The soul of the city

44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: The creative class — particularly the young people who are going to be the next generation of the creative class — needs space to grow

Though young people continue to flock to San Francisco, they don't get the relatively easy start possible in the '80s

44th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL We all arrived in San Francisco broke: Paulo and me in the '73 Capri, crawling over Donner Pass with a blown valve and three cylinders firing; Tracy and Craig in the back of a VW van, behind in the payments and on the run from the repo men; Tom and Sharon hitching across the Southwest after Tom, who could bullshit with the best, talked himself out a jail cell in New Orleans. Moak showed up in a rusty Datsun with the wheels falling off. Jane and Danny came on the old hippie bus, the Green Tortoise, $69 across the country.

But we all had a friend who knew a friend where you could crash for a little while. And in the early 1980s you got food stamps the first day and it only took a couple of weeks to get a job waiting tables or canvassing or selling trinkets on the Wharf. And once you'd scraped together a couple hundred dollars — maybe two weeks' work — you could get a place to live. My first room in a flat in the Western Addition was $120 a month.

We did art and politics and writing and music. After a while, some of us went to law school, some of us became journalists, some of us went into government and education. A few of us fled, and Paulo died in the plague (dammit). But in the end, a lot of us were — and are — San Franciscans, part of a city that welcomed us and gave us a chance.

It was a very different time to be young in San Francisco.

I'm not here to get all nostalgic, really I'm not. There were serious problems in 1982 — raging gentrification was creating clashes in the Mission and the Haight and south of Market that were more violent than anything going on today. And frankly, broke as we were, most of my friends were from middle class homes and were college educated and had a leg up. We weren't going to starve; we didn't have to make really ugly choices to eat.

Most of the stories in this special anniversary issue are about marginalized youth — young people trying to survive and make their way against all odds in an increasingly hostile city and a bitter, harsh economy.

But there's an important difference about San Francisco today, something earlier generations of immigrants didn't face. The cost of housing, always high, has so outstripped the entry-level and nonprofit wage scale that it's almost impossible for young people to survive in this town — much less have the time to add to its artistic and creative culture.

I met the 21-year-old daughter of a college friend the other day. She's as idealistic as we all were. She wants to move to San Francisco for the same reasons we did and you did — except maybe she won't. Because she felt as if she had to come visit first, to use her dad's network, see if she could line up a job and figure out if her likely earnings would cover the cost of living. When I mentioned that I'd just up and left the East Coast and headed west, planning to figure it out when I got here, she gave me a look that was part amazement and part sadness. You just can't do that anymore.

The odds are pretty good that San Francisco won't get her — her talent and energy will go somewhere else, somewhere that's not so harsh on young people. I wondered, as I do every once in a while when I'm feeling halfway between an angry political writer and an old curmudgeon: would I come to San Francisco today?

Would Harvey Milk? Would Jello Biafra? Would Dave Eggers? Would you?

If you were born here, would you stay?

Are we squandering this city's greatest resource — its ability to attract and retain creative people?

The two people who started the Bay Guardian 44 years ago were young arrivals from the Midwest. Bruce Brugmann looked around the city room at the Milwaukee Journal, where he worked as a reporter, and realized there wasn't any job he wanted there in 10 years. With two young kids and a dream of starting a weekly newspaper in one of the world's most exciting cities, Bruce and his wife, Jean Dibble, settled in a $130-a-month flat. The Guardian's first office was a desk in the printers shop. When they paper could finally afford its own space, Bruce and Jean moved the staff into a $60-a-month four-room place on Ninth and Bryant streets.

From the start, the paper was a "preservationist" publication — both in terms of environmental issues like saving the bay and in the larger political sense. The San Francisco Bay Guardian was out to save San Francisco.

