Change a Constant in San Francisco

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People have been coming to, moving out of, and sometimes returning to San Francisco since before the 1800s, and likely well before that.  Often times new immigrants to California would spill into the City, and then spill right back out.  “Realty Brokers Do Brisk Business” could have been a headline last week, but it actually titled a story that appeared in the January 8, 1910 San Francisco Call. The article highlighted the exodus of San Franciscans to then bucolic Oakland, where a real estate dealer declared 1909 as one of his most prosperous business years ever. “Fully 50 per cent were to San Francisco people,” he said.  “This speaks volumes for the outlook on this side of the bay.” 

Neighborhood popularity has also waxed and waned.  The evolution of the automobile from an oddity to commodity spurred an exodus from neighborhoods like the Haight, leaving blocks temporarily languishing with derelict, abandoned Victorians that are now worth millions.  North Beach massively changed during the 1980s and 1990s, when rapidly rising real estate prices turned quaint bohemian cottages, originally fisherman’s shacks dating to the late-1800s, into million dollar properties.  Old, established, Italian families moved in mass to San Jose, Redwood City and elsewhere.  A few regretted their hasty decision to seek “un posto più sicuro e tranquillo per i bambini”, a calmer and safer place for their children. 

Bayview lost a large chunk of its African-American population at the turn of the last century, who similarly traded in their newly valuable homes for larger houses, and hoped-for safer neighborhoods, in the East Bay.  Many then lost everything in the 2008 real estate bust.  Potrero Hill was originally a solidly blue-collar neighborhood.  Sections were devoted to industries now long gone, as well as more than a few goats.  The April 28, 1951 San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Mrs. Estelle West stands defiantly on her porch, as some of her 18 goats munch on their breakfast of greens. The State Division of Highways, which needs her property between Utah St. and Potrero Ave., just south of 19th St., for the Bayshore Freeway, hopes she’ll voluntarily move – but a court order for eviction is available if she won’t. Where can an evicted goat go in San Francisco? Or 18 of them for that matter? ‘’I don’t even know what to think any more,’’ Estelle said. “I can’t 1et them plow me under. Life is more important than progress.”

“With an enticing blend of beauty, culture, historicism, diversity, imagination and nonconformity, San Francisco stirs the creative and economic primordial pot — anything can happen,” San Francisco architect Howard Wong recently wrote.  “But unlike yesteryear’s Beats, Gold Rush settlers, ethnic immigrants, hippies, freeway battlers, environmentalists, geeks, gays and unionists, today’s upper-crust boom is undermining the diverse social mix that spawned the creativity of the past.  Gentrification and rocketing property prices are homogenizing the City.”

“It’s an interesting question,” said successful San Francisco real estate agent, Laura Lanzone, about the City’s current shuffle.  “And one that a lot of people are asking… I get asked this question all the time in fact, and it is an extremely complicated answer. It’s not just tech people; it’s not just foreign investors. I think people are coming here from all over the world for lots of different jobs; plus you add to that the fact that many young people do not want to live in the suburbs any more, even with kids. You also have retirees who sell the big house in Los Altos and move to the City for the medical care, transportation, easy maintenance condos, opera, shopping, etc. And of course the many, many pied-a-terre’s; we sell tons of second, third, fourth homes here in the City. So it’s no one simple answer…”

“I’m all for creating affordable housing and am not one to throw out the “no entitlement to live here” argument, but – cities have grown and evolved for millennia. Change happens. If change doesn’t happen, you get Des Moines. I’d rather live in an evolving San Francisco than Des Moines,” said one San Franciscan.

“If you can only afford to live in one city, then S.F. is a great combination of the best of all of these areas: culture, beauty, access to rural/natural areas, and great weather,” said another. 

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, between 2007 and 2011 the middle class left San Francisco in record numbers.  Many reports suggested that a major cause of the exodus was the growing draw of Silicon Valley employment and cheaper housing in the South Bay. However, since 2011 San Francisco’s population has steadily grown, almost certainly consisting predominately of individuals earning more than $75,000 a year.

