Coastal Commuter

Change and loss in the city of gloss

A day prior to writing this piece, I posted a status update on Facebook about the demise of a favorite Thai restaurant in my neighborhood — a pleasant, increasingly upscale district that has become a playground for many of the carpetbagging, overpaid, and profligate technoids who have overrun San Francisco and priced longtime citizens out of the city.

The restaurant was closing its doors after decades of providing tasty, occasionally exotic, and always reasonably priced food to locals. Someone (I suspect a greedy, speculating, real-estate-flipping vampire) bought the building and is more than tripling the rent from $4,000 a month to — get ready! — $13,000 a month. Thus, bye-bye Thai. While I was having a last dinner there, the pang of loss almost overwhelmed the satisfaction provided by the flavors. Then again, in a city where a gallon of water can cost $2, a cup of cold-brewed coffee sells for $5, and the new molecular gastronomy joint up the block charges $23 for a plate of chanterelle mushrooms mixed with corn and potatoes creamed in carrot juice, should I really be surprised?

Responses to my Facebook posting were numerous and impassioned. One native San Franciscan now living in Oregon called the situation heartbreaking. Another expat who relocated to Los Angeles mourned the loss of the Thai joint, saying how amazing the food was and pointing out that she had watched the owner’s kids grow up over the years. She also recalled seeing a crew of drunk, belligerent over-age frat boys with the whiff of Google about them as they joyfully ripped newly planted trees out of a sidewalk near the Thai restaurant that was.

One commenter from Santa Monica asserted that it will all fall apart at some point, though not before more damage is done to the Bay Area. The same person said that San Francisco is making L.A. look good, adding that the same thing is happening there; but with more land and less tech business, it’s not as wild, wrenching, and widespread. Finally, a San Francisco loyalist with obvious survival skills chimed in: “Hooray for rent control and home cooking!”

Sure, there’s some affordable housing for those who are grandfathered in, and you can dine in your kitchen instead of going to the gourmet sandwich shop. Still, the working class and the middle class are now the collective underclass in San Francisco. As for the artists, they’re simply disappearing.

I can’t stop myself. When triggered, I will go on about how San Francisco is less friendly to artists of all stripes than it used to be. We used to hear about the city as the ideal place to “woodshed” one’s craft before taking it to L.A. or New York. Now, even a woodshed in the Bay Area will cost you the arm you paint with and the leg you dance upon.

It’s easy and fair to blame skyrocketing rents and ancillary costs for the dwindling number of artists living within the city limits. An apartment is necessary, and a studio space is to be prized, but cheap real estate and San Francisco now seem to be mutually exclusive concepts — other than by virtue of rent control.

The serious diaspora actually began in the 1990s. A hearty gang of underground types had moved into South of Market warehouse spaces in the late 1970s and 1980s, but renovation and gentrification drove a lot of them to more hospitable environs across the Bay in Emeryville and Oakland. In the 21st century, those places are becoming prohibitively expensive, too. Hipness costs.

Compared to the compact hills and dales of San Francisco, the massive urban sprawl of Los Angeles is much more conducive to those seeking to sharpen their artistic talents on a shoestring. Space is obviously more plentiful, and rents are more down-to-earth, especially when you factor in Encino and points east in the San Fernando Valley. Plus, there are more entertainment gigs, production companies, theaters, clubs, and galleries, and probably more patrons and collectors with disposable income (although many Silicon people in the NorCal region have money to burn). In short, you can still find a place to live in L.A. — not to mention a bite to eat — that won’t bankrupt an artist, and more potential for work.

In the wake of the Facebook update about the restaurant and the changing city, one of my San Francisco-to-Los Angeles buddies messaged me that the Southland was ready to welcome me back — and that Hollywood’s Thai Town eateries weren’t going anywhere. I’m always glad to head to L.A., where friends and jobs and playtime abound, and I follow my beloved Giants on the laptop or at a sports bar. And I’ll be excited to return north by the start of football season when the 49ers play at their fancy-schmancy state-of-the-art stadium in Santa Clara for the first time. That would be Levi’s Stadium, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, where the price of a season ticket is roughly the GNP of a Third World country and many an old-time 49er Faithful has been priced out of the picture. Sound familiar?

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Michael Snyder is a journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at GABroadcaster.com and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.