The End of the End of San Francisco

A new book represents the apotheosis of a self-defeating way of thinking about the city. For all our sakes, it needs to stop.

One of the first axioms you learn as a wide-eyed young writer is “write what you know.” It’s one of those clichés that’s so annoying precisely because it’s so true. 

The writers whose pieces fill the pages of The End of the Golden Gate, a collection of essays about “loving and (sometimes) leaving San Francisco,” certainly know a thing or two about struggling to afford rent in the city and eventually being forced to move. They know how to tell their own life stories in engaging and creative ways. They know how to set a scene, people it with interesting characters, and lament its passing into history.  

Unfortunately, many of the esteemed writers in the collection do not seem to know much about how and why San Francisco got so unaffordable in the first place, or expend much effort to find out. Instead, they content themselves with the same old half-truths and bogeymen that have come to form the basis of our civic religion of sorrow. And they completely neglect those who have lost a lot more than a scene from the city’s housing crisis, as well as the young artists and creative people who are still, believe it or not, hoping to create new scenes in San Francisco. 

According to the bulk of these essays, San Francisco’s most glaring problem is that nobody — at least nobody who is cool or interesting — can afford to live here. The reason? Tech bros and their buses. The solution? Move to New York or Los Angeles or Berkeley — or else stick around and dwell in a palace of memory.   

This narrative structure, repeated in various ways over the course of this collection, isn’t just frustrating from a literary point of view. The perspectives of these influential writers, like so many before them, are ultimately absorbed and parroted by influential policy makers, setting the terms of our political discourse. And when those arguments either dance around or completely ignore our city’s failure to build enough housing for all those who wish to live here, we oughtn’t to be surprised when we collectively fail to come up with real solutions to the problem at the root of so many of our problems.

For far too long voters and elected officials have wrapped themselves in these simplistic narratives, shut their eyes, and gone to sleep. An extreme and profoundly obvious failure of public policy is recast as a serialized culture war with a rotating roster of villains — yuppies, hipsters, tech bros — and an ever-expanding geography of devastation — the Haight, the Mission, the Outer Sunset, Oakland, Portland, Berlin, and so on. Meanwhile, the rents keep rising, our unhoused population swells, and we mourn the ruination of our city until that is all we know how to do anymore. 

The End of the Golden Gate represents the apotheosis of this way of thinking about San Francisco — indeed, about cities writ large — and hopefully, the beginning of its end. After all, young writers cannot reasonably be expected to mourn a city that has been declared dead for their entire conscious life. Sooner or later, there has to be a convergence of the cultural meta-narrative and the political-economic reality. Otherwise, no matter who we are, no matter where we live, we all lose in a zero sum game, over and over again. 

A Dark Cloud

The End of the Golden Gate is not all — or even mostly — recycled tropes and doomsaying. Its 25 essays are filled with emotional, sincere thoughts on San Francisco. The collection’s depictions of the city and its people often are beautiful, and its anecdotes illuminating.  

Poet Kimberly Reyes writes about what it’s like to be a Black woman in San Francisco, where nearly every other Black person she sees works a low-paying service job. No matter her own success, she’s still followed around and glared at in stores. 

Elizabeth Khuri Chandler tells the story of how she and her husband parlayed their love of books into a startup called Goodreads. Soon enough, however, the business became so successful that it sucked the joy out of their endeavor. 

The late Sarah Coglianese describes her struggle with ALS, and how it completely changed her mental geography of the city. The stairwells in so many Victorian flats suddenly became insurmountable obstacles. Taking a walk with her daughter in the quiet West Side neighborhood where she ended up became a Herculean accomplishment.   

‘The End of the Golden Gates’ contains a variety of perspectives, but its overriding mood is sorrow. (Chronicle Books)

Actor Peter Coyote speaks of the Summer of Love, teacher Terry Ashkinos stage dives into the gritty garage band culture of the mid ’90s, and superstar comedians Margaret Cho and W. Kamau Bell unspool tales from their San Francisco days. Cho’s piece is particularly powerful, with its loving portrait of her friend, Gerri, AKA “The Mayor of Haight Street.” It reminded me of the sepia-toned, matter-of-fact memories Rachel Kushner relays of her rough youth as a Tenderloin bartender in her recent memoir, The Hard Crowd.

