San Francisco has always been a place of extremes. In the 60s, it was a refuge for free-spirited and rebellious youth, a hundred thousand of whom poured into the city during the summer of love. Its neighborhoods have incubated iconic musicians, cults, queers, and more countercultures than you can count. These days, it is a mecca to techno-libertarianism and the pitfalls of capitalism. As billions of dollars free-flow through the city’s tech ecosystem, those less fortunate are forced to live in squalor on the streets.
What first drew me here was the balance of urban life and nature. Before COVID-19 and the ensuing quarantine, I would leave work in the bustling Financial District and head to Land End’s, a park on the northwestern edge of the city. A mere 30 minutes away, Land’s End is a whole other world of dramatic coastline and forested trails, the sweet smell of eucalyptus ever-present the air.
This crowded, hilly cityscape — the second densest in the United States — manages to pack in 220 parks, rugged beaches, and countless hiking trails. The famed Golden Gate Park is full of nooks and crannies you can have all to yourself, even on the busiest days. Mount Davidson offers a mysterious hike through thick fog and trees covered in vines, then opens up to 360-views of the city below. Beaches under the Golden Gate Bridge give you direct access to the chilly blue waters of the Pacific.
Unfortunately, I quickly became disillusioned with San Francisco shortly after moving. Even after four years, I still haven’t allowed myself to fully sink into it as home.
What is it Like to Live in San Francisco?
On the surface, San Francisco has it all — delicious food (and specifically, authentic Chinese food), accessible nature, a thriving job market, people from all over the world, quirky architecture, and interesting history. Yet poverty and inequality run rampant, manifesting in a horrific homeless crisis and a tech-centric culture that is swiftly erasing the city’s funky past. The contrast is so stark that it often feels like landing right in the pages of a dystopian novel warning us of how we could end up if we’re not careful.
Unlike their freewheeling hippie predecessors, young people today flood into San Francisco to hustle in tech, cash out on startup stock options, then leave. Resulting from this trend is a sky-high cost of living and an increasingly homogeneous population. Most conversations around the city now sound a little something like this (for many of the soundbites below, I am personally guilty):
Whenever I ask a new person about whether or not they like living in San Francisco, “ehhh” is the most common reply. A recent survey by SFGate found that two out of three tech workers would leave the Bay Area if they were able to work remotely full-time. This shared dissatisfaction feels most palpable on public transit during rush hour: people rarely look happy to be where they are.
Very few can afford to move here out of genuine love for the city anymore. San Francisco is a notoriously expensive place to live, with a single room in a shared apartment costing upwards of $1500 to rent. A studio apartment goes for $2500+. With price tags like these, San Francisco is doable for childless young people working high-paying tech jobs but not so much for everyone else.
Then there’s the blatant issue of homelessness. Close to 10,000 people — ranging from the temporarily down-and-out to the drug-addled and mentally ill — live on the streets. As a San Francisco resident, scenes of abject poverty are so common that you become desensitized as a defense mechanism. As you drink your $6 coffee and step over a used syringe on your way to a cushy tech job complete with free meals and unlimited vacation time, the destitution around you almost passes as a normal part of everyday life.
When I first moved to San Francisco in 2015, I decided I would walk the three miles to work to get to know my new home better. On Market Street, a thoroughfare that runs across the city, I passed a man having a seizure, foam bubbling at his mouth, as rush hour foot traffic thundered by. Not one person looked up from their smartphone to offer help. On my way home, a man jumped in front of me and yelled in my face.
Anyone who lives here has numerous stories like these. They’ll tell you about the tent cities that spring up behind their offices; about the human feces that found its way into their delivery packages; about being punched in the face by a mentally ill person while waiting for the bus; about zombie-like men and women with gangrene snaking up their calves and mysterious welts all over their backs.
I returned home that day feeling heavy, and, as a San Franciscan, I don’t think that heaviness ever goes away. It simply becomes a part of daily life that you cease to actively notice.
No city is perfect. The most expensive neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro are framed by favelas built into the hillside. In Makoko, the floating slums of Lagos, Nigeria, residents fight to preserve their way of life from a government threatening to demolish their homes. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Still, there’s something more sinister about San Francisco’s homeless crisis. Places like Makoko and the favelas of Brazil are home to families and a broader community. People come together in the face of difficult circumstances in an effort to create a livable environment. On the streets of San Francisco, you are alone, and it is each to their own. It feels unacceptable — especially in a city as wealthy as this one — and like there is no solution to the problem.
Whenever I visit the Golden Gate Bridge and take in views of the bay below, I can’t believe how lucky I am to live where I do. Other times it feels like I cannot bear to stay another day.
Though I haven’t been able to build a happy, baggage-free relationship with this city yet, I am trying to focus on the good and invest in this place I call home. Despite its problems, San Francisco undeniably leaves a lasting impression on anyone who visits. Whether it’s the urban-nature balance, the steep hills, the neighborhoods that change from one block to the next, or the people fighting to better the communities around them, there’s a lot to love here.
It may be why I still haven’t left yet.