The bright California sun was beating down as I carried my heavy suitcase up the steps of the quaint Bartlett Street house. I was excited. I had just touched down in San Francisco, immediately flying out the day after my graduation. I originally had no intention of moving to the west coast (it was NYC or bust), but here I was — optimistic, open minded, and ready to start a new chapter in my life…
It’s been three and a half years since arriving in San Francisco, and I am sad to announce that I am finally leaving. These years have been a period of immense growth and development for me — my early foray into the muddy trenches of adulthood. On the eve of my departure, I thought I’d share a few observations I’ve made about San Francisco, the tech scene, and life in your 20s in a 3 part series.
On San Francisco
Prior to living here, I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about the little city by the bay. Like most east coasters, I mistakenly called it “San Fran¹,” and thought I could wear t-shirts and shorts all year round because it was located in California (prospective residents — don’t make the same mistakes as me). My initial perception of SF was stuck in its 1960s iteration — the “come as you are” countercultural capital filled with weird and eccentric personalities. While the hippie side of SF still exists, I found out that the San Francisco of today is more about Allbirds and funding rounds rather than flower children and Woodstock. The tech industry has taken over the city and it’s left no prisoners.
Now don’t get me wrong — San Francisco is a great city: it’s beautiful, it’s tolerant, it’s progressive, and it incubates a wild optimism that drives people to constantly challenge the status quo (more on this later). However, as the years went on, some things really started to bother me about living in SF. As I spent more time in the city, my discontent around these things grew to the point where I realized I needed to leave. I thought I might share some of these things here.
Transience took on a new definition for me in SF. Not only do people constantly cycle in and out of the city for 2–4 years at a time, but many SF residents barely reside within the city on a week-to-week basis. It’s somewhat understandable, given how much natural beauty is located within a two hour drive, but I found it hard to form deep relationships with people who were consistently out of town every other week.
A familiar scenario would play out every time I’d want to get to know someone better: I’d meet them at a party, we’d vibe together, but wouldn’t get to see the person again until 2–4 weeks later due to work, vacation, or general flakiness². In fact, I think the chronic flakiness of the SF population is due in large part to the transient culture of the city — why invest in forming connections if the person is going to be gone in a few years anyways? These past few years definitely featured some of my loneliest stretches ever.
A Lack of Diversity
SF lacks diversity on so many levels. Professionally, everyone works in tech. Socially, everyone attended the same top schools and hail from the same tony suburbs. Ethnically, it is mostly comprised of Asians and Caucasians³. I longed to meet people who did not fit neatly into the city’s tech-yuppie paradigm. Hell, I was even excited when I met someone who worked somewhere other than the typical 5 companies⁴. If diversity is the spice of life, San Francisco is as picante as a bowl of Sunday breakfast porridge. I have always been a person who thrives off of meeting different people and learning about their unique perspectives, but SF’s tech monoculture often left me feeling enervated and alone.
Walking around SF, you are confronted with blatant socio-economic inequality almost every day. I’ll never forget my first week in the city, walking down Market Street by the Twitter HQ. I was looking for some water, and went into this luxury grocer located in a corner of the building. Think Dean & Deluca — it served everything from artisan cheeses to $5.00 yerba mate chillers. As I purchased my glacial spring mountain triple charcoal filtered water and walked outside, I saw a destitute man literally crawling along the pavement asking passers-by for help. The downtown tech workers walked on, ignoring this man’s soft cries for assistance, making an active effort to walk around him. Some even crossed to the other side of the street to avoid him. I was shocked at the scene before me — talking it all in — but this picture played out many more times in the ensuing years.
San Francisco’s Mission district is currently at the frontlines of the city’s gentrification boom and happened to be the neighborhood I chose to live in. A single block separates the Michelin rated restaurants, gourmet coffee shops, and trendy yoga studios on Valencia Street from the small hispanic grocers, payday loan shops, and decrepit dollar stores on Mission Street. Often walking through the neighborhood on the weekends, I marveled at how close the two seemingly different worlds existed side-by-side and intersected in the most peculiar ways (frequently at the local taquerias that had made it into the “best of SF” Eater.com or Thrillist.com food blogs⁵). What surprised me the most was how, despite the two different communities (white collar tech workers and blue collar hispanic immigrants) being so physically close to each other, they were miles apart culturally and socio-economically — essentially traversing the same streets but never really interacting.