But unlike Kushner, Cho historicizes, and eventually, passes judgement. “The city of San Francisco — the haven of freaks and weirdos and fog and frenzy — is missing,” Cho writes toward the end of her piece. “Its spirit has flown and gone out of business.” 

There’s a move like this in a good half of the pieces in The End of the Golden Gate — from a thoughtful, carefully rendered scene, to a glib summary of “what became of the city.” Paradise was found and then it was lost.

This overriding mood, or central thesis, distracts from the collection’s variety. It’s a dark cloud casting its shadow over the entire work, dimming its moments of beauty and insight. In the life and politics of the city, too, these narratives obscure San Francisco’s complex history and all-too-real problems. 

‘Colorless and Shallow’ 

Even within The End of the Golden Gate, there is some debate as to when, exactly, San Francisco ended. 

“San Francisco in 2009 still felt hospitable to people who didn’t work in tech,” writes Jamie Wong, founder of the startup Vayable. “Here in the city, life still felt colorful, distinctive.” 

By that time, San Francisco already had been through the first tech boom, which put a financial squeeze on artists and sent rents soaring. “As the dot-coms rolled in… some of my poor writer friends became digital marketers and content providers,” writes Grant Faulkner, who moved to the city in 1987 as a young, broke writer. “Others left for places like Portland, L.A. and Austin, places they thought would provide an easier, more creative life. The rest were pushed out.” 

But even before Pets.com or the browser wars, there was Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s redevelopment of SoMa in the 1980s, which created SFMOMA and the Moscone Center by “extruding the actual artists and culture makers out of the city like toothpaste from a spent tube,” Coyote writes. Combined with the construction of BART through the Mission a decade earlier, these changes “would scour away the original population, and along with it, the fresh and inspirational culture that made it unique.” 

Gentrification and housing affordability were major issues throughout these years, growing progressively worse over time.

Of course, most of the writers here are responding to the sleek corporate buses and obnoxious Patagucci-clad bros that rolled into San Francisco in the wake of Web 2.0. These are the people who presumably arrived after the writers in this collection, and whom it is apparently acceptable to treat with a certain brand of urban nativism. “When I moved to San Francisco in 2002… Whether you were a refugee from Latin America or Middle America, this city opened its golden gates and said, ‘Welcome home,’” writes comic and Examiner columnist “Broke-Ass” Stuart Schuffman. Yet just a few paragraphs prior, he celebrates all the people who decided to “scurry back to Ohio or Wisconsin” during the pandemic. 

Writer Alia Volz, a San Francisco native whose parents ran a “high-volume cannabis bakery” in the ’80s, puts it more explicitly: “I still see newcomers as an invading force — here to colonize, pillage, vanquish.” 

Some of us have become Golden Gatekeepers. (Matt Petty)

These are personal essays, filled with and informed by personal truths. And there’s no denying that a lot of creative people have felt completely alienated by the tech industry’s impact on the city’s culture. Tech’s explosive growth over the past decade has undoubtedly changed the texture of San Francisco, and turbo-charged the ongoing displacement of artists and the working class. The high cost of housing has, in turn, made everything else more expensive, making it difficult for cheap artistic spaces like dive bars and cafes to survive. 

But the sweeping generalizations these writers use to deride newcomers, or the “colorless and shallow” state of the city, in Ashkinos’ words, ring hollow. And so do the throwaway lines they reserve for what actually happened politically or economically that caused all of this despair. See Schuffman: “Mayor Ed Lee gave substantial tax breaks to a number of big-tech companies to keep them in the city, and this set off an avalanche of fuckery.” 

Even the many writers who acknowledge their own complicity in gentrification — or the few who specifically call out the absurdity of our urban nativism — fail to ask the why. Why do people become “part of the problem” for choosing to live in a certain city or neighborhood? Why are writers and techies and truly poor people forced to fight one another for scraps in this housing market? Why do people only feel secure here if they can keep others out? 

Almost Getting It

A couple of old-timers and history buffs try to add some nuance to the discussion, but there’s still so much missing. 

Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, contributes a lovely meditation comparing his relationship to a changing San Francisco with his relationship to his wife, Lisa Brown. And erstwhile Chronicle reporter Fayette Hauser offers a similarly charming tale of the many lives of a single Victorian mansion in the Western Addition. 

Then there’s the introduction and an additional essay by Gary Kamiya, the Chronicle’s “Portals of the Past” columnist. As someone who has spent a goodly amount of time in historical archives, Kamiya admits he has developed “a healthy horror of becoming a grumpy old man,” and knows that his “imaginary San Francisco never actually existed.” 

Just as San Francisco has long struggled with high rents and displacement, so, too, has it always dealt with “fuckery” — to borrow from Schuffman — on the part of well-heeled newcomers. “The master-of-the-universe stockbrokers and bankers who made Union Street their citadel in the go-go ’80s were more nauseating than the most cluelessly entitled tech bro,” Kamiya recalls.  

Political writer Ginna Green also taps into this longer historical arc. For her, a Black woman from the South, the tech takeover of the past decade is perfectly consistent with her pop-culture image of San Francisco, starting with the beats and the hippies. “San Francisco continued to look like the city I thought it already was… full of self-assured white people who possessed the righteous confidence that comes with believing you’re on the forefront of progress.” 

In fact, the tech industry and its culture are in so many ways a homegrown piece of San Franciscana. But you won’t find anything in this collection that acknowledges tech’s roots in the 1960s counter-culture, like Theodore Roszak’s From Satori to Silicon Valley. Or how Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog helped spawn the Homebrew Computer Club — which counted Steve Jobs and Steve Woszniak as members — and the Whole Earth ’Lectric Link (WELL), arguably the first-ever social media platform. 

John Law is the only writer in the collection to hint at this genealogy. As a leader of the San Francisco Cacophony Society — which helped spawn Burning Man, SantaCon and Fight Club — Law has made peace with the fact that the scenes of one’s youth will inevitably be transmogrified with time… and popularity. “Each generation claims sole connection to the real San Francisco,” he writes. “They never realize, while in the blush of new love, that San Francisco is a place you fall in love with, not a place that falls in love with you.” 

As someone who arrived in San Francisco in 1976, and was immediately informed by an old drunk that he had “missed the party,” Law has some choice words for thinking about the past and future of the city: “Is the thrill gone? Absolutely, for any who join in a death embrace with their own history, grotesquely French-kissing their past accomplishments, staring blank-eyed into the limp pool of remembrance at their own once-crisp and lovely visages.”

In remembering one’s own good old days, it also behooves writers to consider those for whom times weren’t so good. Remarkably little thought is given in this collection to the communities that were displaced to make way for the counter-culture types of the ’60s and ’70s, or the literary types of the ’90s and ’00s. Alicia Abbott provides a harrowing account of her father’s narrowly-averted eviction while he was dying of AIDS, but beyond that, there’s no mention of people forced into truly precarious and hellish circumstances by the city’s high housing costs. 

One of the book’s omissions is, in a way, a merciful one: There’s no angry rhetoric about homelessness or the “cleanliness” of the streets. And yet, in a book full of complaints about San Francisco, and reasons people choose to leave, it seems a bit naive that none of these progressive writers touched this thorny issue. If you ask regular people, not writers and artists, what the biggest problem in the Bay Area is, they won’t say tech bros, they’ll say homelessness. Whether they’re coming from a place of compassion or a place of selfishness and fear is another matter. Either way, our region’s sprawling 21st century Hoovervilles remain the most vivid and tragic symptom of the broader housing crisis.  

Further Reading 

Reading The End of the Golden Gate, I frequently thought of Golden Gates by New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty, a comprehensive account of America’s housing crisis, with a spotlight on San Francisco. (Apparently, there are strict regulations governing the titles of books about the City by the Bay.) Golden Gates goes way back to the origins of the housing crisis, explaining how zoning was used to enforce de-facto racial segregation and prevent moderate-income people from moving into many neighborhoods; how environmentalist principles got misaplied to cities, treating the urban landscape like an old growth forest not to be disturbed; and how California’s tax codes and municipal governments structurally disincentive new housing. 

