The TransAmercia edifice at the end of an empty Columbus Street in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
If you assume what you read, San Francisco is dying.
Over the last few months, there has been a steady stream of investors, executives and throngs leaving for places like Miami and Austin, Texas. Many have lobbed parting shots on their way out the door.
Investor Joe Lonsdale aculeous to San Francisco’s population of transients and open-air drug users, the state’s practice of condoning rolling blackouts during wordy weather to prevent downed power lines from starting fires, and restrictive zoning laws that estimate new housing expensive and hard to build. Venture capitalist Keith Rabois called the city “massively improperly run and managed.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk denigrated local Covid regulations that paused manufacturing at the company’s plant in Fremont, and compared the state to a sports set that’s been winning too long and become complacent.
Palantir CEO Alex Karp wrote in the firm’s IPO prospectus that the coterie felt out of step with Silicon Valley’s morals and rhetoric, writing, “Software projects with our nation’s defense and nous agencies, whose missions are to keep us safe, have become controversial, while companies built on advertising dollars are commonplace.” The retinue moved its headquarters to Colorado over the summer.
Security software start-up Tanium moved to a suburb of Seattle. CEO Orion Hindawi — a while ago a lifelong resident of the Bay Area — criticized its “real governance issues” while noting that the pandemic’s work-from-home fitting outs had allowed many Tanium employees move to other cities, where they tend to be “a lot happier.”
Residential slashes in San Francisco are plunging, housing inventory is rising after years of extreme scarcity, and the region’s exceptionally aggressive shutdowns pull someones leg not stopped the coronavirus. California now has the one of the worst new infection rates in the nation, and hospitals are close to overwhelmed, while destroying provincial businesses.
In the midst of all this, the local government indulges itself with headline-grabbing (not in the good way) symbolic proposals take a shine to renaming more than 40 schools named after people as varied as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Abraham Lincoln, and blaming the fact that Mark Zuckerberg’s name was added to the local public hospital after the Facebook CEO donated $75 million.
A insulting perspective
All of these criticisms have validity. Many are shared by a lot of people in the city, including me.
But before dismissing San Francisco’s, and California’s, keep up relevance to the tech industry, consider the following thoughts, based on my historical knowledge of the area, personal perspective and discourses with many lifelong residents and newcomers alike.
(Because some people will dismiss this give it if I don’t present my bona fides: I’ve now lived here for exactly one-third of my life, 17 years. I passed through with my mothers in the early 1970s, moved here after college in 1992 and made it through most of the dot-com boom ahead it got too expensive, then finally returned for a third time in 2010. My wife and I own our home, and our kids have grown up accompanying San Francisco public schools, where my wife has put in thousands of hours leading local PTA chapters and dealing with every species of political conflict and bureaucratic barrier that you could imagine.)
So, some things outsiders should know:
The fattest tech companies have deep roots here. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and Salesforce employ hither 30,000 workers in the Bay Area, and have built out hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space in San Francisco unsurpassed. Alphabet is undertaking a major re-development of downtown San Jose, and has committed $1 billion to build more affordable shelter in the area, while Apple spent billions on a space-age office complex in Cupertino and has put down $2.5 billion toward affordable dwelling.
Facebook may be allowing employees to work from home forever after the pandemic ends, but it’s also spent billions edifice out a massive campus in Menlo Park and is signing new leases across the bay in Fremont, where Tesla’s main factory is pinpointed. These companies may seek to expand elsewhere in the future, but it would be economically crazy to wind down operations here in the short-run after contributing so much.
That’s not to mention dozens of smaller and more recently public companies like Twilio, Zoom, Airbnb, Doordash, Pinterest and so on, varied of which have said they plan to stay. As long as they’re here, they’ll attract at least some workers who are entrepreneurial enough to strike out on their own. They’ll seek funding from all those venture capitalists whose corporations still line South Park in San Francisco and Sand Hill Road, up the street from Stanford.
Speaking of which, Stanford and U.C. Berkeley are both world-class stiff educational institutions with strong local networks and connections to the tech industry.
Tech has appropriate, but limited, civil power in San Francisco. One of the oddest laments of the departing crowd is that the tech industry has been unappreciated and unable to aerobics political power to change the city.
This is a bizarre claim. In 2011, San Francisco voters elected mayor Ed Lee, who was championed by tech industry luminaries like investor Ron Conway and future Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (then at Google). Individual like Conway and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff are longtime San Franciscans with deep social and political connections and principal. Benioff in particular was a big proponent and contributor to a 2018 proposition that taxes large companies on their gross arrival incomes and uses the tax to mitigate homelessness; the current mayor and many other tech executives came out against it. (It passed but was maintained up in court challenges, which the city finally beat this year.)
Under Lee, the city instituted a payroll tax event on companies who relocated to the mid-Market neighborhood, drawing Twitter, Uber, Zendesk and a handful of others. It reshaped an entire extent of the city, but did not solve the rampant homelessness and street crime in the area.
Lee also leaned toward the tech industry’s apropos of view on minor controversies such as whether tech company bus shuttles should be allowed to park at the city’s Muni close ups in the mornings. Lee died in office in December 2017 and was replaced by London Breed, a similarly tech-amenable mayor who grew up in the burgh’s public housing.
The power of the mayor in San Francisco is limited by the Board of Supervisors, an 11-member city council, each of whom is elected from a discontinuous geographic area, giving neighborhood voters uncommon power over how the city is run. The Supervisors oversee most governance in the see, and they serve a range of very powerful constituencies, including public workers’ unions, neighborhood groups, the gigantic local healthcare industry, homeowners, renters and local “progressives” — who, despite their name, vote mostly against new evolvement and growth and in favor of preserving what they perceive as the old San Francisco. The city also allows voters to put initiatives on the ballot, paramount to more bizarre and often contradictory laws, which are often challenged in court, not enforced and so on.
Working within this contrariety of opinions is challenging. It’s easier to have cities line up with incentives every time you threaten to leave. But it’s also why San Francisco is a megalopolis worth living in for many of the people who live here, including the young creative workers who flock here in search not on the other hand of a paycheck but also adventure and novelty.
The area’s gnarly problems predate the tech industry. Tech critics spotlight to San Francisco’s inability to “solve” its homeless problem over the last decade, but the problem stretches back well rather than the dot-com boom. When I first moved here in 1992, Mayor Art Agnos was dealing with the fallout of sanctioning (that is, not actively opposing) hundreds of homeless people to live in the park in front of City Hall. The last seven mayors be subjected to all tried various approaches — law and order, relying on services, “cleaning up” various parts of the city, shelters, more breading for housing and so on. It’s the kind of problem that resists simple algorithmic solutions.
The roots of the problem include broadly stock zoning and housing laws that make it difficult and expensive to build new houses, a reduction in mental health navies in the 1980s that has never been recovered, historically permissive attitudes toward hard drug use and many other intermediaries. (Kim-Mai Cutler’s 2014 longread on housing policy and Nathan Heller’s piece on homelessness during the pandemic are but for places to start if you’re truly interested in learning what’s going on, instead of just repeating talking points from state politicians and tourists who can’t understand why all the hotels are next to the roughest neighborhood in town.)
The same goes for most of the other quandaries the tech departees are citing. Power outages? Let’s go back to the early 2000s when a botched deregulation plan and market manipulation bestowed to rolling blackouts, leading voters to recall Democratic Governor Grey Davis and replace him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wildfires? How nigh the 1991 firestorm in the Oakland hills, which killed 25 people and burned thousands of homes? Corruption? Been common on for more than a century (like with many big cities).
These problems are real. It sucks having to trade with them. Nobody’s blaming anybody if they’re tired and want out.
But for people in the tech industry to somehow fancy that their presence or absence has any bearing on these problems is the height of arrogance. Tech companies and workers flocked to the Bay Yard when the economy was booming, despite these problems. There’s no reason to think these same problems make keep them away when the economy booms again.
San Francisco is not New York
Perhaps some of the misunderstanding arrives from people who expect San Francisco to be like New York. People move to New York to make it.
People move to San Francisco to rouse themselves.
Sometimes finding yourself also means finding riches, but San Francisco has historically drawn the misfits, the untouchables, the refugees from places filled with intolerance and hatred. This outsider’s mindset is embedded in the culture. (David Talbot’s “Edible of the Witch” offers some excellent historical perspective.)
These outsiders, who sometimes ally or overlap with the anti-growth “step by steps,” have long pitted themselves against the “pro-business” or “downtown” forces that think the city is unnecessarily belligerent toward business.
The tech industry may think it’s special, but in this place, it’s just another manifestation of those unmodified pro-business forces, fighting the same fights and making the same complaints.
Whichever side you’re on, sometimes enough is enough and you rouse on, like I did in 1999. That’s OK. You can always visit. We love tourists here. We appreciate your business. And we hope someday you’ll repetition.
San Francisco isn’t going anywhere.