Letter from San Francisco
Research for a new book takes me to San Francisco frequently these days, and it’s been an education in more ways than one. Talk about a city victimized by its own success: San Francisco may soon grow so successful that it becomes virtually uninhabitable.
Nobody I know who “lives in San Francisco” actually lives in San Francisco. Instead, they hail from Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, or somewhere else out in the East Bay. A few with more lucrative jobs have found places south of SFO airport. But thanks to the tech boom, it would seem that no one can afford to live in the actual city of San Francisco anymore.
Of course, housing prices are a problem in many American cities, but nowhere else does the issue seem to be as all-consuming as it is here. Too many conversations in San Francisco end up degenerating into discussions of punishing rents, burdensome mortgages, and inadequate living spaces. Even people working at Google and Facebook—where the median salaries run about $200,000 and $240,000 per year, respectively—complain about the situation. At dinner not long ago, a young friend who works at Instagram was lamenting the fact that she’d have to move out of the area to afford space enough to consider starting a family. Those without high-paying tech jobs have an even harder time. According to Zillow, the median home value in San Francisco is now in the neighborhood of $1.5 million. It makes you wonder just who is living in all of those over-embellished Victorians in Pacific Heights and Noe Valley. And the boom doesn’t seem ready to stop yet. When the new Chase Center sports complex is completed at the end of 2019, housing prices in its Mission Bay/Dogpatch neighborhood south of downtown—already rapidly gentrifying from its former industrial roots—are bound to grow even further out of the average person’s reach.
But none of this is new in San Francisco. I’m here to research a book about the city’s early history, and it’s fascinating to learn that exorbitant living expenses have been a problem since the beginning. The city’s American incarnation dates back to mid-1846, during the Mexican-American War, when Captain John B. Montgomery of the USS Portsmouth sailed into San Francisco Bay and raised the American flag over the (then-Mexican) customhouse. The town was called Yerba Buena at the time, and it consisted of about fifty houses and a population of 200. But thanks to the imminent discovery of gold in the mountains to the east, its days as a tiny, remote outpost were numbered. Population growth over the next few years was explosive, and housing prices followed accordingly. Building lots that sold for $50 to $100 at the start of the American period in 1846 ended up selling for well over one hundred times that figure just eight years later. The massive influx of would-be gold miners raised prices all across the board, not just in real estate. In one stunning example, the price of a shovel—a useful tool in short supply at the beginning of the rush—rose from $1 to $6 to, at one point, $50. A simple wooden rowboat might sell for $500 to someone desperate enough to get to the gold fields; that’s the equivalent of $16,000 in today’s currency. And though the imbalance between supply and demand eventually did even out, bringing prices down to less astronomical levels, the pattern for the future was set: San Francisco in boom times would be an expensive place to live and do business.
The chemical element driving the current San Francisco boom is not gold but silicon, as tech companies flush with venture capital throw their wealth around with all the abandon of a drunken forty-niner on a spending spree. The result is a city in which the ravages of income disparity are more visible than anywhere else I’ve been. There are times when the city seems evenly divided between the prosperous so-called Tech Bros (in their Warby Parker eyeglasses, Betabrand jackets, and earth-tone, natural-fiber Allbirds) and the destitute homeless sprawled across the sidewalks on Market Street, with a few tourists and working- class people thrown in as a buffer. The city tries to be compassionate to its homeless, but with an estimated 7,500 people living on the streets, the job can be overwhelming. The main branch of the public library, where I’ve been spending lots of time in the sixth-floor San Francisco History Center, is so popular among the homeless that the rest rooms have to be staffed continuously by clipboard-wielding checkers who log people in and out, apparently making sure that no one stays too long or returns too frequently. The library does sponsor outreach counselors to try to connect homeless library denizens with various social services, but not everyone is willing or able to follow through on what’s offered.