The city was under assault — by the developers who were making fast money tossing high-rises into downtown; the speculators making fast money flipping property, ducking taxes, and driving up rents; the unscrupulous landlords who were letting their buildings fall apart while they charged ever higher rent. For the Guardian, fighting this urbicide meant protecting San Francisco values, preserving the best of the city from what Bruce liked to call "the radicals at the Chamber of Commerce."

For the Guardian, progress wasn't measured in the number of new buildings constructed, but in the ability of the city to remain a place where artists and writers and community organizers and hell-raisers — and the young people who were always bringing new life to the city — could survive. We supported rent control, and growth limits, and affordable housing policies, and limits on condo conversions, and minimum-wage and sanctuary city laws — and a long list of other things that together amounted to a progressive agenda.

And in 2010, the assault on the young, the poor, the nonconformists, the immigrants, is still on, at full force. The mayor and his allies are pushing a ballot measure that would make it illegal just to sit on the sidewalk. He's also turning the local juvenile authorities into immigration cops, breaking up families in the process. He's cut funding for youth services, and wants to make it easier for speculators to evict tenants, take affordable rental housing (especially the flats that young people share to save money) off the market, and create high-priced condos. Virtually all of the new housing he's pushing is for rich people. He's shutting down parties and arresting DJs and, in effect, declaring a War on Fun.

What he's doing — and what the downtown forces want — is the transformation of San Francisco from a welcoming city where the weird is the normal, where the young and the crazy and the brilliant and the broke can be part of (or even drivers of) the culture, to one where profit and property values are all that matter. And that's a recipe for urban doom.

Richard Florida's 2004 bestseller The Rise of the Creative Class shook up political thinking by pointing out that cities thrive with iconoclasts, not organization people. Everyone likes to talk about that now, even Mayor Gavin Newsom. But the missing piece, from a policy perspective, is that the creative class — particularly the young people who are going to be the next generation of the creative class — needs space to grow. And that means the most important thing a creative city can do is nurture the very people Newsom and his allies want to drive away.

If Prop. L, the "sit-lie" law, passes, if the rental flats in the Mission that have been home to several generations of young artists, writers, musicians and future civic leaders vanish in the name of condo conversions, if 85 percent of all the new housing in San Francisco is affordable only to millionaires, if the money that helps foster kids and runaways and at-risk youth dries up because this rich city won't raise taxes, if nightlife becomes an annoyance to be stifled...then we're in danger of losing San Francisco.

Our 44th Anniversary Issue also includes stories by Sarah Phelan on SF's disadvantaged youth, Caitlin Donohue's account of the Haight street kids, and Rebecca Bowe's look at ageing out of the foster care system


The creative class remaining in the city have one last affordable outpost - the Hunters Point Shipyard. Although there are tens of thousand of studios and workspaces spread across the city, no single location has the potential to expand for perhaps thousands more affordable studios within a true 'live-work' environment. Perhaps we should reconsider and expand the Candlestick-Shipyard Master Plan to blend the new housing and mixed use with support for the 'Creative Class'. Forget the stadium promise. That dream is over. San Francisco has an opportunity to take its place at the forefront of 21st century cultural support. If we lose this opportunity, we become a generic tourist town, soul-less, cold and dead.

Mr. and Mrs. Citizen

Posted by Joe and Josephine Citizen on Oct. 20, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

California Lawyers for the Arts is offering a year long new program for San Francisco youth interested in the arts-The Hunters Point Shipyard Public Art Youth Program, which will provide monthly 4-hr workshops including hands-on arts projects, tours of public art sites and art exhibitions led by nine regionally and nationally recognized visual artists who have been commissioned to create and install public art at the Shipyard. The San Redevelopment Agency is supporting the program.

Images of the commissioned work, program description, applications and flyers can be downloaded at

Applicants must be San Francisco residents ages 14-19.
They will receive a minimum stipend of $200 for full attendance.
Youth are required to commit to attending an orientation and the complete series of nine workshops from January to December 2010, with a summer hiatus in July and August.

