Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

So You're Moving to San Francisco

Writing about a place is difficult. You can spend months, years, even a lifetime in a city and still not really know it. More challenging still, everyone experiences a place differently. Two people who’ve grown up in the same place might fundamentally disagree on what the most scenic landmarks are, if the locals are friendly, the best places to eat, and so on.

I’ve been in San Francisco for over a couple of years now. I’d hardly say I know the place exhaustively, but I know it well enough to have a moderately informed opinion. The purpose of this post is to share my particular opinion about the city so that a like-minded individual who is considering living here might have an additional perspective. I’m assuming that my audience for this post is largely other twenty-somethings considering moving to SF to work in the tech industry. I’m assuming that you’ve read at least a couple other posts by me, and (astoundingly) don’t think I’m a total dolt.

This is not intended as a persuasive piece, and is particularly not intended for native San Franciscans. If you enjoy living in San Francisco, stop reading right now. I’m dead serious. If you don’t stop reading, you’ll probably come across something you disagree with, then you’ll want to leave a nasty comment, then you’ll realize I don’t accept comments, then you’ll email me, and then I’ll have to ignore your email because I warned you not to read this. This post really isn’t for you. If you like San Francisco, go write about the reasons why on your own site. Seriously. Stop reading.

So. You’ve made it through the caveats. Let’s get into it.

First, The Conclusion

I’m going to skip right to the heart of what I want to say about this city: if you’ve never lived in a major city before, you’ll probably like San Francisco. However, if you’re coming from another notable city, you may be disappointed. Hopefully, that’s pretty uncontroversial.

If you’re moving from, say, a New York or a Chicago or a London, you may end up loving San Francisco for its climate, its diversity, its food, or above all, its unique mindset. That mindset - decidedly Left Coast, laid back but not lazy, accepting of oddities and oddballs, always appreciating diamonds in the rough - resonates perfectly with some special people who are destined to be lifelong San Franciscans. If that way of thinking doesn’t jive with you, chances are good that, like me, you’ll just be passing through. Without appreciating that mindset, I don’t think the pros of the city outweigh the cons.

With all that out front, let’s talk about the niceties and the frustrations of the city.

The Good

If you’ve ever followed my tweets, you probably know that I live for good food and drink. When I came to San Francisco, my standards had been set reasonably high by the always-improving food scene in my hometown of Washington, DC, as well as by travels to other foodie destinations.

I can say without reservation that San Francisco is a great city for food. Everything from hole-in-the-wall ethnic dives to Michelin rated dining is well represented. The proximity to Napa means there’s always good wine and a strong French influence to compliment the uniquely Californian approach to cuisine. It’s entirely possible to have a bad meal in San Francisco, but to do so is entirely your fault: Yelp and other social recommendation services are better represented here than anywhere else in the world, and a suggestion for a good restaurant is always just a couple clicks (or taps) away.

SF is also a great town for coffee and cocktails, two of my other vices. You may not find a good coffee shop or bar in every neighborhood, but most of the trendier neighborhoods have at least one or the other. Similarly, you’ll find good wine bars around the city. Beer is somewhat underrepresented for such a major city (as I’ve written about previously), but you won’t go without. Cocktails are really the city’s standout for me, though. SF’s bartenders are not playing around.

San Francisco boasts superb weather. Particularly if you come from the East Coast or Midwest, you’ll find that you can basically wear the same thing all year ’round. A uniform of jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie or light jacket will basically get you through the entire thirty degree range of temperatures that occur in the city’s various microclimates. There may be some fog, or a bit of rain from time to time, but most of the time it’s sunny and hovering around the high 60s to lower 70s. This means you can basically always bike to where you want to go without any special gear, if that’s your thing.

You won’t want for music, either. Again, SF doesn’t compete with other major cities in this regard, but there’s a healthy variety of musical styles represented and a fair diversity of venues to choose from. Music festivals are frequent, and there are plenty of opportunities to join a band or DJ at a club night if you’ve got the talent and time.

