San Francisco, to an onlooker or single time traveler, may appear as a crowded hub for history, diversity, and eccentricity. Its glory can often be attributed to the famous iconography of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Painted Ladies, Haight-Ashbury, and the crowded streets of Chinatown. However, there is far more to the fog city than meets the eye.
When I tell people that I live in San Francisco the immediate response is a series of oohs and aahs, which I believe to be quite warranted. The city is beautiful and deserving of immense credit. Anywhere you walk in this city you will find a collection of colors and ethnicities with peppered cafés and Victorian houses. Although every big city may have this same level of racial diversity, the districts that classify San Francisco are unique in distinguishing culture, food, street art, and the prevalence of street dwellers. Rent may be obnoxiously high, but it is nothing in comparison to the richness of opportunity and energy.
But whether you’re in the Presidio or the Mission, one thing remains: the unconventional nature of the people and the lack of corporations. That’s right; although we may have a few Starbucks, the city largely supports mom and pop shops with traditionally higher prices and organic food. Downtown San Francisco and the Financial District contain the consumerism that many tourists seek, but the majority of the 7 by 7 mile city is corporate free. However, as a resident, this means a forty-five minute Muni ride to get to the closest Anthropologie, which includes inhaling the downtown fumes that subtly smell of urine.
Although the city is vibrant in its people, strong in its culture, and beautiful in its architecture — its grime is undeniable. This can, in part, be attributed to the population of an estimated ten thousand homeless on the streets. One cannot talk of San Francisco without bringing up the community of predominately mentally ill homeless that has prevailed here for years. I have had my fair share of experiences with such people; including witnessing a homeless man light up a crack pipe on the bus, having to duck into a nearby shop to let a homeless man pass by with a baseball bat draped across his shoulders with a pack of dogs following him, being proposed to on Haight St. by another homeless man, and having a homeless woman hiss at me on the subway. There are many myths and rumors for why San Francisco specifically contains such a dense homeless population that is often dangerous and unpredictable. The strongest theory that has yet to be refuted is the idea that large cities such as New York transported their homeless via plane to the city of San Francisco for the temperate weather and socially liberal environment.
Yet some have come voluntarily. The homeless population surrounding Haight-Ashbury is significantly younger, often with dreads and burlap pants — chasing the 1969 Summer of Love and the hippie counterculture that once existed here.
Instead, the hippies and beatniks that previously owned the city have been replaced by a generation of start up CEOs and tech fanatics from Silicon Valley. San Francisco is constantly evolving through an influx and outflow of culture (including the gentrification of the Mission and the decline in starving artists due to skyrocketed rent prices), but some fear the tech industry’s influence on this anti-corporate, vegan-eating, dog-walking city more than ever. One long-time resident makes the claim that this is “a soulless new breed of men and women too busy with their iPhones to be here in the moment, and a shiny new Mercedes-Benzs on the street” (Zoë Corbyn, The Guardian). Others feel that every community of people is welcome in shifting the cultural ambiance, so long as they do no harm.
From a personal perspective I have fallen in love with this imperfect place. No matter the grime or constant threat of danger, I can always escape to Golden Gate Park for a silent meditation among giant Redwoods that remind me of the insignificance of my worries.