THURSDAY, JANUARY 9, 2020 --
In far too many conversations--in bars, restaurants, bookstores, barber shops, wherever people gather in San Francisco--the question is asked: "Are you moving and where will you go?"
My answer: "I'm staying. I can't imagine anywhere else this California guy would want to live."
As San Francisco 2020 begins, I know there may be few fans cheering my decision.
This small city with the best weather in North America, arguably the finest eateries per capita, more start-up businesses, more billionaires and more charming neighborhoods lined with colorfully painted Victorian homes, is getting smaller. And less charming. And, if you read the national press and watch the TV networks, San Francisco is a mess of epic proportions.
Virtually every month last year, major national media outlets hammered San Francisco in stories that whipped around the world in microseconds thanks to social media. Stories ranted about the homeless, up 30 percent in the last year, and the filthy streets and sidewalks in even the nicest parts of town. San Francisco, the stories claimed, had become a mini-tent city with down-on-their-luck urbanites living out of shopping carts and camping under ratty blankets atop beds of cardboard and newspaper.
They railed about the frustration of squeezing into a parking spot and praying your car wasn't broken into. They warned San Francisco visitors to leave nothing visible inside a rental car and not to drive around with luggage in the trunk lest you tempt smash-and-grab thieves.
They decried the soaring home prices and apartment rents that can reach $5,000 a month for an unfurnished two-bedroom unit with no parking spot and no washer-dryer.
But San Francisco isn't a city alone with a homeless population and sky-high rents. It just seems more jolting in this one-time storybook town that has long been portrayed as a Bohemian bastion of live-and-let-live mellow souls. And if you happen to be lucky enough to perch on one of San Francisco's seven hills, you wake up every morning to beautiful views of a pristine Bay or the Pacific and two spectacular suspension bridges. Even the fog was once feted in story and song.
Still, a third of San Francisco's 800,000 residents last month told pollsters in a City Hall-sponsored survey that they want to move out of town. Pack up and leave. Vamoose. Ditto the commercial base. Citing high city and state taxes, towering office rents and a worker base that can't afford to live in the city, companies are uprooting and moving to Texas, where housing is cheaper, offices are plentiful, tax breaks are doled out to newly arriving firms and there's no state income tax.
Charles Schwab, the homegrown investment firm, is the latest mega-business to leave. It announced in late November that it would move thousands of jobs to a Fort Worth suburb. (Interestingly, "Chuck" Schwab himself and the firm's top brass are staying put in San Francisco.) McKesson Corporation, said to be the biggest American drug distributorship by revenue, is moving its corporate headquarters to Las Colinas, a Dallas suburb.
Yet for all its ills, perceived or real, San Francisco is the hamlet that feels like home to me. After growing up in Los Angeles and spending a half-dozen years in Washington, I live in a great neighborhood, San Francisco's Upper Fillmore. Many of the mom-and-pop merchants and their little shops have been chased out by national and global retailers, but that's hardly unique to San Francisco. After 34 years here, I can walk a few blocks down Fillmore Street and get a coffee, a Martini, a prescription, a salad, a beard trim and a birthday gift. I can choose from six movies and savor any of a dozen cuisines without ever moving my car or summoning a cab, an Uber or a Lyft.
My office is a good-sized room in a 130-year-old Victorian that also houses a local bar and restaurant. There's a boulangerie across the street and, on a lucky day, the aroma of fresh baked bread and pastries floats through my open window. My commute? Three blocks door to door. Parking is
horrific and I do not have a garage, but street spaces are somewhat easier to snag these days because more motorists have given up their cars. Traffic is tough at rush hours, too, but San Francisco distances are short. And what city doesn't have traffic issues?
And, sure, the city is overrun with millennials and techies. And, sure, the skyline, especially downtown, now has a forest of boring buildings. As someone who writes about business travel, it's impossible for me to ignore the lodging situation. During conventions, hotel rates can top $1,000 a night and the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero recently made headlines when it carved additional guestrooms out of hallways
But San Francisco still has pockets of Bohemian culture if you know where to look. I avoid downtown and mostly stay west of Van Ness Avenue where neighborhoods reign supreme. There are still streets where great dim sum and dumpling palaces are on every corner.
While that third of the city's populace is plotting its escape, I'll stay. While the San Francisco Chronicle
reporter tracking the exodus of locals and businesses chucked her notebook and moved out of town
, I'll keep cranking out journalism from the City by the Bay.
I cannot imagine uprooting myself from a city with a manageable airport 25 minutes from my front door. I can't think of leaving a place where residents and tourists rub shoulders with business travelers. My heart is with San Francisco, where folks wait in line to get into Noosh
, a new, reasonably priced California-inspired Mediterranean restaurant that just happens to be underneath my office. I've suggested they install a fire pole next to my chair so I can slide into the bar stool directly below. I'm waiting for an answer.
Meantime, I'm staying put. I left my heart in San Francisco a long time ago. My body and my brain will stay here, too.