The shape-shifting city

The evolving face of San Francisco brings home one message: It’s always changing
When San Francisco police shut down street chess games, critics complained that the city was cleaning up its image to appeal to the newest generation of wealthier, whiter residents (photo: Yair Haklai)

This is the second of a four-part series (Part 4, Part 3)

If you are one of San Francisco’s 837,000 residents these days, you are probably white or Asian, earning about $46,000 (or $72,000 for your entire household), and identify as (or at least vote for) a Democrat. In 1970, you would have been white or African-American (Asians back then were only about a third of the population segment they are today) — and already probably voting Democratic.

It is harder to accurately predict the future than it is to sift through data from the past, but there are some forecasts being made about the Bay Area as a whole in the next few decades. For example, a report from One Bay Area (onebayarea.org) predicts that white residents of the Bay Area will decrease from 45 percent in 2010 to less than one-third in 2040. In that same time, Latinos will increase from 23 to 35 percent, and Asians will increase slightly from 21 to 24 percent. Other racial categories are not expected to change significantly during that time.

And yes, there’s a good chance they’ll still vote Democratic.

As San Franciscans watch their bustling city grow, as they argue about what should be done to deter or prepare for more people, they are also expressing interest in how the newcomers will change the world-famous face of the city. They are not the first generation to notice the change.

District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell has a lifelong perspective on the changing face of San Francisco in general and in particular where he grew up, the Marina. But when he returned to the neighborhood in the 1990s after being away, he found a different vibe on Chestnut Street.

“I remember coming back my first summer in college, taking a ride down Chestnut Street, and wondering what had happened to the neighborhood I had grown up in,” he recalled. “A lot of the storefronts were the same, but the people were a lot younger and wearing college sweatshirts, compared to my memories of growing up, being one of but a few children I knew of in the Marina, [where I saw] a much older generation. From my experience, the demographics there really changed.

“I think from that time the Marina has maintained a grouping of very young individuals that continued to stay in the Marina and move in and raise children,” said Farrell. “You’re starting to see an evolution of different generations in the Marina District, which I think is healthy and great, but it certainly is very, very different from when I grew up in the Marina.”

In late April, the political news website Truthout (truth-out.org) expressed the worries of many on the left that the changing population of San Francisco is resulting in a whiter, more conservative, and meaner town. Headlined “The Bleaching of San Francisco: Extreme Gentrification and Suburbanized Poverty in the Bay Area,” the article contrasts struggling minority groups in the city with “the booming tech industry, whose workers’ average salaries are over $100,000.” The city is lambasted for allegedly criminalizing the behavior of minorities and the poor, incarcerating or driving them out of the city so their apartments can be filled with richer, whiter people.

But the worries aren’t only heard from the city’s large and vocal left wing. In late May, Newsweek ran an article titled “Tech Boom Forces a Ruthless Gentrification in San Francisco,” which discussed the experiences of people — especially Baby Boomers who came here in the 1960s and 1970s and influenced the last few decades of the city’s social and political development — who feel they are being pushed out of this city.

Almost everybody agrees that this is a significant moment in the city’s evolution; though people don’t all agree on whether the changes are good or bad or a muddle, there are some incontrovertible facts. The changes will keep coming.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents District 8 (stretching from Corona Heights to Diamond Heights to Eureka Valley) moved from the East Coast to San Francisco in 1997; currently a resident of the Castro, he has become a keen advocate for dealing with the changes needed to accommodate a burgeoning population. “I live in the Castro. I’ve noticed there are more people in the city,” he told the Marina Times. “There’s more traffic; Muni is more crowded. I’ve also noticed — especially in [recent] years — there are a lot more young people in the city, which I find to be a good thing. It seems like, in my district or elsewhere, just a lot more people in their 20s and 30s here trying to make a life for themselves. That’s a good and very healthy thing. To be a living city, you need young people and young families coming here, a fresh infusion of blood into the city.”

Venture capitalist and San Francisco resident Tom Perkins got himself into trouble earlier this year after an outrageously argued defense of the rich against criticism from the left. But in an appearance at The Commonwealth Club in February, Perkins pivoted from that controversy to other issues of growth, economics, and dislocation in San Francisco, saying the city is becoming a bedroom community for the Valley. “The people in Silicon Valley are living in San Francisco more and more. This is a trend that will continue,” he said. “And why not? It’s a great city — has wonderful restaurants, great culture, a beautiful bay, and everything. But the economic effect of that has been to drive up rents about 30 percent. I don’t think there’s much you can do about that. That’s inevitable. As Silicon Valley thrives, which it is, more and more people will want to live in San Francisco.”

According to U.S. Government census data, San Francisco’s population in 2010 was just slightly more male (50.7 percent) than female (49.3 percent); 73 percent of the population was aged 18 to 64 years, and the next largest age cohort was 65 years and over (13.6 percent). Depending on the source, exact figures can change a bit. But in 2010, median household income was $71,304 according to the Census, while the per capita income was $45,478. An estimated 11.9 percent of San Francisco’s population (or 92,600 people) were categorized as being in poverty. Just slightly more than 50 percent of the population had an undergraduate or graduate degree from college.

Who are the new residents? The booming city by the bay is attractive to lots of people, not just technology industry employees, but tech workers are not an accidental target of the anti-gentrification crowd. They are a tempting target because there are, in fact, a lot of them, and they often fit the model description: young(ish), well-paid, often new to the Bay Area, hard working, eager to build a career, and more likely to lean libertarian (socially liberal, economically conservative) than Baby Boomers.

One Bay Area also expects San Francisco’s population to grow from 2010’s 805,235 (it’s estimated to be 837,000 today) to 1,085,641 by 2040. So further change is on the docket. San Franciscans are an outspoken and opinionated bunch, so they will continue to discuss, worry, plan, and expect various changes to be wrought in this old city as a result of its continued population growth and national success. Wiener is optimistic.

“We don’t get to decide who moves here. As much as all of us would love to decide exactly who lives in our city, people make their own decisions [about] where they live,” he said. “San Francisco has always been a changing city, where new waves of people come here, whether it was the Irish and the Swedes back in the day, or Latinos moving into the Mission, or Chinese immigrating here, or hippies and gay people. Whoever it might be, people come here. It’s the best city in the world, and people come here to make lives for themselves. When new people come, it does mean change.

“But with all the change that’s happened in this city for 150 years, there are still basic core values that haven’t changed in this city,” Wiener continued. “In terms of respect for the individual, in terms of having innovative, creative, quirky people who make this city great. There are a lot of common themes that transcend all of the population changes we’ve seen. There’s something magical about San Francisco that attracts a unique kind of person to our city. I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Next issue: In Part 3, a more-crowded San Francisco deals with housing and transportation shortfalls.

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