The deadline for application submission is 5 p.m. on November 15, 2010.

For more information please contact

Posted by Jill Roisen on Oct. 27, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

New York City still draws the young, talented, and weird. It is an expensive city and amazingly, there is no fear about losing its creative class. Are New Yorkers are more creative in finding solutions to economic challenges?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 20, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

@guest. In NYC, they whine less, are generally friendlier and more direct, and are less smug about their comfort level than here in SF. NYC seems to attract those who are hungrier for a creative life; here we get a lot of wannabes who blame most everyone else for their plight in not being discovered yet. SF poses for fame.
NYC is fame.

Posted by buck-up on Oct. 21, 2010 @ 11:51 am

I read your comment to one of my clients who moved here from New York about two years ago. She said, "That person has never been to New York." Then she went on to say, "Instead, that person is into the rivalry thing." (referring to your comment).

Posted by Guest Bárbara Chelsai on Oct. 21, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

i just wanted to let you know how moved I was when I read this article the other day. As one of the poor, recent grads who's moved to SF to pursue a dream, it's reaffirming, though sad, to hear this. Thanks.

Posted by Culturalreform on Oct. 21, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

New York draws rich people who feel that adversity proves their worth in overcoming it, rather than a large range of people who will organize against the bad things they encounter. It wasn't always that way--New York a hundred years ago was full of organizers and potential for change. Same stuff happened in New York as is pretty much complete in happening in San Francisco, and "If I can make it there I'll make it anywhere" doesn't lower the rents there either.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 21, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

I came to San Francisco in 1985. I paid for 400.00 a month for my room in a Western Edition victorian. I supported myself working in a retail job. Those were my realities. I wanted to open a business and work with artists like the ones I met at school.

Fast forward to 2010. I managed to start that business selling the work of local artists and makers. I employ several young people who also moved here to do something creative. I wish you would do a story on these struggling micro businesses that you seem to disparage so easily with the term “boutique.”

Rents are now astronomical for storefronts. There is no unemployment insurance for the self-employed. I live in a small rental apartment and don’t have health insurance, because the cost of it would mean I’d probably have to fire one of those employees. I live about the same way I did when I first moved here. Creatively and with very little money.

I’m not complaining about my life. I love the freedom I have to be creative and to support what I believe in.

Local small businesse is not creating the situation on Haight St and most likely neither are most of these kids. But that does not entitle anyone to claim victim status. I chose to be independent and I worked hard to earn that choice. Stop pitting very small business against these kids. It’s just too easy and is a skewed perspective.

Posted by Guest Claire on Oct. 21, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

Hi Claire,
Unless you have some guilty secret, I don't think this is about you.
However, some business owners on Haight Street have aggressively pitted themselves against the street kids.
Kent Uyehara, who owns FTC Skateboards and SFO Snowboards, has been attacking street people and waging a war against anyone who dares to sit on a public sidewalk since this began.
Here he is bragging about how he "has gotten into fistfights with vagrants"

If anyone has pitted small business owners on Haight Street against the street kids, it is intolerant community "leaders" like Uyehara and Ted Loewenberg with the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association.
Many business owners have refused to tow their hateful line, but they aren't heard from too much.
Possibly they fear retaliation from Uyehara, Lowenberg and others in their neighborhood that have no patience for compromise.
Here is one:

If you don't like the idea of being a pawn in someone else's culture war, maybe it's time to get together with Mr.Madan, who wrote the above linked article, and the other more reasonable, less hate fueled members of the Haight Street business community, to form a group that looks out for your interests as small business people and neighbors, without the whole "Let's destroy these disgusting people that don't belong here!" attitude that currently is getting all the press.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 21, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

I knew I wanted to move to San Francisco, so I spent a year after graduation working as a carpenter, saving up the small fortune I knew I would need to sustain me until I could land a job in 1995 as the "New San Francisco" was starting to explode, leading into the Dot-Com Revolution and all of the beauty and wretchedness that came with it. It's a choice that I made, and it's not necessarily a choice available to everyone, but it's not out of the realm of the possible that moving to San Francisco is a move that demands some personal accountability - and that the neo-post-Summer-of-Love fantasy camp that Redmond seems incapable of moving beyond in spite of the 30 years that have transpired since his ponytail started graying is no longer the template for joining the 21st Century zeitgeist in San Francisco.

