How San Francisco Went From Bohemian Enclave to Home of the Uber-Rich

Andrew Lam


From our content partner New America Media:


I recently said goodbye to another friend who left San Francisco for greener pastures. Joanne and I have been friends for many years and it was sad to see her go. But like many of my friends who love the city, the bay with its beautiful hills and blue sky, she felt it had somehow betrayed her.


Once home to bohemians, artists and poets, San Francisco has become a city for the mega-rich and up-and-coming high-tech workers. The tension between the haves and have-nots, in fact, is rising fast where those with extraordinary wealth are buying up real estate in droves and leaving those in the middle class floundering.


“I’d love to stay if I can afford something,” Joanne said. “But if you want to raise a family, you have to go elsewhere.”


Besides, where can she find a house with a backyard garden in San Francisco on her middle class income?


According to a new study by the real estate website, Trulia, San Francisco ranks second in the nation among cities with the highest income gap. And, my hometown also tops the list of cities with the most expensive price for homes per square feet. Business Insider reports that a million dollars will buy about a 1,500-sq-foot home in San Francisco. That amount in Boston, which ranked second, would fetch a 2,092-sq-foot home.


This has become a common complaint. San Francisco -- indeed, the whole Bay Area -- is now facing an enormous dilemma: the economy is booming once again after a long recession, but there's no affordable space left.


A small, 700-sq-foot, one-bedroom apartment in downtown with a view is now renting for nearly $4000. People are renting out their walk-in closets for over $1,000 a month. San Francisco, in fact, has become the city with the highest rent in the United States this year.


An economist-friend of mine, citing a news story, once remarked that if you’re making $75,000 a year, you’re barely middle class in San Francisco.


A woman moved here from Tokyo. She told me at a party that she found the cost of living in San Francisco to be just like another Tokyo. She lives in a tiny studio and pays almost $2000 a month for it.


In my previous apartment building on Nob Hill, the landlord fixed up the basement storage room and rented it to a family -- three people living where a dozen bicycles were once kept.


San Francisco also outranks the rest of the nation in rental increases, about three times higher as of December of 2013.


A website called Liquid Space now offers online booking of office space by the hour or by the day.


There’s also a trend in micro-apartments. A recent 279-sq-foot space was rented out for $1,850 a month in the Mid-Market area. The dining table turns into a bed, and the young high-tech worker sees her place more or less as a hotel room. It makes sense. If one spends most of one’s waking hours online, what’s the big deal about a small space. San Francisco, besides, offers a wide variety of eateries and bars to choose from.



Minimalism, in a sense, is beginning to take roots in the United States and in San Francisco, and becoming the norm. More luxury condos within the 450-sq-foot range are being built, and in San Francisco, the Japanese minimalist style has become the dominant style -- the bonsai the precursor to the microchip, as it were. Bigger was once better, but what's chic and ultra-modern today - what's green and affordable - is smaller and streamlined.


After all, the laptop takes no space at all, the iPod is the size of one's credit card, the stereo system that once occupied a generous portion of a living room now is so flat and ridiculously thin that you can hardly see it behind the rhododendrons. The television that once took up too much space on top of the sideboard now hangs on the wall like a mirror.


Thus to live in the San Francisco Bay Area today, one must learn to give up the dream of home ownership, the idea of open space and the yard. One learns to live comfortably in very small space.


There's a price to pay for being in the center of the information age, after all. Despite gridlocked freeways, longer commute times, greater air pollution, loss of open space, and, of course, urban sprawl and overcrowding, the young and hopeful continue to flock here.


But is it worth it? One dot-com millionaire in his early-30s told me he is no longer sure. He owns a nice flat, has stock options, but he waits in line at his favorite restaurant like everyone else, since everyone else is a millionaire too.


As a writer, my hold on the city is sheer luck: I bought a condo during the recession and managed to stay. But I miss all the graffiti artists, musicians, friends who have left for some place where they can afford studio space to paint or perform. I miss, too, the poor working-class families who, as if overnight, disappeared to wherever affordable housing can still be had.


I miss, that is to say, the old San Francisco. When I came here over three decades ago, it was a generous city, diverse not only in terms of race, but also of class.


In the mid-19th century, during the Gold Rush, San Francisco was known as "Old Gold Mountain" in East Asia. The myth of a city by the bay filled with gold lured thousands of Chinese, and the rest of the world, to California.


In the 21st century, I wonder whether the old story hasn't become prophetic, considering the climbing real estate prices and an army of young people hoping to strike it rich working for high-tech companies with stock options.


These days, it belongs to the highest bidders and the dogged homeless who, as if taking revenge, crowd the sidewalks in every neighborhood, fighting over real space.


“The sidewalk,” said one of homeless as he discussed rental prices with another, “well, it’s still free.”


Author Bio:

Andrew Lam is editor at New America Media and the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees on America's West Coast, which won the Pen/Josephine Miles Literary award. 

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Wikipedia Commons; Ken Lund (Flickr)
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