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City by the Bay

I was 11 years old the first time I visited San Francisco.

All that remains to me of that trip is a vague impression of grime and grunginess, probably because the first thing I remember seeing as we alighted our taxi from the airport was a man selling "dirty" magazines on the street corner. Coming as we were from strait-laced Singapore, where even the likes of Playboy remain illegal today, I remember being positively scandalized.

The second time I visited San Francisco, I was 22, a fresh-faced college graduate on my first-ever work trip. They had booked us rooms at the Fairmont, and I distinctly remember my Uber driver's response when I conveyed our destination: "That's where Obama stayed when he was in town!" I felt a similar awe at my good fortune, and perhaps that lent a rose-colored tint to my view of the city, because I recall seeing very little of the problems that I know were plaguing San Francisco even then. Mostly I remember basking in the sunshine, taking in the views from Coit Tower and Crissy Field, and an overarching sense of gratitude and contentment.

I returned for the third time two years later. This time, having fulfilled my tourist obligations not so long ago, I ventured further afield. On foot, I explored most of the neighborhoods I'd neglected before—up to Richmond for a croissant at Arsicault and down to the Mission to while away an afternoon in Dolores Park. In the Tenderloin, I walked by a woman sprawled in the middle of the sidewalk, jeans unbuttoned, a puddle spreading slowly beneath her. No one stopped, or even paused overlong, so I didn't either.

Just a few weeks ago, and a little more than two years after my last visit, I spent five days in San Francisco. I was there for an interview with, of course, a tech company. The city was just as beautiful as I remembered. I hiked to Lands End, climbed up to Corona Heights, spent a few hours browsing the stacks at City Lights, ate tacos in the Mission, picnicked in the Presidio, rode an electric scooter—all the things you'd expect and more. My only glimpse of one of the infamous tent cities was on an overhead bridge near Japantown, though the 3 or 4 tents there hardly seemed a city to me. When I walked by again a few days later, all trace of them had disappeared.

The author Rebecca Solnit, a long-time San Francisco resident, has written disparagingly about the influx of young tech employees, who she blames for gentrification, eviction, and cultural change: "Silicon Valley workers," she observes, "seem to want to inhabit the anti-war, social-justice, mutual-aid heart of San Francisco (and the Bay Area). To do so they often displace San Franciscans from their homes..." And while "many of the newcomers may be compassionate, progressive people," she nonetheless condemns them for displaying "few signs of resistance, refusal to participate, or even chagrin about their impact..."

Which is not to say that resistance or refusal is lacking entirely—a couple years ago, then-Google employee Min Li Chan wrote about her decision to give up taking the Google bus in favor of public transit, grappling in the process with her anxiety about gentrification and the state of tech. Contemplating the city's contrasts, she remarked that "it is not clear that enjoyment is the proper response—nor is disavowal the answer. The tech world's insular optimism and its critics' reductionist rebukes feel equally hollow; the conscious way forward may be somewhere in between." But what that in between may look like is, as ever, left to the reader to decide.

My own anxiety about contributing to the state of crisis in San Francisco may, admittedly, be more than slightly premature. But it stems in part, I think, from how easy it was to forget, on all my recent visits, that this was the same city where violent protests against the tech industry had erupted not so long ago, where the housing crisis has escalated to the point that nearly half of residents say they are considering leaving, where levels of inequality are among the highest in the country. That surprising ease is perhaps what scares me most when I think about making the city home. With some remove, I can at least consider that moving to San Francisco, or, really, anywhere, should be a deliberate decision: one made with both full acknowledgement of what that move might mean and a commitment to mitigate the harms—to long-time residents, the less-advantaged, and any others I might displace. That consideration has remained abstract so far, but if and when it becomes concrete, I fear that the considerable allure of the city by the bay may make it all too easy for it to fall by the wayside.

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