I’ve seen a lot of recent criticism of San Francisco, particularly its problem with homelessness. Thus I looked forward to spending a few days there to see for myself. I stayed in the “Tenderloin” district, which contains San Francisco’s largest concentration of homeless. Each day I spent an hour or two exploring different parts of the city on foot, in different directions. Here are my highly subjective observations. 1. There is a lot of homelessness in San Francisco, but much of it seems concentrated in a few small areas, including the area where I stayed. LA’s problem is far worse. 2. Homelessness is obviously a problem for the homeless themselves, but it doesn’t seem to me to be much of a problem for most residents of San Francisco, except in a very restricted area. I
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I’ve seen a lot of recent criticism of San Francisco, particularly its problem with homelessness. Thus I looked forward to spending a few days there to see for myself.
I stayed in the “Tenderloin” district, which contains San Francisco’s largest concentration of homeless. Each day I spent an hour or two exploring different parts of the city on foot, in different directions. Here are my highly subjective observations.
1. There is a lot of homelessness in San Francisco, but much of it seems concentrated in a few small areas, including the area where I stayed. LA’s problem is far worse.
2. Homelessness is obviously a problem for the homeless themselves, but it doesn’t seem to me to be much of a problem for most residents of San Francisco, except in a very restricted area. I walked by lots of homeless people and was not hassled a single time. I don’t doubt that problems occur, but the issue seems overrated to me. As far as cleanliness, that may be a generational thing. I grew up in an America where pets were allowed to poop on the sidewalks, so I don’t freak out about the dirt and the needles.
3. The vast majority of San Francisco remains America’s most beautiful city, by far. Boston recently built a new neighborhood along the harbor just south of downtown, and San Francisco has built a far more impressive one in the same general location. I visited the new bus station the day it opened (yesterday), and it has to be the most impressive bus station in the world. There’s a huge park on the roof that is vaguely reminiscent of NYC’s Highline, but less crowded (see below). The airport and mass transit system are far superior to those in LA.
4. San Francisco is a much denser city than LA, but even so there’s still lots of room to put up 20 story apartment buildings in older industrial areas, such as south of Market Street. That’s already being done, but much more is needed.
Visiting both San Francisco and San Jose on this trip, it was clear how much these cities have pulled away from middle American cities like St. Louis and Cleveland. The wealth and sophistication in the Bay Area is visible everywhere; it’s perhaps the first time I intuitively grasped the difference between the 20th and 21st centuries. While much of Middle America is still in the 20th century, the SoMa district most certainly is not.
5. I doubt whether San Francisco’s success is due to good governance. More likely, the incredible natural beauty, mild climate, and the proximity to Silicon Valley are bigger factors.
It was a lot of fun walking through the city.
Tyler Cowen recently made this observation:
I was in San Francisco last week, and most of my conversations eventually turned to the same topic: Could some other region supplant the Bay Area as America’s tech hub? San Francisco, after all, has sky-high rents and taxes — not to mention dirty streets, unpleasant strip clubs and numerous homeless.. .
[C]onsider the virtues of the Los Angeles area. It has splendid weather — warmer and sunnier than San Francisco — and a deep pool of talent.. . It even has a subway, albeit an underdeveloped one. I would argue it has much better food, and of course a much larger and more diverse entertainment scene. You might reasonably conclude that top talent might prefer to live in or near Los Angeles rather than the Bay Area.. .
Northern California had an original advantage over Southern California as a center of free thinking and thus as a tech hub. Think back to Haight-Ashbury, the 1960s, Beatniks, LSD and the Whole Earth Catalog, the psychedelic movement, the bohemian and gay cultures of San Francisco. All of that bred an atmosphere of rebellion, and it helped birth the personal computer and a large movement of non-conformist hippie programmers, often working out of their proverbial garages.
But those cultural roots have largely faded, and if anything today San Francisco and the Bay Area are better known for political correctness and a conformist culture of scolding and groupthink.
At my age I prefer the sunny warm weather of SoCal, and the convenience of driving in Orange County. But if I were young, I’d vastly prefer the San Francisco area, and it’s not even close. To say LA’s subway system is “undeveloped” is an understatement—I’ve found it to be worthless. Both cities have political correctness, but judging by the delightful and colorful gay pride parade I witnessed over the weekend, San Francisco is still free of the dreary, hypocritical puritanism that mars so much of American culture. Whole families attended, obviously not concerned that their darling little ones would be scarred for life if they saw a bit too much skin. (I won’t offer an opinion on whether San Fran’s strip clubs are of the “pleasant” or “unpleasant” variety, as I lack the expertise to challenge Tyler’s judgment. But I presume that those who don’t care for that sort of thing would just stay away.)
Despite these reservations, LA may well be the next Silicon Valley, for the reason’s identified by Tyler.
PS. Just to be clear, while the city has some nice architecture, I would not rate San Francisco number one without its natural beauty.
PPS. I often criticize Trump, but to his credit he recently admitted that America’s homelessness problem began after he was elected president:
After the president mildly protested that only “some of our cities” are like that, the Fox News star said that New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles all “have a major problem with filth.”
“Why is that?” Carlson wondered aloud.
“It’s a phenomenon that started two years ago,” Trump declared. “It’s disgraceful. I’m going to maybe—I am looking at it very seriously.”
Yes, do that.