San Francisco: A City Transformed

Map of Downtown San Francisco

San Francisco (SF) is one of the most beautiful American cities.  Its many hills makes it a joy to accelerate up and down — especially near Noe Valley — and a pain to walk.  Walking a few short blocks offers an adventure and an unknown number of gradients to traverse.

The California Gold Rush (1848-1858) located 130 miles northeast of San Francisco in a town called Coloma attracted 300,000 prospective miners from all over the world.  Among these people were the Chinese.  Thus, SF has one of the oldest and largest population of Chinese in the US.  Successive generations helped construct the part of the Transcontinental Railroad that originated in San Francisco.

Set at the edge of the southern peninsula of San Francisco Bay, the city is a keeper of many memories.  My parents often drove the interminably long 9-10 hour drive — you have to stop if you have young children — from San Diego to visit our aunt and uncle in the East Bay. Back then, SF was a bohemian town that attracted the unloved and persecuted from the rest of the country.  The hippies of the 1960s and the faint smell of weed never seemed far away.  The old Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and insurance companies like TransAmerica made it the West Coast’s financial center.  The fact that SF is at the tip of a peninsula has always made real estate expensive there.  Thus, San Francisco was a collection of hippies, gays, Chinese, and a sizeable middle class.

During the 1990s, SF got its first influx of business folk (MBAs, VCs, gold-rushers) with the dot com boom.  They brought their hope and energy to chase elusive millions.  They also helped gentrify the city. For instance, one sign of the times was the opening of Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park) in April 2000. But the boom didn’t last long enough for them to completely transform the city.

Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park)

Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park)

From 2001 to 2007, the city maintained an uneasy balance between the old and the new.  As the second tech boom gains momentum, the new moneyed class is winning.  The only people who can afford to live in the city are either those who live in rent-controlled units or professionals who make enough to pay $3,500/month for a 1BR or $4,500/month for a 2BR.   Rising rents translate into more expensive groceries, restaurants, bars, and parking.  Last year I visited (touristy) Fisherman’s Wharf; parking was $12/hour!

In September, I attended the Urban Land Institute’s panel titled “The San Francisco Affordability Crisis: How We Got Here and What We Can Do About It?”  Long-time residents exhibit a NIMBY(not in my backyard) attitude toward change.  Sure, they want to lament at increasing rents but they also will fight developers who want to build a 20+ story condo high rise.  A developer may only get approval to erect a 7 story building where a 3 story building once stood.


Lest this post seems purely promotional, I must confess that I’ve never loved SF.  I always felt that if you wanted to live in a true city, then you should move to New York.  Because SF is located on a peninsula, the city is surprisingly cold and windy.  If you like cold, that’s another reason to fully embrace the four seasons and move to New York.  Those hills (!!!) and the incomprehensible bus system make it a hard city to get around.  Lastly, as a bastion of the persecuted, SF always felt a little too liberal for me. The center of the nation’s economy, however, has shifted from East Coast to West Coast so all these points are moot.

In spite of the high cost of living, SF remains a vibrant and diverse city.  Many tech companies that you’ve probably heard about it are based in and around Market Street — the main thoroughfare.  Services like Uber and Lyft have ameliorated getting around the city. The attraction of the city continues to attract singles and young couples.  Conversations with friends during this visit suggest that dating favors women.  The large influx of programmers who tend to be male as well as MBAs and business types help make it an attractive town to be a single female.

The SF of the 1960s is long gone.  The tech boom has washed away the weed and most of the seediness of the Tenderloin.  Despite the high living costs, I strongly urge the ambitious and the not so ambitious to take a look.


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