After an afternoon of laziness in San Francisco’s Dolores Park last year, while two friends and I were walking through the bustling Latin Quarter known as the Mission, I spotted a man on the opposite sidewalk getting excited.
He was shouting, growling, waving his arms. Shortly afterwards, I heard a crash. My friends and I fell to the ground, squatting behind a large white cover truck. Waving a small pistol, the man fired straight into the air. Then he disappeared into the night.
More disturbing than my meeting with a live shooter was the fact that the incident was almost not registered – in a few minutes everyone was back on their feet and normalcy was restored.
Everyone who lives in San Francisco seems to have a similar story to tell right now. During the pandemic, existing differences in wealth sharpened. In 2020, drug overdoses more than doubled Covid’s deaths. Homeless camps line up among the city’s famous colorful townhouses.
Both organized and opportunistic crime is prevalent, especially theft of property and cars. A colleague who came to film in the city said that her team had to hire security after a series of robberies were aimed at target camera crews. Last month, footage emerged of residents leaving car doors open to keep their windows from smashing. “The real epidemic is poverty,” a friend suggested in one of many conversations about the state of the city.
For some privileged residents unable to cope with despair and lawlessness, the answer may have been to flee. This month, Silicon Valley leaders began sharing statistics which shows that the share of staff they hire in the city and the surrounding area of the bay has shrunk dramatically in recent years. Coinbase notes CEO Brian Armstrong that in the first quarter of 2019, 30% of the company’s employment was outside the Gulf region; in the last quarter of 2021 was 89 percent.
The change is due to the fact that the technological world is becoming more “global” and decentralized – drawing on a wider range of candidates. But I wonder if it can be explained by the exodus of the crowd from Silicon Valley to other urban centers (with lower taxes).
Founders, startups, computer engineers and venture capitalists are abandoning the city of peace, love and progressive politics – many of them cursing why they felt inclined to get away.
“In 2000 or 2010, it made sense to build in San Francisco. There was all the talent, but not anymore, “wrote Joe Lonsdale, venture capitalist and co-founder of Palantir when leaving the city in November 2020.
LinkedIn data show that many of them landed in Austin while the Silicon Alley in Manhattan swelled. Miami’s technology mayor is trying to attract displaced talent. Last week, Airbnb boss Brian Cesky tweets he abandons San Francisco to start Airbnb hop: “in a different city or town each couple [of] weeks ”.
In the heyday of the 90’s and early 2000’s, technicians with their meetings, uniform (Patagonia jacket) and money seemed to own San Francisco. But the sharp rise in housing costs since 2012, dirty nightlife and annual bursts of polluting smoke from forest fires are harder to ignore when safety is also a luxury.
Some blame the over-permitting policies of District Attorney Chesa Budin, which came to power in 2020 with promises to reduce prison sentences and decriminalize poverty. His alleged failure to ensure public safety is now being used by Republicans, and he faces withdrawal in June. Democratic Mayor London Breed has moved from preaching “compassion” to “firm love”; from confiscation of money to recovery of the police.
What is missing is a careful attempt to tackle the root problems of the “poverty epidemic”. Margo Kushal, who runs the Center for Vulnerable Groups at the University of California, San Francisco, says the first step is to address the crippling need for affordable housing. “Low-income housing has just disappeared from our landscape. “Every day we see people pouring themselves into the homeless,” she said. “This is a huge political crisis at every level of government.”
Sustainability in times of crisis is vital. But if the city wants its technological crown back, unlike the evening crowds on the mission, it can’t just afford to continue as usual.