A new piece in The New Yorker, part of a recently popular genre of bleak takes on San Francisco losing its soul to tech wealth and tech everything, stands out in part because it was written by someone who moved here for a tech job.
"Almost everyone I know is down on San Francisco these days, and for good reason," writes Anna Wiener. "Few can envision a future here."
The piece, titled "In San Francisco, Tech Money Doesn't Buy Happiness," contains a litany of downtrodden observations about gentrification, the retail environment, the Uber driver strike, traffic, and everything that's changed in San Francisco since the 1960s — or the 1990s? It naturally references that alarmist and much discussed New York Times piece about the city "drowning in millionaires" following our current spate of IPOs. And it manages to suggest that "developers are gutting elegant Victorians and mid-century homes and painting them staid shades of gray," as if that is actually happening all over town.
"The emerging city is a tapestry of boutique fitness studios and finicky New American restaurants, of private clubs (including one for dogs) and cryotherapy spas," Wiener writes. But is that really all she sees in San Francisco? Does somebody need to invite this woman to a party?
Don't get me wrong: I know we're in a somewhat discouraged moment as a populace. Between Muni being broken, the housing shortage, and the homeless crisis surging unabated, the plight of the common San Franciscan stands in sharp contrast to Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires, of which we have the nation's lion's share.
Also, given how difficult it is to survive here these days on creative or journalistic pursuits, it should be no wonder that writers and journalists are particularly depressed on the topic of San Francisco. (Ms. Wiener herself, who moved to SF to work for a startup in 2013, sounds like she's dying to move back to New York and is working on a book titled Uncanny Valley, "a memoir of her time in the tech industry.")
This parade of sad takes on San Francisco may be reflective of the sad takes that blue-state dwellers have on our country at large in this present moment. Economic inequality is everywhere, and is particularly stark in the Bay Area, no doubt. But I encourage everyone to take a step back and ask whether the city is losing a "soul," or if it's just in a particularly bad mood — and also ask whether cities have souls, or moods.
Local writer Scott Lucas recently questioned this idea of "the soul of the city" in a piece for City Lab. He points to the dozens of stories that have been penned in recent years about battles for the "souls" of dozens of cities, from Europe to the US to Australia. He looks back on how Salon founder and Season of the Witch writer David Talbot foretold in 2012 how the current tech boom was going to be "potentially more damaging to the soul of the city" than the dot-com boom was 20 years ago. And he harkens back to when then Supervisor David Campos wanted a moratorium on all new construction in the Mission District in 2015, saying he was "fighting for the soul of San Francisco."
This is an emotional subject, but Lucas is right to suggest that everyone's idea of what the "soul of San Francisco" is varies from person to person. "Typically, whatever a person claims the soul of a city is, it coincides with that person’s political or aesthetic preferences," Lucas writes. "It’s a synecdoche that picks out some element of urban life, something of emotional importance that is seen as under threat, and inflates it to become the city as a whole."
But cities are many things, and they change in ways that are good and bad all the time. Cities are "dense with human friction, from the neighborhood level on up. And that pluralism is as it should be," Lucas writes.
While "tech" has been the prime industry dominating the larger narrative here for a couple decades, there are of course a number of less headline-grabbing industries here too, and there always will be. Tech money continues to trickle down to support the arts and SF's ever-crowded restaurant scene — even if artists and line cooks have a hard time finding anyplace to rent. (PianoFight founder Dan Williams recently told the Chronicle that tech people living and working in and around mid-Market have been boon for his theater/cabaret, saying, "Without tech our business would be far worse off.")
New York has the pleasure of having no one industry be seen as particularly dominant — though finance and banking pretty much always has been. It also has the advantage of being nine times the size of San Francisco, so no single narrative about its crumbling infrastructure or gentrifying neighborhoods tends to rule the headlines. It's just getting real tiresome having New York-based publications control the narrative about San Francisco, getting all transplanted New Yorkers in SF to nod in unison about how everything sucks. Do we need another big bank-driven recession and stock market crash to shift back to hating on New York?