The title of this piece could easily be: “Omg, these people love their electric scooters / bikes” — but as it turns out, there's more to San Fransisco than lithium-ion powered scooting devices.
Cliff Notes from three days of urban ambulation: slept very little, propelled a tired body back and forth across the surprisingly dense 11 km² patch of sloping concrete and greenery that constitutes the city proper, chatted with strangers, eavesdropped, ate excellent bread, drank passable coffee. Thanks to a Hotwire mix-up, ended up in an 2-star hotel in the seedy part of town, aptly named the Tenderloin. When I arrived a rough-looking guy with a bum leg named Dion was sprawled in a creaky overstuffed easy chair opposite a tiny clerk’s desk, grumbling about check-in times. He had come from the “hotel” across the street, and I got the impression that $80-per-night room surfing a few nights per month was his alternative to paying rent. Every once in a while his objections would rise to a crescendo and he would fire a volley of expletives towards the bored-looking clerk. “What’m I gunnuh do all day”? Dion kept asking nobody in particular.
Did not see the ghost of Steve Jobs wandering around muttering darkly about the iPhone SE, although he might have just been in Palo Alto at the time.
Here are a few observations from my wanderings, in no particular order:
- Owning an outrageously complex “battery-assisted” two-wheeled contraption, at least for some period of time, seems to be a rite of passage in San Fransisco. Sadly I did not see any Segways, although I was certainly on the lookout.
- Everything is built on a hill. One is constantly walking uphill, even on the downhill side (perhaps this is where all of the grandmothers were “walking uphill both ways”).
- The colours of San Fransisco, in the older neighbourhoods especially, are fantastic — buildings are painted in a delightful variety of subdued pastel hues; olive, terracotta, maroon, flamingo — the effect is one of perfect compliment, as if the whole thing was a big art project that was started in the 1800s and still hasn’t finished.
- San Franciscans think the weather is terrible if it is sunny and below 15 degrees Celsius. Occasionally, they are right; gale-force winds have a tendency to spring up out of nowhere and remove all of your body heat, plus any loose articles of clothing or belongings that haven’t been strapped to your person. This is further complicated by the fact that every three blocks can be an entirely new microclimate. A typical morning commute could begin with warm, dry beach weather, transition into thick fog, then light rain, then heavy wind, and end with beach weather. Consequently, it is not uncommon 65to see a San Franciscan leaving their house on a warm cloudless morning wrapped in more layers than an Eskimo in the middle of winter.
- The architecture is wonderful. Besides your standard-issue ultramodern wood/glass cubist contraptions, there seems to be two types of dwellings in San Fransisco: California-style Spanish colonials covered in stucco and red clay, and 1900s Victorian-era homes — the type with ornate gables and giant bay windows and turrets popping out of their frames. Buildings are nearly all taller than they are wide, and most houses perch atop single-car garages with narrow sets of stairs running up one side and narrow lanes separating them from adjacent buildings. Accordingly, most city blocks look as if somebody put them into a bench clamp and squished them to 3/4 size. Rumour has it that home-owners, having just purchased their first car during the automobile boom of the 1920s, retrofitted garages to their homes by using stilts. Contemporary San Franciscans don’t really know what to do with these garages, but seem to like to renovate them and/or hang out in them shirtless during peak daylight hours 1 — all the more confusing because parking seems to be in such short supply.
- The city has old guts, but the influence of tech is palpable everywhere; it is present in the looming, empire-like downtown FAANG campuses (Uber, Salesforce, etc), spider-like autonomous cars piloting passengers to and from meetings, and overheard conversations about go-to-market plans and series-B funding — yet its most visceral impacts are economic. The average 26 year-old enjoys a level of affluence that is uncommon, even in the Pacific Northwest, and a 36 year-old project manager might make as much as an investment banker and work similar hours. With so much money and so little time, there appears to be an immense appetite among the hordes of nouveau-tech rich for consumable culture (fashion, arts, food), yet — likely because of the absence of any kind of remotely affordable housing — full-time artists of any sort are rare, and most of the city’s art/music/etc appears to be imported. The few artists I did meet in San Fransisco proper were either retired from tech, or maintained a before/after-hours practice.