No surprise that many residents and visitors feel that the city has in recent years become more dangerous, or at least more unpleasant. An ominous precedent was set last year when a major medical organization cancelled plans to hold its annual convention here because members didn’t feel safe on the streets. That sense of increasing danger may be more appearance than reality, but one thing that can’t be debated is the steeply rising number of complaints to the city about hypodermic needles and human feces in public places. (Complaints about the latter nuisance have increased by 400 percent in the past decade.) The city’s newish mayor—London Breed, the first African American woman ever elected to the office—promises to address these and other problems related to homelessness and its miseries. But some say that Breed—despite having grown up in public housing in San Francisco’s pre-gentrification Western Addition—is a little too chummy with the city’s insatiable developers for all that much to change.
Meanwhile, as the city’s Have-Nots struggle, the Haves may soon be getting even richer. A number of locally based, high-profile companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and Pinterest are on the verge of going public (some may have already done so by the time you read this). Lots of employees holding stock options stand to gain significant wealth if and when the IPOs are successful. That means that the already blatant discrepancy between rich and poor in this town might conceivably grow worse.
But I’m being too gloomy. Have no fear: San Francisco is still a lively and lovely city, particularly on a sunny winter day when the stratocumulus clouds are scudding past Coit Tower and out over the bay. And certainly there’s no shortage of tourist interest in the place, judging from the masses milling around Fisherman’s Wharf and packing into the shops and restaurants of the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero. According to one newspaper story I read, hotel development is set to surge in the Bay Area this year—something that I hope will put some downward pressure on hotel room prices, which tend to strain a visiting urban historian’s research budget, alas. I’ve been trying to work around this difficult aspect of the city’s popularity, camping out in far-flung Airbnb rooms and other non-hotel options (my wife and I recently stayed in a converted dorm room on the campus of a small Episcopalian seminary in Berkeley). But even these alternatives seem expensive compared to what I’ve paid on past research trips to Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, and even New York.
Aside from housing prices, another recurring topic of conversation here is the larger role that San Franciscans seem destined to play on the national scene in the next few years. Kamala Harris, for instance, was the San Francisco District Attorney (and, later, California’s Attorney General) before going on to greater visibility in the U.S. Senate and now—at least so far—as a serious contender in the 2020 race for the White House. And she’s not the only local pol moving up to the big leagues. California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, is a former San Francisco mayor. As chief executive of the fifth-largest economy in the world (California’s gross economic output is now almost $3 trillion), he’s bound to be influential, particularly as California takes the lead in opposing many of the items on the Trump administration’s wish list. Rest assured that Calexit, as they call the still-fringe secession movement here, will almost certainly not come to fruition, but the state does seem determined to be as sharp a thorn in the current president’s side as possible.
But San Francisco has always seemed to me a town more interested in culture than in politics, and the museum scene here—headlined by the innovative San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—is never dull. After being closed for three years of renovation (mainly for a snappy new addition designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta), SFMOMA reopened in 2016 as the largest modern and contemporary art museum in the United States. (Take that, New York’s MoMA!) Lest anyone be intimidated by the museum’s new size, the whole experience of visiting has been made more approachable, with wall labels reworked to be more conversational and audio tours made with the voices of familiar comedians and media personalities to keep things lively.
My wife, Elizabeth—a photography consultant who worked as an editor at National Geographic—gets to explore the city’s galleries while I haunt libraries and archives, and she recommends Pier 24 Photography. Located in a converted wharf building on the Embarcadero (with the span of the Bay Bridge sweeping dramatically overhead), the museum houses changing exhibits as well as the permanent collection of the Pilara Foundation. She caught a show called “This Land,” a rather bleak photographic overview of different subcultures in contemporary America, with especially memorable contributions by Jim Goldberg, An-My Lê, Brian Ulrich, and James Nares. Another Elizabeth recommendation is Pop-Up Magazine, best described as a live, multimedia version of a print magazine. Editions pop up (as you’d expect) three or four times a year in various venues around town, with stories performed by writers, photographers, musicians, radio producers, and filmmakers. It’s a communal way for these artists to share their work, but since shows are not recorded or live-streamed, you have to be there to experience it. Pop-Up Magazine started in San Francisco almost a decade ago, but the events have since become so popular that they now tour to over a dozen other cities.