“San Francisco’s unique topography and booming youthfulness combined with the rich mix of arts and ethnic cultures — not to mention restaurants — has made it especially attractive to the new wave of young, well-paid professionals with their ability to pay much higher rents,” said San Francisco journalist David Talbot.

One of the many that have come, gone, and come again is, famously, Armistead Maupin.  Maupin had something to say about his move out and then back into San Francisco in a July 23, 2012 Data Lounge thread; “Armistead Maupin Abandons San Francisco for Santa Fe has put his 1,600 square foot, 1906 Edwardian cottage on the market for $1.2 million and is moving with his husband Chris Turner to Santa Fe.”  The re-location has “been percolating for a while.” The move is “nothing I’m taking lightly,” said Maupin. “It’s been 41 years since I landed here and it gave me my story. … I keep reminding myself that Barbary Lane is portable and everything I learned here became part of me and is something I’ll always have.”  He and Turner are “both craving a little more space and some nature”, he said.  Then, just two years later, Mr. Maupin returned. 

“Kristine and I moved here in 2013,” said Potrero Hill resident Matthew Shiraki. “Kristine is a San Francisco native and it was an opportunity for us to be closer to her parents, who live in the Sunset. I grew up in Guam and in many ways SF feels like home, though I had never lived here before. We are homeowners and do not plan to leave. The only thing that might take us away would be a job opportunity we couldn’t refuse. If we were to leave for some reason, we would come back, for as we mentioned, we love SF and call this beautiful city our home.”

“I left my heart in San Francisco when I visited the City for the first time with a boyfriend at 19 years old,” said Hill resident Vasna Wilson. “I fell in love with the City rather than with the boyfriend. It was love at first sight. I was living in Hawaii at the time and I thought there couldn’t be another place that could be so beautiful. San Francisco took my breath away: the beauty of the City, the Golden Gate Bridge in fog, the rolling hills, the redwoods, open space in Marin, and most of all, the diversity of the people, not just black and white.”

“What I love most about Potrero Hill is its small town feel. It’s not as transient as other parts of the City. This is a place where people stay, friendships develop and evolve. Not to mention the beauty of the rolling hills, amazing views of the City and the Bay, and warm weather. So it’s not surprising that with the development of Mission Bay starting in 2012, along-side of the tech boom with easy access to downtown, Highways 101 and 280, that Potrero Hill would attract newcomers with deep pockets driving housing prices astronomically high. It’s not just in Potrero Hill, but everywhere in the City as well. San Francisco is a boom town and will always be.  If we were to leave, I would come back in a heart-beat under the right circumstances. There’s no other place like this…,” Wilson said.

Not everyone is a San Franciscan for life. Bill Slatkin and his wife, Suzanne moved out of their Dogpatch loft in 2013. Although it took some time to adjust, they’re happy with their move to Albuquerque. “Suzanne and I love San Francisco,” said Slatkin.  “She was born in the Bay Area and spent nearly all of her life there, several years of it in San Francisco. I lived for most of the past 45 years in the Bay Area, much of it in San Francisco. We became Dogpatch residents in 2004 and enjoyed the pulse and were thrilled with the changes in the neighborhood. But when Suzanne retired, we started wondering if there are other places that might be worth making our home, particularly with the area’s growing number of spare-the-air days, and the observation that we breathed and felt much better each time we spent a few days in the desert.”

“The decision to move was not made hastily, and we weren’t about to burn our bridges because we didn’t know if we would miss the area and want to return. So we rented, rather than sold our loft, and picked Albuquerque, New Mexico after a bit of study to find a desert-located community with a combination of reasonably mild weather, cultural diversity and a thriving art and music scene. That was in late summer in 2013.”

“We don’t expect to move back. We’re having fun here and have largely made the transition through the culture shock and to a slower, less stressful way to experience each day.

We still believe San Francisco is a wonderful place. And we’ve discovered there’s more to life — at least more for our lives—than living in San Francisco.”

Tony Bennett was right, of course.  One would be hard-pressed to find someone, anyone, who has not left a bit of their heart on one of her hills.