The Golden City
San Francisco, SF, the City by the Bay, The City (but never San Fran and definitely never ‘frisco). When people think of The City they usually think of one of three things: the Summer of Love, the Silicon Valley, or the Gay capital of the US. In truth, all three of these things were once SF’s claim to glory, but modern days have seen the hippies take corporate jobs, the tech industry running to cheaper havens, and the gays being priced out. Post-pandemic, very real worries that the city is dying circulate the free newspapers while the mayor assures the media that the city is still thriving. As more and more businesses leave, crime and rampant drug use rise exponentially, and housing becomes harder and harder to obtain, only the hardiest of natives cling onto their rent controlled studios, desperately hoping their buildings aren’t sold out from under them.
And yet, the City by the Bay is tenacious. If two major earthquakes, a bout with the Plague, the city government being investigated by federal agencies, and two burst tech bubbles couldn’t kill it, the modern crisis is going to be hard pressed to succeed this time around. Despite a huge blow to the economy during the pandemic, money has started to flow back into the city’s coffers as tourism and new tech startups return. Housing initiatives are looking to solve the problems with both high rent and few vacancies. As it has so many times in the past, the city is reforming in the aftermath of a crisis, and while it may be a bumpy ride, San Francisco has gone through worse and it will thrive despite anything Fate can throw at it.
Much like the Changelings who wander its streets, The City has a mask and it has a mien. And like the Lost, both faces are true – while most only see the mask, the mien is nonetheless present to those who know how to scour away the illusions.
Mask: San Francisco has always been able to claim diversity. Originally a Spanish mission colony, The City quickly became a hub due to its proximity to fertile farmlands, access to a quiet bay, and for being the northern reach of New Spain, and later Mexico. The Gold Rush brought even more diversity, and as the city expanded, immigrant labor added to the pot, especially in the form of Chinese laborers. The Summer of Love and subsequent tech booms brought yet another wave of immigrants, and SF’s label as a gay haven brought even more color. The declaration of the city as a sanctuary city brought undocumented immigrants of every stripe to its borders. Overall, most longtime residents take this mixing in stride. It’s not at all uncommon to watch someone order from a taqueria in Spanglish for lunch only to say thank you in Cantonese at hot pot dinner, while getting halo-halo for dessert.
Mien: San Francisco does enjoy its diversity, but it is not a unified utopia like the natives would have you believe. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, and a myriad of other phobias and isms run rampant throughout the city. Classism is a huge negative force, as the homeless population rises (seemingly overnight at times), more and more people become staunchly NIMBY (not in my backyard). While there are parts of SF that are truly diverse, many districts fall into racial divides. The Mission and Excelsior are predominantly Latine, Chinatown, The Richmond, and The Sunset tend towards Chinese and (in the latter two cases) Russian. Hunter’s Point and Bayview tend to be African American areas. Bernal Heights, Noe Valley, and Nob Hill tend to be affluent and white. That said, with the current housing crisis, many traditionally racial neighborhoods are seeing their hegemony breaking as people are starting to move wherever they can find a place.
Let Your Freak Flag Fly
Mask: SF has always been a gathering place for the weirdos, freaks, and joyful pariahs. While The Summer of Love might be the most iconic example of this, it is hardly the first. For instance, in the late 1800s, The City was the stronghold of the first, and so far only, Emperor of these United States – Emperor Norton I. The hippies and the queers were already entrenched communities before The Summer of Love shone the spotlight on SF’s countercultures. San Francisco was also one of the only havens for the trans community before the 80s and 90s. Punk and goth may not have been born in SF, but they found homes within the city, as did communists, socialists, kinksters, artists, musicians, New Age gurus, Wiccans, bikers, and so many more fringe groups. Legendary acts such as the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, Sylvester, and The Cockettes called SF home; dignitaries such as Mark Twain, Divine, and Alfred Hitchcock were frequent visitors. San Francisco is a haven for the unusual, and it’s one of those cities where you can be unabashedly yourself with little fear of reprisal.
Mien: San Francisco is not as liberal as it seems. One downside to visibility is the ease of becoming a target. SF has a surprising number of hate crimes, which are still lower than average but more than one would think. In particular, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen 567% since the start of the pandemic. Conservatives make up only about 13% of the population, but they have been a loud and active force. On the flipside, conservatives claim that they face discrimination and that the political machine in SF is set up to ensure they don’t get an equal voice. A lot of the counterculture enclaves have left the city, either crossing the bay or moving south to LA or north to Portland and Seattle as rent prices drive out those who thrived on the fringes of society. The art and music scenes have similarly suffered, and a lot of the city’s charm from the 70s, 80s and 90s have been replaced by tech bros and yoga studios.
Mask: San Francisco is the city of tomorrow. Silicon Valley may technically lie south of its borders, but many of those tech giants have offices in the city itself. Facebook, X, Google, Adobe, Dolby, Crunchyroll, Niaintic, Ubisoft, Salesforce, Uber, Lyft, and many many others are headquartered in the city. UCSF is one of the nation’s leading research hospitals, and numerous biotech companies have sprung up in recent years. Neophilia is a common trend, both in the populace and the government, and woe be it to those who still have last year’s iPhone or an outdated Galaxy tablet. With a robust tech industry in its backyard, SF’s schools and colleges are often gifted products so that no student has to go without. Numerous charities and stipends also exist to assist the poorer classes to obtain tech – it’s not unusual to see a homeless person reading by tabletlight or asking you to Venmo them some cash. Restaurants, taco trucks, and even the paleta carts all take GooglePay. Don’t like waiting at restaurants? You can reserve and order on your Uber ride. Swiping, tapping, and wireless payments are all the craze and it’s weird to pay with your physical card, and is downright outrageous to carry cash on you.
Mien: SF is falling behind the tech curve. The tech industry is slowly dying off, in large part thanks to the pandemic. Why rent expensive office space when you can have most of your workforce stay remote? Why stay in the city at all when you can move to Texas and pay half the taxes? SF government has been slow to integrate newer tech – only just prior to the pandemic could you apply for a government job online, for instance. While access to tech is still abundant, access to the internet is not. With a large proportion of poor and/or undocumented residents, setting up and affording a stable net connection is beyond the means of a sizable number. There have been numerous propositions to create a citywide wifi network, but so far the bills never even make it to the polls. All city offices have public wifi, so it isn’t weird to see people clustered on the steps of city hall, or outside a library after hours. And while larger businesses have fully embraced electronic payment, smaller businesses can’t afford the fees. In poorer neighborhoods, cash may be the only way to pay, causing a lot of friction between the transplants and the locals.