If you’re coming here to make your startup dreams come true or land that Google job you’ll find that the sheer concentration of tech industry professionals makes the Bay Area a kind of mecca for driven geeks. You can spend every night of the week at an industry party or programmer meet-up. You’ll meet the people who write the blogs you love and develop the software and hardware you use and admire. You’ll generally feel like you’re with your kind. And if the city itself doesn’t have enough tech for you, Silicon Valley is less than an hour away. For me, the tech community is going to be the hardest thing about San Francisco to leave behind.

Food, drink, weather, music, and maybe the tech industry, if it’s applicable to you. That’s the good stuff. Now, take a deep breath and let’s explore the city’s darker side.

The Bad

Just as the density of high tech in San Francisco is a boon, it can also a burden for geeks. As my social circle grew after moving to the city, I began to feel as if I always had to be “on” - always representing my job, always receptive to talking tech and hearing a stranger’s latest pitch. It’s easy to meet people through the tech scene in SF, but they’re professional contacts, not friends. I now count some of those contacts as true friends, but real friendships take work and time. When you first move here, it’s easy to confuse knowing people through your job or technical interests with having a solid social network. Just remember that someone who added you on LinkedIn isn’t going to help you out when you’re sick, or moving, or just need someone to talk to frankly without worrying about leaking a trade secret.

San Francisco is also, perhaps infamously, an intellectual and cultural bubble in which ludicrous ideas can find support, particularly in the tech industry. Before long, you may find yourself nodding in sincere agreement as someone explains the inane first-world problem that their startup or pet open source project is trying to solve. It’s hard work to maintain perspective and not get caught up in a way of thinking that privileges the desires of young white men with high technical proficiency and lots of disposable income. But then, this is a double-edge sword: some ideas that seem silly at the outset have world-changing, democratizing potential (I’d like to think Twitter is one such idea, of course). Be open, but skeptical.

There are far more fundamental problems with the city than the tech industry bubble. Perhaps the most visceral is that, for a first world city, San Francisco is dirty. No, filthy. No, disgusting. Whenever I travel outside of San Francisco, I’m amazed at what a disastrous anomaly it is. Sidewalks are routinely covered in broken glass, trash, old food, and human excrement. The smell of urine is not uncommon, nor is the sight of homeless persons in varying states of dishevelment. I frequented tough neighborhoods in DC and Baltimore - then the murder capital of the nation - and only in San Francisco have I been actively threatened on the street.

What sickens me most about San Francisco is not its dirt, or its large homeless population, or its questionable safety, but that locals and the city government seem to accept these circumstances. Hipsters boast of how disgusting and unsafe their Mission living situations are, as if choosing to live amongst squalor when you have the means not to do so makes you a better person. The wealthy seclude themselves in the Marina, Russian Hill, and Pacific Heights, and lobby against public transportation that would bring undesirables to their pristine neighborhoods. Aging hippies in the Haight argue about marijuana legalization and anti-war referendums when men and women are dying - visibly dying - on the streets of the Tenderloin. It’s as if all parties don’t occupy the same city, see the same shameful sights on the street, and bear the same responsibilities to taxes and charity that might help address these deep-seated and difficult problems.

Month after month, San Franciscans gather for festivals and parades: Pride, the Folsom Street Faire, LoveFest, Bay to Breakers, and so forth. The privileged fill the streets, dressed in gaudy costumes, embracing any excuse to celebrate their sexuality, their liberal views, their comfort with alternative approaches to life and social structures. Were San Francisco taking care of its own, creating an environment in which everyone had access to the same comforts and opportunities, I would encourage such celebrations every week. But, as liberal and libertarian as I am, I think there’s something disturbing and solipsistic and fundamentally broken about a place that seems to value a different way of life over better quality of life. It is this that I object to most strenuously about San Francisco.

