Growing pains: How much San Francisco is too much San Francisco?

As San Francisco’s population continues to expand, some people are worrying about the changes that are being wrought (photo: darkwind / flickr)

This is the first of a four-part series exploring the growth of San Francisco.

The downtown-bound BART train was particularly full one recent morning, when yet another group of commuters boarded at a station. Among them was a man in his early 40s, who immediately began complaining loudly about all of the “[bleeping] tech workers filling up my city.” As surrounding commuters tried to look away, one office-bound commuter began arguing with the newcomer, demanding to know what his problem was. There ensued a diatribe by the 40-something, who complained about San Francisco being ruined by new residents. There were lots of bleeps, as well as a threat to fight the man who dared to question him.

Across San Francisco, conversations in much nicer tones have been taking place for months and even years, with longtime residents wondering about the changes occurring around them in their city.

In the 1960s and 1970s, people in America’s metropolises worried about dying cities. The flight of population to suburbs was draining cities of people, money and vitality. Racial conflict, high crime rates, economic troubles, and a rising cost of living combined to make it a common worry that our cities were a thing of the past; people wanted the big lawns and wide driveways of suburbia or exurbia. And cities went through a very rough time; cities became synonymous with violent crime and high taxes; New York City even nearly went bankrupt in 1975. But in the 1990s, cities across the land underwent a revival, attracting younger residents and becoming hotbeds of economic revival. Over the decades, San Francisco’s population and fortunes have fluctuated, but looked at from a distance, the trend is nearly always upward. That is set to continue, which means that people’s concerns over their changing landscape will continue, too.

Since 2000, San Francisco’s population has grown from 776,000 to more than 837,000 — it’s highest level ever, and it’s still growing. In 1990, there were 100,000 fewer people in the city than there are today. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, projections are that the city’s population will continue to grow, reaching more than 1.08 million by 2040, a 35 percent increase from 2010’s 805,000.

To put those numbers in perspective, adding 100,000 or even 200,000 people to many big cities would not be much of a problem. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Berlin, Germany, each sprawl over hundreds of square miles; they have lots of neighborhoods that can be built up or built out on underused land. By contrast, San Francisco is the second most densely populated large city over 200,000 people in the United States, approaching 900,000 people on just over 47 square miles.

Though San Francisco’s current growth is heavily attributed to the performance of its local economy, people around the world are also facing similar questions about how their communities will change as more and more people pour into their cities. According to the World Health Organization, “Today, the number of urban residents is growing by nearly 60 million every year. The global urban population is expected to grow roughly 1.5 percent per year between 2025–2030. By the middle of the 21st century, the urban population will almost double, increasing from approximately 3.4 billion in 2009 to 6.4 billion in 2050.” Most of that growth will be in developing countries, but advanced nations will see continued growth, too.

But if you listen to the discussions over coffee (or, this being Northern California, discussions over Chardonnay), the hopes and worries expressed by city residents don’t have to do with actual numbers. They have to do with concerns about the feel of their city, the quality of life, the liveability and lovability of the Northside and San Francisco in general. We have observed: At a Muni bus stop in late April, a rider waiting for a late bus complained about how his neighborhood was being ignored as the city funneled resources to other, “more important” neighborhoods. Also, a 50-something woman who has lived here for much of the past four decades worried that even if she wasn’t priced out of her apartment, she would not be able to afford to take advantage of the restaurants, plays, and other cultural attractions that made her fall in love with the city when she first moved here from New Jersey.

A lifelong resident of San Francisco — we’ll call her Dora — was reminiscing about her neighborhood, Glen Park, and how it had changed since her parents owned the house she now lives in with her husband and two young children. Dora looked up the hill to Diamond Heights and said her parents remembered when that area was still mostly fields, with some livestock feeding on the grasses. Today, it’s a densely populated residential neighborhood only visited by non-pet animal life when an occasional coyote wanders up from Glen Canyon Park.

That is both an example of how San Francisco neighborhoods can change dramatically within one’s lifetime as well as how it might have been the last big neighborhood in the city that could be built without displacing or upsetting thousands of people.

In February, online magazine Salon produced an article (“San Francisco’s rightward turn: Why it may no longer be America’s iconic liberal city”) that pondered whether the city would become more conservative as it became younger and richer. Responses to the article reflected the worry that the culture of the city would change if artists were forced to find cheaper accommodations in Oakland. And District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener recently felt compelled to tell his followers that “It’s never been easy for musicians here, but it’s even harder now. Add to that San Francisco government’s notorious ambivalent/neglectful/negative attitude toward nightlife — so much noise! — and we have some real challenges in making sure we keep a great live music scene. We’ve been here before, and live music has survived.”

Or consider poet/painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As Marina Times columnist Ernest Beyl has been chronicling in these pages, there is a longstanding effort underway to honor the artist and City Lights co-owner with a plaza named after him. But will residents in 10 years know or care who he was? If the newcomers don’t respect his legacy, the feeling appears to be mutual. The Economist said he “complains of a ‘soulless group of people,’ a ‘new breed’ of men and women too busy with iPhones to ‘be here’ in the moment, and shiny new Mercedes-Benzs on his street.”

Said Ferlinghetti, “San Francisco is radically changing, and we don’t know where it is going to end up.”

In future articles in this series, we’ll take a closer look at specific ways the city is changing and what the changes mean to you, your business, and your life.

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John Zipperer is Marina Times' managing editor and a 10-year resident of the city. E-mail: john@marinatimes.com