The very idea that Redmond is falsely conjoining the idealized creative class of young artists and thinkers with the class of people who have made Sit-Lie a necessity is such a fallacy that it defies rejoinder. I'm mindful of the role diversity plays in making a city great, but great cities demand and should expect contribution from all of its citizens - and those contributions need to be greater than simply cigarette and alcohol taxes. While San Francisco may benefit greatly from the contribution of one young urchin who grows up to become a Ferlinghetti, Doda, Garcia or Kerouac, that potential return on investment is not enough to force her rank-and-file citizens to endure the contempt, derision and obnoxiousness of an entire generation of entitled drop-outs who fail to accept responsibility for their own welfare.

Posted by rickinsf on Oct. 22, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

This article has spoken to me in a very specific way. This article is me...and hundreds of others. I am one of those 20somethings that came here in search of a job that would launch my career and generate my incredible adult life in this culturally rich city. I came here in August of 2008 to begin a MA program at one of the city's many universities, coincidentally from right outside NYC. I felt that NYC wasn't the kind of place that everyone imagines - where opportunity knocks for the young and creative and survival is far from expensive and difficult. It was a risk and a leap, for when I came here I had no connections or jobs, let alone an apartment after months of searching via the web. After spending a few weeks on couches of generous strangers on campus, I was able to land an apartment and find remedial work to support my passions in journalism, civic engagement and the arts. After completing my MA with a 4.0 and an internship that I am still proud to be a part of, I have found myself at the brink of exhaustion in the search for that career launching dream-job. I fear that my life as a long-term San Francisco resident is at the brink of extinction as I can no longer afford the monthly rent while receiving less than a handful of responses to job ads that seem to be out of my reach, yet are precisely what I came here in search for. This article confirms the fear I felt from the moment I moved; a city long-respected for supporting creative young minds and beginning countless successful careers has flown the co-op. Why has the city given up on the excitement and energy that my generation offers and has long been touted for? As my bank account and support from others draws to a close, I have until April to find that career that will keep me here, and I really hope it is out there. However, it appears that I, like many others who are in this same position, were sold an idea about this city that simply no longer exists.

Posted by Longing for Survival on Oct. 22, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

I agree that the young and creative have been shut out of this city but the street kids are in no way apart of the group. I moved her in 1992 and as others have written the street kids have been here a long time. Rents were much cheaper back then of course and at times I live with 10 other people in our huge flat on the corner of Haight Street. We all worked those terrible minimum wage jobs while pursuing our dreams. Meanwhile getting asked for money by "those street kids". I remember back then thinking sheesh I live in $210 month room and work and yet they are homeless begging for money with all their numerous fancy tattoos and piercings that weren't definitely DIY. Not mention the dogs, oh the dogs...How I've wanted a dog for all those years but have refrained because of the responsibility that it takes. Now I see a huge dog on the cover of SFBG who is obviously not FIXED and probably already has contributed to the stray population here. Oh but it's O.K because Smiley is contributing to the counter culture of San Francisco by changing her "spanging signs" everyday and Piss is dealing pot. Thanks for insulting my youth and many other youth of the 90's and before who did contribute to the culture of this city.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2010 @ 7:03 am

Sell those Doc Martens or rob a big business and don't count on change from me, is what I used to tell the crusties, but sitting and lying is no big deal.


