Seasons don’t happen here, and without seasonal punctuation, there’s no separation of time. The last seven years passed as one big moment. Every day the same steady beat of morning fogs burning away into afternoon radiance which then drops like a bowling ball—always jarring—into damp, frigid evening. Every day the same. The beat goes on.
Ambitious kids come here for some high-caliber version of American career freedom. Or more simply, money, with some crunchy lifestyle attachments, occasionally wrapped in the guise of a "mission." The savvy ones understand that TECH is not just the next wrung of global capitalism, it's the rest of the ladder, and whether or not that’s a "good" thing is besides the point. It is the inevitable thing. To not be in it is to risk being left behind, a fool shaking their fist at a train they willfully missed because it looked too strange, brutal, mathematical.
But this weather, turns out, does make a difference. Beauty lowers the blood pressure. The mediterranean climate lubricates "the stressful day"—like, how dare you, in the face of all this breezy Victorian sunshine, have a negative thought. A doodle sits on every corner with its eyes saying "I love you" to everyone and everything. These hills, parks, and houses have a lush haunt about them that doesn’t feel like anywhere else in America besides maybe New Orleans on a balmy day.
Everyone’s in shape here physically and mentally—slick, svelte millennials who have the outdoorsy zest of Denver, the braininess of Cambridge, the ambition of Manhattan. Their smiles come easy in public parks—the shared backyard for every citizen—our social respiratory system and patron of civic life. There’s still an enlightened, non-judgmental view of psychedelics here (if you hang in such circles), with those Burner vibes of "don’t harsh my buzz and I won’t harsh yours." This zen-casual cool bleeds into the comfort-first style choices. What’s more California than "athleisure"?
SF is so spiritually wholesome, with a warm-bath calm that feels utopian. Utopia, sharing in Thomas More’s original definition of "nowhere," non-existent, unreal.
Walking past the hip boutiques along the Divisadero sidewalk on another crystal-cool day I see a man walking in tight circles, staring into middle-distance, his face empty, mouth ajar, lightly groaning. His clothes don't scream "homeless," but anyone can see he walks a cracked reality. Like a broken pixel, not all “there”... but not "out of place" either. Not even something you’d feel the need to tell your friends about. Just a scene as rote in the fabric of San Francisco as walking through a boulevard of palm trees, serenely stepping over dry poop on the sidewalk.
There’s something Pleasantville in these pastel streets, flowing with tech-buses dropping off grown kids in their wool runners. The city’s unaffordability and techie gravity has become a sieve which culls out anyone who didn’t take the same sensible AP classes in high school. But more than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of your classic "hustle-and-bustle" big-city friction here. The only bar fight I saw in seven years was a scuffle between two punk lesbians at the "biker bar" Zeitgeist. Sure, I’ve had a pair of shoes thrown at me in the Tenderloin, and multiple girls I know have been spat on by homeless folks, but toe-to-toe fights between social equals are vanishingly rare.
The truth is that between the Marina’s country-club calm and the Tenderloin’s shit-on-your-hands crazy—there’s no middle ground. The degrees of yuppie fashion have only the slightest differences—between fixie bikes, Lululemon, and puffy vests—a narcissism of small differences that any outsider would fail to see. Engineers, recruiters, designers, sales bros—we all have the same haircuts, the same gym memberships, the same unused meditation apps on our phones.
The Victorian architecture’s high-vaulted ceilings and pastel pinks imply lofty ideals, but the walking-around spaces are narrow, cramped, and prohibitively priced per-square foot. Every bar is a hallway, and they never have live music because the musicians were priced out a long time ago.
Smart people do live here. Very smart, motivated, curious people. Internationally-credentialled people. People who you’ve never heard of that are in fact doing very interesting, impressive things. Biotech. Artificial intelligence. Non-profit moonshots. The best versions of these initiatives call the Bay Area home. People talk about intellectually interesting things. They have too, right? There’s too much brainpower for those interesting conversations not to be happening.
And yet? Sit in a coffee shop for a day and you’ll overhear the same words of "equity" and "Series B" and "frameworks" over and over again. It’s not that I’m criticizing the jargon of startups. The tech world, like any worthwhile subculture, needs a common language. What’s worrisome is that these words are starting to feel emptier, or rather, they no longer feel like something emergent, urgent, or vital.
There’s still "kind vibes" here. Still grinning hippies, daredevil skaters, and long-haired chillers. Sexual fluidity. Spiritual experimentation. Entrepreneurial chutzpah. These things all share in the spirit of this place, that defining feature of "open-mindedness." More than anywhere in the world, which means healthy divergence and newness and contrarianism, but without some type of bite (dragon energy?) it becomes a place where "weirdos" can be "weird" in a space that’s safe for all stripes as long as they fit neatly in that classic saturated rainbow. Maybe it’s because we don’t have as vibrant of entertainment or media sectors as other "elite" cities, that we miss out on that certain sexy-hustler-life-of-the-party type.
If cities are defined by their douchebags, then the SF tech bro is a meek beast. Unlike New York or LA, there’s not as much social punishment for being "uncool"—which, in the right context can actually be cool (Less ego, less shame, less who-do-you-know?)—but also this type of play-nice-with-everybody culture can lead to something edgeless, with the rounded corners of an Apple OS—simple, efficient, safe. You’ll find plenty of that classic SF smugness but not much bite. Judgement without predation. A soy social diet.
We are at the furthest edge of Western Civilization’s runaway from home, the last crust of the American dream, “where we run out of land." Looking out over the Pacific, somewhere behind the horizon those big red nations stare back at us with hungry eyes. There is mixing along this front: we pay our sickening rent check to one of countless Chinese moguls that own the city’s land, and when one of our rooms went vacant, nearly half of the applicants were single Indian males who worked in tech. And perhaps that’s the most telling form of diversity we’re seeing on these western shores—ambitious, code-literate diaspora from China, India, and Europe, all gathering at the roots of FAANG in search of the last patches of American fertility.
Nerdy white guys with fit Asian girls. Nerdy white girls with stylish Indian men. Their children will rule the algorithms that rule the world.
When Trump got elected in 2016, I saw strangers weep openly on the morning bus. Performative if not for its earnestness. Like any city of bicoastal elites, it was like someone changed the playlist at the party. Or maybe it was just our reaction to the music that changed. The chill-wave became less "chill" and more insipid, it’s nostalgic contact-high no longer vibing with the world’s newfound ugly. We had a meeting at our 30-person design studio and "talked" about it. The words detachment, astonishment, disappointment came up in various forms. San Francisco always talks about bubbles, but it’s still shocking when one of your bubbles pops, and, like an eardrum clearing, the harsh moan of the plane's descent comes rushing in.
So where does this city go from here? Where the clash of hyper-capitalism and political leftism has produced monocultural stagnation.
I really don't know. I took my yuppie-ass to Truckee.
"Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours. or to the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx."
Banner image: Unknown
Second Image: taken from this incredible, award-winning piece from the Chronicle
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