard to keep it that way, refusing to raise 3-story height restrictions, preserving single-family zoning throughout much of the city, and failing to build dense housing or a high-quality public transit system. You’d think after all that work to keep the small-town feel that they would want to match it with some small-town friendliness. But no.

San Francisco is not a dying city. Yes, people are leaving due to the pandemic — the labor force was down by about 4.5% between February and August and has probably dropped a bit more since then — but many will be back. Rents and house prices have plunged, but they’ll go back up. Crime is way up, but still low for an American city, and it’s up everywhere else too; it’ll probably go back down once there are more eyes on the street again. Some tech companies are going remote or packing up and leaving, but SF is unlikely to lose its position as a major tech cluster. In the long run, its big problem will still be what it was before — building enough housing and transit to accommodate the workers of the companies that have moved in.

COVID-19 will not kill San Francisco. Nothing will. And yet, this is absolutely a city in decline, and it has been in decline since I moved here in 2016.

Exactly 8 years ago is when I decided to move to SF. I was cat-sitting for my friend in Noe Valley over the Christmas holidays. I was strolling through the nearby Dolores Park, and suddenly it hit me that I wanted to live here, in this city.

Dolores seemed to me like a much more diverse version of Yoyogi Park in Tokyo — a place where upper-class families with kids mingled peacefully with working-class Mexicans, gay and straight singles alike, weed-smoking hippies, tech nerds having picnics, and even the homeless too. I remember standing in that park and watching a group of young people play with a drone, and I noticed that the group was one Black guy, one South Asian guy, one East Asian guy, one White girl, and one guy who might have been Hispanic. It was like some sort of promotional photo from an HR department. And suddenly I thought of the Axis powers, and their insane delusions of racial purity and supremacy, and I thought: “How could you idiots ever hope to beat us?”

Yeah, yeah, I know. It was the Obama years. Don’t judge.

Anyway, I moved to San Francisco for that feeling, but also because a ton of my friends lived there, all drawn in by the magnetic pull of the Second Tech Boom. There were Things Happening in this city, beyond the usual flow of commerce and individual life. In the first tech boom the city had been a playground for engineers in their off hours, but the Peninsula to the south was the true Silicon Valley; now, all the young engineers and the exciting companies and the plucky little startups had moved up to SF, adding this sort of techno-magical sheen to the grungy hippy queer artsy city I had known in my college days.

That’s how clustering effects work, of course. Everyone within a certain stratum of life moves to a place because everyone else within that stratum moves there. Everybody jumps at once.

Then in 2016 I finally moved to San Francisco, and started to notice the cracks.

By now everyone knows the standard story of how San Francisco went downhill. In brief, what happened was this: SF’s government, wanting higher tax revenues, let a bunch of businesses put their offices in the city, but didn’t build housing to accommodate the new arrivals. Soaring demand for living space plus stagnant supply equals rising price; rents went through the roof, driving out many existing middle-class and working-class families and artists and hippies. Homelessness went through the roof, parks became littered with drug needles, and every car on the street was broken into. Lots of long-time residents and cynical “progressive” politicians blamed the tech industry for the change, rather than the politically powerful homeowners who refused to let their city become a dense metropolis.

That story is perfectly true, as far as it goes. But it misses the nuance and texture of the standoffish, alienated culture that permeates this town, as well as the deep-seated dysfunction that afflicted it before Tech ever showed up. It’s a dysfunctionality that isn’t apparent when you visit, but slowly begins to make itself known as you live here for a year or two years.

During my time in San Francisco, I have seen dozens of angry, shouting confrontations on the street. Some of these did involve people who seemed homeless or on drugs. But many looked like average middle-class or upper-class residents. I saw a middle-aged woman literally screech in the face of a skater kid after he almost bumped her. I saw a driver stop in the middle of the road to berate a biker for some imagined traffic offense. A guy in a truck stopped in the middle of Castro Street to yell “Fag!” at me. The irony was a bit hilarious but the unfriendliness was all too typical.

Those are only a few of many examples. This is a city that’s perpetually on edge. I lived in NYC for a year, and even though people didn’t say hi it was much friendlier. Maybe it’s the high rents weighing on San Franciscans’ minds, or the constant sights of homelessness and poverty. But I think it also has to do with the fact that SF is a strangely balkanized city.

San Francisco is functionally divided into a set of groups that, as far as I can tell, rarely talk to each other. There are plenty of working-class Mexicans living in the Mission. The techies in the Mission don’t seem to know them or talk to them at all; they walk past each other like ghosts, like un-people, with zero cognizance of each other’s lives. There are middle-class Asian and White families in the Richmond and Sunset who own restaurants or work for the city government or in health care. Their part of town is like a different world. The same is true of the well-to-do White people in the Marina who own property or local businesses or work in real estate. There is Chinatown. There are a few Black people left in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, mostly cut off from the rest of the city. Even the young artists and the young techies, two groups that should complement each other’s interests and enjoy each other’s company, seem to know each other only in passing.

There is a small subset of artists who live in techie houses and make light displays for Burning Man. They are not representative.

SF has all the pieces of a kaleidoscopically diverse city, and yet the pieces don’t talk to each other. They walk the same streets but they live in parallel, non-interacting universes. On subsequent visits to Dolores Park I found that while every conceivable kind of person is in the park, few seem particularly interested in chatting with each other, or to a stranger who wanders by — very different from picnickers in Tokyo or NYC. It’s proximity without closeness.

And the housing and transit problems? Those were there well before Tech made its way to SF. The train coverage in outlying areas of the city has never been very extensive, and the trains have never been very good. Most of the city has been under exclusionary zoning for a long time.

These problems existed before Tech and they will continue to exist if and when Tech packs its bags and leaves. Already the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council is calling the University of California San Francisco a “major contributor to the housing crisis”.

And I wonder — are poor transit and low density an effect of San Francisco’s culture of alienation, or a cause?

In NYC, the high and mighty of the finance and law and publishing industries ride the same subways as checkout clerks and hairdressers. The city is so dense that poor neighborhoods are shoved right up against rich ones; everyone walks past everyone on the street. There is certainly class separation and racial division in New York, but there is an inherent camaraderie to the city itself, a shared feeling that everyone is in the belly of the same vast urban beast. NYC is bigger than any of its industries, bigger than any of its neighborhoods. Its richest and most famous residents are supplicants to its glory, not the conveyers thereof.

Maybe if SF had dense housing and good trains, San Franciscans would be forced, if not to be interested in each other, than at least to recognize each other’s existence. But it’s a chicken-and-egg problem (or as econ dorks like to call it, an inefficient equilibrium). It might be that SF can’t have a sense of civic unity until it has functional urbanism, but can’t build functional urbanism without a sense of civic unity. And maybe this bad equilibrium will simply persist until a giant earthquake comes and knocks the whole city down.

As for me, the cultural vibrancy and the imagined community that I had hoped to find were far from the only reasons I moved to SF; I also wanted to live near my friends and to soak up some of the excitement of the tech boom. But with most of my friends moving out, and the tech boom dispersing to the four corners of the globe, it might be time for a change. For my next move, I’m thinking of going somewhere where the rents are reasonable and folks are friendly — Tokyo, Japan.

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