Adding to these long-term problems, over the past decade, a new generation of tech companies and tech workers sought to plant their flags in a handful of “superstar cities,” rather than beige, suburban office parks, creating new battle lines in the struggle for already scarce housing in San Francisco. Small-time landlords, giant private equity firms, and a whole lot of regular homeowners then did what they do best: buy low, sell (or rent) high. These massive forces bore down on everybody in the Bay Area, but especially low-income families living in overcrowded apartments with predatory landlords — including one family profiled in the book. 

Dougherty’s book doesn’t contain much color about San Francisco’s arts and literary scenes, but it does reveal in great detail the policy choices and economic forces that enabled those scenes to thrive, and then hastened their demise. Golden Gates is the story behind The End of the Golden Gate, providing the why that the writers in this collection seem so incurious about.

Of course, not everyone can be expected to get excited about zoning and Prop 13. But totally ignoring these root causes leaves only fatalism and fantasy. Schuffman, for instance, argues that the ruination of San Francisco will be stanched by the tech exodus from the city. “It finally looks like much of what caused this is fleeing like locusts after a feeding frenzy,” he writes.  

There might be noticeably fewer Patagonia guys in SoMa, but somehow home prices in San Francisco have continued to rise this year. And while rents dropped significantly and are only just beginning to creep back up, they’re still the highest in the nation.

What “caused this” is very much still here. In fact, it’s everywhere. Take a look at the trajectory of home values in Oakland, Sacramento, Fresno, or Boise. You’re part of the problem if you live in San Francisco, or if you leave. 

Meanwhile, the bars and venues and small businesses that have historically fostered the city’s creative scenes, and which are showered with love in this collection, are most certainly not rooting for more people to move away. They’re desperate for anyone — tech bro or no — to walk through their doors. 

There can be room for everyone in San Francisco — if we stop being so precious and backwards-looking. (Unsplash/mana5280)

I hope people still feel like coming out. I hope all of the doomsaying in our civic discourse doesn’t add an extra psychological impediment, in addition to the already daunting financial ones, for people who want to move here, or settle down for the long haul. I’ve met way too many people who are self-conscious wrecks about where they live or work. I’ve been granted way too much moral authority for having the good fortune of being born here.

I feel for rising stars like La Doña, Andrew St. James, and Stunnaman02, who are doing amazing things here in San Francisco against all odds; for the writers, activists, skaters, chefs, and drag queens in the city who are undeniably at the forefront of their fields. Where do they fit into The End of the Golden Gate? Do they simply not exist? Or do they suck by association, coming up in a city that has been, according to Coyote, “face-lifted, sleeked, chromed, polished, colonized, homogenized, and marginalized as a cultural innovative force?” 

It doesn’t have to be like this. There can be room for everybody. Other cities aren’t so precious and backwards-looking. And it will be those cities that will attract the dynamic, grungy, sexy arts scenes that everyone in San Francisco claims to want — that is, until someone proposes opening a new venue or building a new apartment building. 

In the midst of the recent Honey Bear controversy that hit on some of the same tired themes described above, San Francisco-based venture capitalist cum Substack provocateur Mike Solana penned a dispatch from Miami entitled “Misery and Joy.” “While San Francisco is a city that likes to talk about the virtue of art, Miami is a city where artists can afford to live,” he writes, noting, “there are cranes in every corner of Miami, and there are almost none in San Francisco.”

There are a lot of objectionable and unnecessarily cruel jabs in Solana’s piece, but the picture he paints couldn’t be a starker contrast from the mood of The End of the Golden Gate:

“Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, a loud, colorful Bizarro World version of San Francisco flexed in its bedazzled thong, third drink in hand beneath a canopy of paints and palms and rainbow fabrics. When the sun set, a Ferrari grumbled, and high-rise neon burned across a Pink Moon sky. There was the unmistakable sound of easy, casual laughter. It was Miami Tech Week. People were happy. This was allowed.”

It sounds, in style if not in substance, a lot like Coyote’s prime directive of the Summer of Love: “It seemed, for a pretty happy while, that everybody was saying ‘yes’ to nearly everything.”

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