I used to see a woman and her children begging for rent money in the parking lot across from my apartment. I would often think about how the monthly rent payments for my luxury condo would be able to feed her entire family for a month. I threw her a few dollars whenever I could, but after a while I stopped. I guess I became desensitized to her plight. This was something that increasingly started happening to me the longer I lived in SF. I just began to block-out all the suffering because it was too much to process on a daily basis. I ended up becoming just like the people I witnessed on that day outside the Twitter HQ — avoidant and annoyed.
It’s a strange experience living in the middle of gentrification — you simultaneously feel guilty for your invader presence and wanting to help the less fortunate around you, but pissed off at the homeless wino living in the encampment behind your building who once again decided to drunkenly pee through the crack of your apartment lobby door. I saw many people in my position respond to the gentrifier dynamic with anger — usually anger aimed at the city government about the lack of services they were providing to “those people.” As I hardened my own demeanor and became more desensitized, I realized that responding with anger is a much easier emotion to process than coming to terms with your own lack of compassion.
When it’s all said and done, I guess the fundamental source of my discontent was an inability to find a community where I felt at home. Since arriving, I’ve always felt like a fish out of water, searching for my tribe. That said, my time in SF has not been for naught, as I’ve gained greater clarity about what I am looking for in a prospective city to settle down in. I once read that “you can never tell what message a city sends till you live there,” and I leave San Francisco knowing that the west coast, norcal lifestyle just isn’t for me…
¹ The correct name is “SF,” and to residents — “The City”
² “Hey! I’d love to meet up but I’m just so tired tonight… I think I’m going to stay in.”
³ One of my closest friends (who is Black) once lamented to me that everyone in SF who looks like him is “either homeless or addicted to drugs.”
⁴ Facebook, Uber, Google, Airbnb, or Lyft
⁵ Shameless plug for my own food blog’s Mission district burrito review
On East Coast vs. West Coast culture
If you know me, you’ve probably heard me talk at length about the culture shock I experienced moving from the East Coast to the West Coast. After spending four years at Georgetown — pretty much the epitome of East Coast prep culture — I was transported to a strange land where few of the social mores I had picked up in college applied. At the end of the day, I think the biggest difference between East Coast and West Coast culture comes down to something I call the social hierarchy game. On the East Coast, there is very much a rigid social order that is informed by the old money — new money dynamic. Everyone on the East Coast is looking to place you on the hierarchy the moment they meet you, and as such, the start of every East Coast conversation ritualistically plays out the same way. You can pretty much guarantee that the first questions you’ll be asked will be:
- What do you do? (Where do you work?)
- Where did you go to school¹? (and do you know so-and-so)
What these questions are really getting at is “which social class do you belong to and are you higher or lower than me in the hierarchy?” It’s a tiring game, but everyone on the East Coast plays it. After awhile, it becomes second nature. At Georgetown, where the student body drew heavily from affluent areas in the northeast, I received these questions ad-nauseum. When I moved to the West Coast however, I found that the game occurs less frequently. This is not to say people don’t try to size you up⁷, but generally I feel like West Coasters are less concerned with class status and are more content with conversing organically. It has been one of the more refreshing aspects of my time in California.
The other significant difference I noticed about the West Coast is the way friendships are made and maintained. They say you are not friends with an East Coaster until they are making fun of you, and I found that this social dynamic is completely absent in the West. I wouldn’t say West Coasters are more sensitive — I just don’t think there is a strong banter culture in California. I often found myself missing the days when I could fire off a “sick burn” without worrying about offending the other party.
Beyond the banter (or lack thereof), I found that West Coasters tended to be more open. What I mean by this is the way one develops a friendship with someone else. On the East Coast, people maintain a perpetual edge that makes it hard to get close — there is this flippant aloofness that people wear like a shield. To become friends with an East Coaster, one would need to apply a sustained effort to break through his/ her shield, and this process usually resulted in a stronger friendship. On the West Coast however, I found it much easier to get to know people faster. West Coasters just didn’t have their shields up, but the unfortunate downside of this characteristic was a weaker bond in my West Coast friendships. I guess a lower investment in developing relationships results in a lower strength connection…
I can’t say that one coast is better than the other — they are just different. Above all, I’m very thankful to have been given the perspective and experience of West Coast living. After 3.5 years, all I know is that this East Coast boy needs to go home!
⁶ Usually this implies “which college did you go to” but many people are also curious about the high school you attended to see if your school is located in an elite neighborhood or is a famous prep school
⁷ Most often, these people were East Coast transplants themselves
Look out for Part 2 next week!