Musings on San Francisco and the Bay Area. Conclusion: Buy Oakland.

Sent this out as a casual e-mail a week ago.  Thought I’d post here.  Seems in line with the Zeitgeist.  Saw a pretty good NYTimes article on Oakland a few days later (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/25/business/another-city-by-the-bay-comes-into-its-own.html?_r=0).   On the personal front – finished (another) move into (another) temporary apartment.  Now a race to see if we can get the front house done before this lease runs out.  Always a drama.

***San Francisco is a weird place to behold.  Especially as a former New Yorker.  Currently living in Berkeley.  Who basically avoids SF.  And spends most of his “urban” time in Oakland.  And does most of that travel by bus (mostly for the free entertainment I will admit).

As I think of it, SF is the ultimate expression of our current plutocratic age.  Lots of really rich people living IN a place, but not OF it.  It is “authentically” gritty and urban.  And they pay top dollar for that “””authenticity”””  (“authentic” is probably the word of our era if expressed with triple air quotes).  But all those “authentic” people (including the homeless but especially the non-white working class types) are viewed mostly as Disney-style cast members.  They aren’t actual fellow citizens.  Just a theatrical backdrop and clean-up staff for a self-referential few.  This can be said of any city.  And I will freely confess to having been one of those self-referential few in a past life.  But it feels more extreme and artificial in SF.  Some related thoughts.

  • SF will just NOT give up on low density housing.
    • In New York, you trade sky-high rents for this incredible high of literally millions of people buzzing like a hive of bees.  Everything is in motion everywhere all the time.
    • In SF, it is possible to drive (and you often HAVE to drive) for block after block and not see a single retail store.  No-one on the streets.  Just block after block of slightly soggy row houses.  And for this they pay millions?  Its weird.
  • Public transit sucks. But it is a jarring contrast to the self-professed “urban” and “eco” ethos of the city’s wealthy.  Rich people in New York take the subway because it is just plain faster than trying to take a car.  Rich people in SF take Uber…
    • The buses crawl and the routes are clearly still in the the “only maids take the bus” era.
    • There is no real subway.  The BART is more of glorified regional rail system.  This works to my advantage, as I can often get to the hip parts of town faster from Berkeley than my friends can from outer regions like Richmond and Ocean Beach.
  • There is remarkably little “there” there.  The geography (hills) and bias against first floor retail create vast stretches of 1-4 story residential housing – punctuated by occasional shopping/commercial districts.  The commercial districts are quaint and cute and all, but they are patched together like small New England towns – separated by tiny physical distances but miles apart socially.
  • The one “dense” exception is the downtown.  But it is largely left to expense-account restaurants, high-end shopping, and a huge number of homeless people.  The homeless are partly a result of the bad luck of decent weather and a tolerant community.  But it has an underlying feel of a city still more playing at being “urban” (with all-caps air quotes) without really trying to embrace (and cope with) actual urbanism.  The homeless are accepted as part of the street furniture in a way I remember from NYC back in the early 90’s (the Dinkins era, pre Giuliani).  But there seems to be less concern about the collateral damage.

Don’t get me wrong.  The city has as lot going for it.  It will sort itself out.  But I have a feeling SF will go through a long period of resting on its laurels and (in retrospect) decline before that happens. 

  • That or we have a truly MASSIVE earthquake and they get a clean slate to rebuild.  Which may be the un-stated urban planning strategy.
  • Oakland, on the other hand, is much more the real deal.    If it were a stock, I’d buy it. OK, I wimped out and bought in the Berkeley flats, but we had our (logical) reasons.

But I am more bullish on the East Bay (especially Oakland) than the rest of the Peninsula.  Mostly because you can see greater possibility for a real, dense, vibrant urban core here.  My long term forecast for the region.

  • Silicon Valley (South Bay) is going to be the suburban version of Detriot in @ 30 years.  “Tech” becomes a normal, prosperous-but-not-exceptional industry.   Transit remains a disaster and traffic on 101 becomes a permanent standstill.  Local real estate values stagnate.  The patchwork of warring towns and municipalities are unable to coordinate.  California will have to step in a coordinate a multi-municipality bailout and combination of some sort when it all comes to an end.
  • San Francisco will continue to attract huge dollars and talent, but do very little in return in terms of heartfelt transit development or density zoning.  Eventually, it will end up (or remain) in the role of the still-needy but aging star who finds it harder and harder to get a new sucker in the door to pay the bills.  Only then will they get serious about growing up.  Or a new sucker will show up.
  • More and more of the ingredients for actual, authentic urban ferment (no air quotes) is re-assembling in Oakland/East Bay.  News reports and the evidence of my own eyes make a pretty good case for Oakland as the new “Brooklyn” (btw, tres Brooklyn is now an actual French adjective for cool?!?).
    • The robotics and “maker” community is already here.  If you believe that the future of tech lies in “maker” culture and 3d printing and all that stuff, the miles of workshops to fuel that are already over here.  Rents are cheap.  Skills are available.
    • Non-profits and creative types are moving over from SF (chased out by high rents and following their staff who’ve already re-located).
    • The cultural pioneers have also moved.  Talented young chefs looking to open their first place.  Artists.  Ad agencies.
  • IMHO – life is better on this side of the bay anyway (its about 5 degrees warmer and noticeably sunnier over here if nothing else).  It is also flat on one axis, which makes bicycling for transport a whole lot more practical.
  • The only thing missing is decent city government.  Oakland needs a Giuliani (OK, a Bloomberg would be better).  Having lived through the Dinkins era, I think the times do (eventually) demand better leadership.
  • SF and the whole Social Media thing?  Meh!  I do think its pretty much done.

Of course, this might just be me self-justifying my own decision to live here.  But I don’t think it is all that.  It’ll be a few years, but something, somewhere will end up described as tres Oakland.  

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