It’s natural to be unsettled by change, but residents of San Francisco take resistance to change to absurd levels. In 1958, Gavin Elster—the shipping magnate played by Tom Helmore in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—expressed San Francisco’s deeply engrained ambivalence to change well: “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.” A recent letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle shared the typical modern lament: “Has San Francisco’s economic growth truly made it a more interesting place to live? Or just a place with more shiny but soulless places to spend money?”
Every day, similar hyperbole appears in the press, in social media, and in conversations: San Francisco is becoming a “hollow city” catering to highly paid tech workers. Most job growth has been in the Silicon Valley suburbs an hour or so south, and the “Google buses” ferrying young professionals up and down the peninsula have become symbols of an invasion. Contemporary San Franciscans resent them the way earlier locals resented the influx of Chinese in the 1870s and the gays and lesbians in the 1970s. This time around, it’s the young and well-paid newcomers who threaten the status quo, not the poor or marginalized. We hear that these people aren’t like us, they don’t share our values, and they should go back where they came from.
Paradoxically, in a city famed for new ideas, resistance to change is a cherished San Francisco value. The city’s population is less than one tenth that of New York, yet the San Francisco planning department processes three times more applications than Gotham’s planning commission. That’s because public review—with generous opportunities to appeal—is a cherished sport here. For example, any exterior building alteration to a structure more than 50 years old requires historic review by the city—a process that can easily take a year. Environmental review of a proposal to install bicycle lanes took three years. When a proposal for a cluster of office and residential towers downtown—without any residential displacement and with 40 percent of the housing to be permanently affordable—came before the planning commission recently, protesters chanting “genocide” shut the hearing down.
San Franciscans have easy access to the ballot by petition. In November, residents voted on five initiatives addressing the changing city, including Airbnb regulation, protections for “legacy” shops, and an 18-month shut down of private housing development in the Mission District. This love of process over action shows just how intractable the city’s growing pains are. The city’s political leaders have few real solutions to San Francisco’s real problems, so instead we San Franciscans lash out at symbols: tech workers and the buses that take them to their jobs; chain stores; and fancy new restaurants. By these lights, New York seems more comfortable as a city of ambition. The idea of San Francisco as a place that attracts young people interested in working hard and making money is fairly new. Even in the Gold Rush days, one sought one’s fortune scattered by a streambed, not in the city. In San Francisco, hustle is unbecoming.
New York and San Francisco are both paying the price of gentrification and revival. People get pushed out, or crowded, or have long commutes. But the two cities are different in key ways. In San Francisco, if you want a walkable neighborhood with cafes and bakeries and the amenities that Jane Jacobs championed, you have few choices. San Francisco doesn’t have the equivalent of a Cobble Hill, a Jackson Heights, or a Hoboken, and lacks the reliable, regional public transit system that would make longer commutes bearable. The San Francisco Metro and the regional BART system combined have just 104 miles of track. New York’s subways run 842 miles, not to mention the PATH system, Metro North, New Jersey Transit, and Long Island Railroad that funnel workers into and out of the central city. While San Francisco is a cultural and economic heavyweight, it’s a relatively small city: 850,000 residents within 49 square miles, with water on three sides. Here, the shifts seem tectonic. They feel like an earthquake.
Plenty of solutions for San Francisco’s planning gridlock spring to mind. The challenges are not technical; they are merely a matter of political will. Most development projects should go forward if they comply with planning codes. The arduous, costly, and risky review and appeals processes should be streamlined. The California Environmental Quality Act should be amended so that it encourages smart growth rather than sprawl. Small infill projects should be exempted. But I’m not holding my breath for any of this. What is needed is a radical change in the local culture. San Francisco needs to learn to embrace change without fear and give up its love affair with process.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic