I’ve lived in SF several times (1998, 2009, 2012, 2016), under several types of economic circumstances (millionaire, homeless, couch-surfing…), and with several “moods” (ecstatic!, curious, dark…) across the decades. And in all that time, I’ve never seen anything even remotely like what I’ve witnessed in the past year: lets just call it what it is: the Fall of SF –– San Francisco Dystopia.
I’ll share my latest personal story of adventures on the San Francisco peninsula first, and then we’ll explore what might be some of the causes of the precipitous fall of this world-class city.
Enter the City…
Last month, I booked what was comfortably rated (1,000+ reviews) as a 4.5 star hotel in the “Theatre District” of San Francisco. It was right next to one of my old favorite hotels — the Hotel Whitcomb (the original SF City Hall, in fact) — but perhaps I should have taken a hint: my old fave was listed as “temporarily closed for re-modeling; opening date unknown.” Nonetheless, I landed at SFO, hopped on the BART, and got out at the UN Plaza… quite excited to re-unite with my old stomping grounds.
Up the escalator, onto Market Street. Wait… where the fuck was I? Market Street, normally bustling with 5 lanes of honking traffic like Fifth Ave in NYC, was utterly void of cars. It was, in fact, completely closed to traffic. A pedestrian’s dream come true, to be sure… but nonetheless, a fundamental energy shift in the City of Love… and that was just the opening shot.. not to be the last. The king’s armor had a dent in it…
Why are there Fences everywhere?
I walked towards my hotel, a short 2-1/2 blocks from the station. There were weird chain-link fences set up everywhere, separating the sidewalk from the road, or in many cases, simply dividing the sidewalk in half. They seemed to serve no useful purpose whatsoever. They reminded me, however, of the infamous “protestor cages” that the NYPD built for us in 2002 in Manhattan for the WEF protests. Just like those, they made nasty, tight, inescapable spaces. With no-where to go if something went… sideways.
What was even spookier than the cages, was the total emptiness. Its just… the streets… were pretty much… empty. Again, this was not the SF I was used to. SF has never been Manhattan, but c’mon, it does have some nightlife… and it was only 9:30pm!
I did a little bit of exploring — SF still does, thank god, have some world-class art anchored to its streets and standing proudly in its courtyards — and finally checked into my hotel around 10pm. I asked the front desk about restaurants, and he said casually “by now, everything nearby is closed for the night.”… he said it, in fact, somewhat sadly, but also surprised that I didn’t know better. Dent #2.
Starving, I asked about a convenience store, and he said: “Yes, sure, its right around the corner, but you don’t want to go out there… there are very scary people out there at this time of night. You should just use a delivery app… I can give you a promo code, and it will be here in 20 minutes or less.”
I laughed. I’d been around the world. I’d fricking lived in dark ghettos. I knew the scary people. From time to time, I had been one of the scary people. I had no fear.
I may have been slightly overconfident…
I walked outside and followed the concierge’s clear directions. Right, Intersection, Right, 200 yards, store on Right. I realised very quickly: Tho I could see dozens of humans, I was the only one who was well dressed. I was the only one, in fact, with a decent posture and a confident stride. In fact, I appeared to be the only non-homeless person on the entire street that night.
The Scary People
And… to my chagrin, these were not the docile homeless people of Santa Monica, hiding under their blankets, shivering with heroin sickness, minding their own business. These were aggro-homeless. Some moved into my path. Others gave me direct, confrontational stares. I did not deviate my path. I did not apologize, stop nor slow when I grazed a shoulder. I did not meet any stares after that first vacant one. I had my 1,000 yard stare, and beamed straight on through.
In truth, I was slightly scared. These, indeed, were scary people.
I literally thought all the footage I had seen on TV was Fox News propaganda all last summer… footage that I had written off as alt-right neo-Republican propaganda, gleefully hyping the fall of SF… the tarnishing of the Crown Jewel of liberalism. Nope. I was wrong. The reality was far worse than the Fox footage. Yikes.
I made it into the store, where again, there were a few homeless people stumbling down the aisles and mumbling their nonsensical mantras, and me, stocking up on Gatorade, soda water, and ice cream. There wasn’t a decent patch of protein in that entire store. Not even fricking beef jerky. I paid, exited the store, and continued my complete circumnavigation of the hotel block.
Now, the cages really did start to freak me out. The channel between building wall and chainlink fence was about six feet wide. I had to step over the legs of sprawled denizens as I picked my way back to the hotel entrance. Again, I carefully noted: Amongst more than 4 dozen people I saw on the streets that night, I couldn’t identify a single one that looked like a well-heeled homeowner (or apartment renter) or even a wayward tourist. Just me and the derelicts. Damn.
That would have been all there was to it. I got back into my room, at my ice cream, wrote some blog posts, made a plan for the next day, and by 12:45am, disrobed and got into bed, curled up with my current paperback entertainment (Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, if you must know).
But… Peace was not to be had that night.
The Fall of SF
At 1am, a deafening siren filled my room. MUCH louder than my apartments smoke alarm. “What now?” I thought. I continued reading, waiting for the false alarm to be turned off. I waited. A voice came over some hidden speaker system: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a fire situation. The Fire Department is coming and we are investigating. Please make your way down the emergency stairs to the street in front of the hotel.”
Oh no. Fuck it. I’m stubborn. I didn’t smell smoke. I kept trying to read my book. But 5 minutes later, the voice repeated a similar message again, and me, being on the 12th floor, did not want my life to end like an idiot, in a hotel fire. I packed my laptop, threw on some pants and a hoodie, and headed, relulctantly, to the stairwell.
Eventually, I made it to the street. Just as the Fire Chief pulled up in his shiny red truck. I had to know, so I walked right up to the him: “Hey, man. What the hell is actually going on here? Is there a fire?” I totally expected the response I get every other month at my apartment in Santa Monica : “No, some asshole just pulled the emergency alarm, there’s no fire, we’re resetting it now.” But this was not that:
Fire Chief: “Yes. A homeless person on the other side of the building actually set the side of the hotel on fire. We’re putting it out now, and securing the building. We’ll let you know when its safe to re-enter.”
I checked out of that hellhole hotel the very next morning.
Adieu, San Francisco.
…nice to know you.
An exploration of possible causes:
really quick (to be expanded upon): What are the key factors that precipitated the fall of SF?
- gentrification (began waaay back in the 1990s)
- “libertarian” tech billionaires (translation: we don’t give a fuck)
- pretend ultra-liberals (translation: we really care, but we actually don’t)
- silicon valley luxury tech bus commute shuttles (unpack that, yo!)
- hyper-privileged white people (see 3 & 4, above)
- young naive tech millionaires (25-year olds with six-figure salaries… see 3, 4 & 5, above)
- got here? good. go back to 1), above, and re-read.
That’s a summary of my personal take on the matter. From actually living there, and witnessing the zeitgeist of the City firsthand across two decades.
What sayeth ChatGPT?
After a bit of reflection, I thought it might be prudent to ask ChatGPT about the fall of SF, and what perspective it could lend to the matter. It actually lent some surprising context to my intuition, and also gave me some very useful citations.
SIDENOTE: Yes, I realise that this practice which I’m about to engage in — copying and pasting the results of chat sessions with an AGI — is about to be out the window, as everyone will have universal access to AGIs, just as most people have universal access to radio / TV / internet today. But also, I recognize that this universal AI access — especially to the top-end GPT4 models — is not a truism today. And so, I share my transcript with you (and with Google):
is san francisco considered to be in economic or cultural decline, currently?
I did a quick search for more information and here’s what I found.
San Francisco appears to be facing significant challenges that suggest both economic and cultural strains as of 2023. Reports indicate a city struggling to maintain its stature and vibrancy amidst various issues.
Economically, there are ominous signs of distress. The city has been grappling with budget cuts amid an economic struggle, suggesting a downward trajectory for its financial health [cite]. This is further evidenced by an alarming office vacancy rate which reached nearly 36%, despite the rise of the AI industry and some significant leasing deals [cite]. This high vacancy rate could reflect broader economic issues, including a possible downturn in business confidence and reduced demand for commercial space.
Culturally, the city is facing serious social challenges:
- Rampant homelessness,
- a drug crisis,
- surging crime rates, and
- several major, anchor business closures
…paint a picture of a city in decline [newsweek] [AP]. These problems not only affect the economic fabric of the city but also its cultural vitality and social stability. The presence of widespread homelessness and visible encampments in districts like the Tenderloin further underscores the depth of these challenges.
Interestingly, despite these troubling signs, there is an effort underway to reverse this image of decline. The city is actively seeking to refurbish its reputation and address its pressing issues. This suggests a recognition of the problems at hand and a commitment to overcoming them.
Additionally, it’s worth noting the historical context; San Francisco has experienced a more significant rate of population decline between 2019 and 2021 than any other major US city, including a period of decline larger than any two-year period in Detroit’s history, which is known for its urban decay. This rapid population decline can be a significant indicator of economic and cultural health, as it often reflects broader dissatisfaction with living conditions, job opportunities, and quality of life.
In conclusion, while San Francisco continues to be a city of immense cultural significance and economic activity, it is currently facing a confluence of serious economic and social issues. The city’s response to these challenges will likely determine its future trajectory, whether it will manage to reinvent itself or continue on a path of decline.
Data on Commercial Real Estate Vacancy
(Fall of SF : Real Estate):