Posted by marcos on Oct. 23, 2010 @ 7:52 am

LOL the Doc Martens yep I forgot to mention that too.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 23, 2010 @ 8:09 am

First of all, it's arrogant to write about "losing San Francisco" as if your idea of this supposed essence of San Francisco were any more valid than anyone else's. The "real" San Francisco is a fluid thing that changes to become whatever San Francisco actually is at any particular moment.

None of us can know or talk about this "real" San Francisco because everything we think and say about this city is filtered through our preconceptions of what we want it to be. We ignore the things that don't fit our narrative and amplify the importance of the things that do.

Secondly, we can't try to change whatever San Francisco is by mashing together many issues whose only connection exists in your specific notion of what San Francisco is. Affordable housing is one issue, proposition L is another. These are two different issues that need to be considered separately if we hope to say or do anything intelligently about them.

Someone really concerned with attracting creative people to the city would be thinking and writing about increasing funding for arts education in our public schools, making it easier to get film permits, or reforming zoning laws and noise ordinances. These are the things working artists care about and want, but are decidedly unsexy topics for a feature piece in an alt-weekly. Instead you add Prop L, the latest cause célèbre, to the discussion to move more papers and sell more ad-space. There's no real connection between sitting on the sidewalk and being creative, and we can't address the real issues surrounding being creative in this city until we stop pretending there is.

Posted by guest on Oct. 23, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

>>>If Prop. L, the "sit-lie" law, passes, if the rental flats in the Mission that have been home to several generations of young artists, writers, musicians and future civic leaders vanish in the name of condo conversions, if 85 percent of all the new housing in San Francisco is affordable only to millionaires, if the money that helps foster kids and runaways and at-risk youth dries up because this rich city won't raise taxes, if nightlife becomes an annoyance to be stifled...then we're in danger of losing San Francisco.<<<.............I agree completely and in my opinion it's part of THE wealthy, right-wing takeover where the "right" is rising (including in Europe), including Republicans charading as Democrats to deceive the voters. Many people, especially the right-wing, would love for this City to look like and be like any other city. When and should that happen, what will the right-wing have to whine about THEN? Have they not thought that far ahead? They wouldn't have San Francisco to hate on every day of the week as they do now. Some people can't wait for this City to look like and be like Marin. If one wants Marin, MOVE TO MARIN. And the comment above mine is nothing but a holding a finger up in the air to see what direction the wind is blowing can't decide on anything Gobbledygook.

Posted by Guest Bárbara Chelsai on Oct. 23, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

Thinking carefully about your decisions and making specific, precise statements about an issue allows you to make a meaningful contribution to a civic debate and makes it more likely that you won't regret your decisions later.

Just a tip.

Posted by guest on Oct. 24, 2010 @ 10:42 am

Barbara-Artists losing homes in the Mission and Noise ordinances is not the same thing as these mostly by choice street kids who sit and drink alcohol and ask for money all day on the sidewalk. I'm sorry someone busking "Give me money" is and or calling people asshole if they don't give them their change isn't doing any good for anyone who contributes to this city.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 24, 2010 @ 8:54 am

I don't agreer that NY attracts young artists like SF... And yes, SF itself has become a Disneyland. I don't even think that new ideas flourish in SF - all that is left is people and their miniature dogs, chihuahuas. Terrible snobbery. $1200 studios with leaking sinks. Go talk to the chess players on Market, they will tell you best. The Mission has driven away its Mexicans so that rich boys and girls can have fun for a year in some apartment and then move back home -- wherever home is -- to cushy family jobs. This place has become hotel for the rich, and when there is a social gathering you realize there aren't many thinkers left.
NY is really pretty much the same thing - sorry to say, but the arts in the US are nowhere compared to what once was. Scandinavians are kicking ass in jazz, the Japanese painters, the African writers - the pure is over, now they just regurgitate and ask their mothers and fathers for rent money.
It has become so because it is immoral; the city's 'geist' is sold for mere profit. Its almost fascist...
The article is 1000% correct.