There are other nuisances and disappointments, to be sure:

  • An obscenely high cost of living for comparatively poor real estate and social services.
  • Unreliable and inadequate public transit, paling in comparison to most any other major city in the world.
  • Lots of traffic and very little parking - factors that would be less of an issue if the public transit was adequate.
  • Generally poor urban/civic planning.
  • Limited and mediocre cultural institutions. It’s easy to exhaust museums, theater, and other forms of the arts in SF. Most of what you’ll find outside the mainstream is dim, amateurish, and - as above - obsessed with being different rather than simply being better. (The ballet is the major exception. It’s quite good.)
  • Entirely a matter of personal preference, but I dislike much of the architecture in San Francisco. Some find the endless peeling Victorians quaint. I prefer buildings that are truly historic or aggressively modern.
  • Vast dead spaces between and within neighborhoods. For a city of relatively small size, you’ll find that most of it isn’t worth repeated visits. Areas worth spending time in are usually just several blocks, scarcely enough to occupy an hour or two with window shopping and a stroll.
  • Enormous competition for limited resources. You will wait for everything. The better a thing is (food, coffee, a nice place to sit), the longer you’ll wait for it. When you finally get what you want, you’ll be crammed in with others trying to enjoy the same place/thing, diminishing everyone’s enjoyment.

There is, I’ve found, precious little to do here, particularly if you’re not inclined towards sports or the outdoors. I recall asking several locals what exactly people did on a Saturday afternoon, at a loss after having gone to the scant few museums and walked around the few worthwhile neighborhoods. “Hang out in the park or sleep, I guess” was the common answer. And indeed, that’s what many people do: the Mission’s Dolores Park is filled with idling throngs weekend after weekend, soaking up the sun, chatting, drinking, smoking, existing. Nothing wrong with the simple pleasures of friends and good weather, but there’s more to life than living from one hangout to the next.

There are some things about the city that are harder to put a finger on, too. While people in San Francisco are endearingly open-minded, all too often they’re self-centered, passive aggressive, and cold. As above, it’s easy to meet people through work or a common interest, but harder to meet random friendly strangers. Rarely in San Francisco has a kindness been done to me by a stranger - offering directions when I look lost, for example. When traveling, I’m again shocked at how much better people are to one another in other places, even in reputedly hard and unfriendly cities like New York.


One has to ask, after all that: why are you still here? The answer is that I’m in San Francisco for as long as my work requires me to be. Once I’m able to work remotely with confidence, either for Twitter or another employer, I have every intention of moving with my fiancée and two cats to Portland, Oregon, a place which I feel/hope better reflects my values. Quite simply, I want to live somewhere that works, and San Francisco feels broken. Portland doesn’t work perfectly, particularly in terms of its high unemployment, but it feels closer to what I want in a place than any other city I’ve visited. I’ll miss San Francisco’s strong tech community and other things about the city, but I can’t say I anticipate much reminiscence about the place.

I’m aware that all this is weighted more heavily towards the negative, but I don’t know that I should apologize for having had a negative experience of the city. I may be a critic by nature, but I try to look for the good in people and places. I feel like I’ve given San Francisco a fair go of it, but found in the end that it’s just not for me. Hopefully, the above assessment is useful to a like-minded person trying to make a decision about the city.

If you do decide to move here, read Mat Honan’s guide to the ideal SF experience. Mat has been here way longer than I have, knows the city better, and loves it. I agree with his assessment of where and how to live here, although I ended up moving to a less authentically San Franciscan neighborhood (SOMA) after having tried a more traditional neighborhood. It’s all a matter of personal taste and finding what resonates with you.

Good luck.


Monday, October 5th — I’ve gotten a surprising amount of feedback about this post, most of it positive. One email in particular, though, had a portion worth reprinting:

“For two years, I was the Development Director at a small SF health clinic that serves some of most under-privileged folks in the city. We participated in Folsom Street Fair’s beneficiary program - the gist of it is, money collected at the gates, and from the beverage booths, is divided amongst community based groups that apply to get a piece of the pie. It can be as little as $5000; sometimes, up to $20,000 per group. Folsom alone gives away a few hundred thousand dollars a year in this way. For struggling community orgs, especially those that rely on dwindling city and state funds, this money is crucial. Pride, LoveFest, and Castro Street Fair do the same.”

I’m glad to hear that the events I called out are giving back to their community; indeed, I assumed they probably were, as most such events tend to have a charitable arm in this age of consumer guilt offsets. That’s something.

The author of the above email mentioned that she has since moved to New York, frustrated by San Francisco’s seeming inability to get things done and improve itself.

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