I moved to San Francisco for its radical politics. Lots of people did, for generations. Maybe it was like moving to Los Angeles if you longed to be a movie star: If you wanted to be part of the grand project of reconstructing the American Left in the petri dish of a single city, San Francisco beckoned.
The quirky, counter-cultural San Francisco so many of us fell in love with is almost gone now, destroyed by high housing costs. We’ve lost not only the politics, but all kinds of cultural experimentation that just doesn’t thrive in places that are expensive.
We are watching the old San Francisco slip away before our eyes. Every time a housing unit becomes vacant, it goes on the market at a price so high that no organizer, writer, teacher, activist or artist could dream of affording it. Trying things that don’t have monetary potential just isn’t possible anymore.
How did we get here?
There are lots of reasons San Francisco became so progressive in the first place. The city had a radical labor movement going back to the 19th century. It nurtured a literary and artistic bohemia. It was tolerant of kooks and outcasts. Its various racial and ethnic groups figured out how to get along. In the 1970s, the embrace of identity politics grew to incorporate gays and lesbians, and the city reveled in its diversity, with groups claiming distinct neighborhoods as their own in a modern twist on the tradition of ethnic urban enclaves.
At its apex, progressive San Francisco accomplished amazing things. It invented new models of delivering affordable housing and health care. It invested deeply in public space, from parks to bike lanes. It adopted a transit-first policy. It pioneered all kinds of equal rights for the LGBTQ community. It did its best to create a high-tax, high-service public sector that could generate the funds to provide a more generous social safety net, at a time when the national government was moving in the other direction. At times, it felt like San Francisco was working toward a form of social democracy in one city, proving to the rest of the country that a more European-style economic model could thrive within the confines of the United States.
It was also a haven for people from all over the world: Refugees from Central American wars, migrants from Asia and Latin America in search of a better life, gays and lesbians from across the country. A large chunk of the population moved here as adults; San Francisco was a consciously chosen destination.
But progressive San Francisco had a fatal, Shakespearean flaw that would prove to be its undoing: It decided early on to be against new buildings. It decided that new development, with the exception of publicly subsidized affordable housing, was not welcome.