Posted by Kallak on Oct. 25, 2010 @ 2:51 am

Sit-lie is a way of making the city feel like a place where everything is illegal. I'm not anti-police, but of course officers will take advantage of being able to write a ticket to anyone at any time by saying "you were lying on the sidewalk." This is a classic case of dealing with a tiny minority of badly-behaved people by making life a hassle for the rest of us. How about a solution that targets the individuals causing the problem? Maybe a plainclothes patrol of Haight Street where officers dress like tourists and bust people who harass them...

As others have pointed out, the editorial conflates aggressive panhandling by voluntarily homeless caucasian kids with the rising cost of living in San Francisco.

On the latter issue, Tim Redmond bemoans gentrification, which is making it harder for people of lesser means to live here. But it was Redmond and folks like him who made up the first wave of gentrification in this city. They share part of the responsibility for creating a beachhead for an influx of wealthy people.

By his own description, Redmond and the friends he came here with were from middle-class backgrounds. But when they arrived, they piled into apartments in poor and blue collar areas like the Western Addition.

Landlords saw that they could charge artsy kids higher rent than the families who lived next door, and also skimp on maintenance. After all, the hip young people were chasing a bohemian fantasy. It would have been weird for them to live in places with working faucets and fresh paint. They could handle more costly leases because they didn't mind having five roommates.Redmond alludes to the backlash from the original residents, which manifested in ugly conflicts with the newcomers.

Of course, when it comes to creativity, most of them didn't amount to much, as Redmond admits. Like other middle-class kids, they ended up becoming professionals. Before succumbing, they spent their twenties in San Francisco and had a blast on a budget. They didn't make 1980s San Francisco a hub of earth-shattering artistic output.

Lastly, when it comes to aspiring artists not being able to afford to live in San Francisco, Redmond seems to be referring mostly to the northern half of town. There are cheap apartments in the Excelsior, but what self-respecting hip kid would live "out there?" Maybe they will change their minds one day, and the process of hip people displacing average joes will kick off once more. I don't mean to criticize that, the city has changed hands before, it will again. No group of people gets to keep it forever.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 26, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

I have lived in SF for 25 years, and now I spend several months a year in NYC. These 2 cities have very similar problems, but for some reason NYC seems to be more effective at dealing with them. I love SF, but as a North Beach resident I am sick to death of the grime, panhandling and the priority of entitlements above all else. I am all for this sit-lie law, I hate stepping over urine-soaked, passed out drunks every day trying to walk my dog. Enough. Problem is, even left-leaning people like myself have a breaking point, I have been pushed to the edge and am likely to support anything that will improve my quality of life here. I have paid enough taxes to deserve a clean and safe city. Oh, and though i am not one of them, I remind you all that we need "snobs" with money and their fancy stores and restaurants, who do you think pays all of those taxes to pay for all of those entitlements? If you lose the rich (property owners), you lose your funding, and then where will you be? Give me a break, artists and other creative types will still flock here, like they do NYC, Paris and London. Young people trying to make a life in NYC also make it work, they find lots of roommates and a job or two. It is not my responsibility too make sure anyone who wants to live in SF, or NYC, can do so and do so comfortably. We don't always get what we want, when we want it, period.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 27, 2010 @ 9:06 am

" I have been pushed to the edge and am likely to support anything that will improve my quality of life here. "

I don’t think you are alone in feeling this way.
It’s time for all the good hard working people of San Francisco who have paid enough taxes to deserve a clean and safe city to band together and demand that city hall listen, at least, to a modest proposal for preventing the panhandlers and the entitled people in San Francisco from being a burden to the city, their neighbors, and the country, and for making them beneficial to the public.
This would not be the first time this solution was considered (Giuliani is said to have studied it closely before embarking on his successful efforts to make New York what it is today) and for those naysayers who say it can’t work in San Francisco, I say:
Let’s give this a try!

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