- Having said this, there is a strong hustle mentality in SF — not unlike that of New York City (in fact, I encountered a surprisingly large number of actual ex-New Yorkers during my wanderings. These are about as common as abominable snowmen elsewhere on the coast, so I was dully surprised). Everyone has a side-gig, consulting job, or an after-hours thing. This seems more a culturally learned proclivity than one borne of financial need.
- While wealth is widespread. Sadly, homelessness is too. For each Patagonia-clad tech worker there are a couple of weather-beaten homeless folks muttering to themselves while pacing or panhandling. I witnessed many instances of social workers and police officers kindly escorting troubled loiterers off premises or out of pedestrians’ ways, just to have to the panhandlers take up residence a few doors down. The scale of this constant game of human shuffleboard was truly heartbreaking to witness.
- The one exception to lack of art/culture rule is, thankfully, food. High levels of disposable income and long working hours mean that more folks are supporting restaurants and restauranteurs (great), and accordingly, San Fransisco is a good place to be hungry, so long as you can stomach spending $25 on a breakfast sandwich (not so great). Still, if there is one cultural category in which San Fransisco excels, this is it. The demand for a high-end dining “experience” is clearly strong here, and this, alongside California’s abundant produce and third-wave-centric food culture has bred some fantastic restaurant operations. Amongst my favourite encounters: Shuggie’s Trash Pies, an upscale pizza joint selling thin-crust pizzas made from up-cycled food waste (delightful weirdness like beef-heart meatballs, parmesan-rind butter, broccoli-stalk pesto), the Tartine Manufactory of "bread book” fame (Google it), and State Bird Provisions, a New-Californian restaurant with an open kitchen serving weird, delicious dim-sum style American plates on carts delivered to your table in a rolling procession: savoury mochi balls swimming in allium butter and bacon fat; tiny fried trout with garum (fermented fish) salt; deep-fried garlic-infused sourdough poufs wrapped in herbed burrata. Aside: as a business model, this is brilliant. Sticking to a budget is one thing when you’re staring at a paper menu, but the fear of missing out on some outrageous new delicacy as it rolls by under your nose completely dissolves reason. I stopped in for a snack, but by the time the meal ended I was so stuffed I physically could not move.
- Conversely, coffee = not exceptional, for this SF gets a B-. As the birthplace of James Freeman’s Blue Bottle, I had assumed that San Fransisco would have an abundance of excellent third-wave cafes — and while I drank a number of “just fine” coffees in various reputable cafes (Four Barrel, Sightglass, Verve, plus a handful of local neighbourhood spots), nothing stood out. Of particular note: few SF coffee-shops offer Wi-Fi or indoor seating, let alone both. Perhaps this is a holdover from COVID times, or perhaps the seating is superfluous as SF folk just don’t have time to sit down. Whatever the case, I found myself sipping my coffee on improvised street/sidewalk benches more than once, and missing the ambiance of a more permanent, intentional third-space.
- Neighbourhoods sort of bleed into one-another, especially in the downtown core. After consulting a map I was often surprised to find that I had traversed one without realizing it. This is ironic, because some neighbourhoods (Mission, Tenderloin, Outer Sunset, Dogpatch) feel almost as if they are different cities; small capsules of cultural energy set within an otherwise unbroken tapestry of sameness. Outer sunset, in particular, was shocking in it’s distinctiveness — mere minutes from the grandeur of Golden Gate Park, a short transit-ride away from the center of the city, you cross an imaginary line and all of the sudden you are in a sort of beat-up looking New-England beach town.
I will certainly be returning to San Fransisco, as despite its short-comings and the conviction among those who have known the city through other chapters that “it ain’t what it used to be,” I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Its tiny size relative to the outsized scale of impact it has had on culture begets a concentration of energy that is unusual (think Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, Tom Wolfe, Haight Ashbury, the tech boom, the gay rights movement). SF feels like a place that one can spend many years peeling off layers, and still find more hidden underneath.