Unfortunately, research duties have forced me to miss these and a lot of the other shows of interest—notably, Wayne Thiebaud at SFMOMA, featuring the painter’s own work as well as his selection of other artists’ work from the permanent collection, and “The World of Charles and Ray Eames” at the Oakland Museum. What I did see, since it was relevant to my reason for being here, was “Boomtowns” at the California Historical Society’s gallery on Mission Street. Subtitled “How Photography Shaped Los Angeles and San Francisco,” the exhibition featured some vivid historical photographs from the Society’s extensive collections, illustrating a subject near to my heart—the explosive growth of California’s two major metropolises in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The show features work by Eadweard Muybridge, Arnold Genthe, and Minor White and includes several minutely detailed panoramas of San Francisco at various times in its history—priceless imagery for someone trying to figure out what the city really was like a century or century and a half ago.
I was able to see “Boomtowns” on a lunch break since I’ve been working at the California Historical Society’s compact but comprehensive research library in the same building, investigating (among other topics) the major figures of the San Francisco literary renaissance. That term, of course, usually applies to the artistic explosion of the mid-1900s involving Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the other Beats. But there was actually an earlier one—in the 1860s and ’70s, centered primarily around a literary publication called the Overland Monthly, where Mark Twain published some of his early travel pieces. San Francisco likes to claim Twain as one of its own, but he really didn’t spend much time in the city before moving East, and even when based in San Francisco (which he regarded as “the most cordial and sociable city in the Union”), he spent a lot of the time traveling abroad. The real central figure of that first San Francisco renaissance was not Twain but Bret Harte, a writer I suspect was a lot better known, or at least more widely read, fifty years ago (I vividly recall reading “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” for my tenth-grade English class). Harte and Twain were colleagues and competitors—more frenemies than friends—but they did each try to assist the other’s career in the early years. When Harte began editing the Overland Monthly, a bold literary magazine started in 1868 and modeled after the Atlantic Monthly, he made sure that Twain was well represented in the first issues. But the magazine eventually evolved into more of a showcase for what has been called the “Golden Gate Trinity,” consisting of Harte himself, poet Ina D. Coolbrith (who later became California’s first poet laureate), and poet/travel writer Charles Warren Stoddard. The three were very close friends and came to be identified as the heart of a literary movement, although their sensibilities were not at all alike. Harte’s opus tends toward the cool, knowing, and ironic, while Coolbrith’s is rather melancholy and contemplative, and Stoddard’s more dreamy and romantic (he was gay and wrote with astonishing candor, given the times, about his romantic dalliance with a male South Sea islander). Overall, the work of all three seems uneven at best, particularly when read from a distance of a hundred-plus years. But I do believe that they, along with Twain, played a key role in redefining nineteenth-century American literature, wrestling it away from the Boston Brahmins and New York sophisticates and giving it a dose of the vernacular energy and vitality we normally associate with the American West. But reading some of this work—particularly by lesser figures of the movement like Joaquin Miller—can be something of a chore.
One question I keep asking myself while researching these early figures is whether we are now, in our own time, going through a third San Francisco literary renaissance. I think you can make an argument that we are. As with politicians, so it is with writers—a lot of those based here, or at least associated with the region, are now big names on the national scene: Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Rebecca Solnit, Anthony Marra, Mary Roach, Andrew Sean Greer (who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his comic novel Less), Michael Pollan, Maxine Hong Kingston, T. J. Stiles (who has two—count ’em, two—nonfiction Pulitzers), Alice Walker, Armistead Maupin, and Isabel Allende, not to mention many more that Google is no doubt failing to remind me of. (Meanwhile, as I write this, Lawrence Ferlinghetti—part of the second San Francisco renaissance—approaches his 100th birthday. I hope he lives forever.)
Does this diverse group of writers demonstrate any kind of discernible Bay-Area sensibility, something that could serve as the defining element of a regional literary movement? I leave it up to critics of the future to decide that question; for now, I’m sticking with the 1860s. But it is an impressive roster of talent for any one metropolitan region, and heartening proof that—despite the mixed blessing of San Francisco’s current boom—good writers can still manage to live and work here. It’s just too bad that authors don’t get stock options to help them make the mortgage.