If San Francisco is so great, why is everyone I love leaving?
We are witnessing two migrations: One is a continuation of the California dream. The other no one talks about, though it affects nearly everyone I know.By Diana Helmuth Jan 30, 2019, 9:28am PST
Illustrations by Leonard Peng
I’m driving down the 101 toward San Francisco International Airport. A gray blanket of fog pours over the hills in the distance, smothering what would be a luminous California sunset. Eleanor is sitting next to me in the passenger seat taking deep breaths. She does not like to fly.
I hesitate, then finally ask what’s on her mind, cutting the air between us. “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but since this is the last time we’ll be hanging out for a while, I feel like we have drifted apart over the last year. Is there something I did wrong? Is there something you want to tell me? You know, before you leave?”
We are driving to her one-way flight bound for Pittsburgh. She’s moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area, where we have both lived since we were kids. Our parents, who were themselves mixed transplants from New England and other parts of California, settled in the Bay in the ’70s and ’90s. Eleanor and I met in high school—two weirdos who recognized each other’s outsider-looking-in approach to the world. Now on the cusp of 30, we have 16 years of friendship between us. We did a podcast together. She went to work with me the day after my father died. We have gotten lost in the desert together, twice (before smartphones). On separate occasions, we have cleaned up each other’s vomit. We were once referred to as “hetero life mates.” And today she is leaving.
There are other friends out in Pittsburgh who have made a calm life as artists, cooks, house-cleaners, and creatives: an impossibility in the Bay Area, unless you have family assistance. Eleanor visited them a few months ago, and, charmed by their stability, the brick-paved streets, and the affordable apartments that lined them, it became impossible for her not to see how well she could do there too. Among other talents, she is, first and foremost, an artist.
I’m telling her “I feel like we’ve drifted apart.” What I really want to say is “What could I have done to make you stay?”
“There’s nothing, really,” she says, “I mean, the political climate has been hard. But also it’s just the Bay. Inviting people out to Stinson is easy; getting people to visit me when I have nowhere to host them is harder.”
Several months ago, she had made the difficult decision to move back onto a small corner of her parents beach-town property, after her urban East Bay house became waterlogged during the rainstorms of 2016. We had to move her out over a weekend, after the mold took half the furniture and gave her roommate pneumonia in both lungs. I touched swollen blisters of stagnant rainwater pulsing on her walls. After emailing the landlord about the issues, the housemates abandoned the property. He then successfully sued them in accordance with California tenant laws.
Although moving back to your parents’ home is never ideal, Eleanor didn’t have a lot of other options. But Stinson was not the little village she had left behind for college.
While only accessible by a narrow 10-mile strip of road lined by falling rocks and perilous sea cliffs, Stinson Beach is nevertheless one of the most popular day trips for San Francisco urbanites. Once a salty refuge for dendrophilic introverts and quiet hippies of means, Stinson spent the last few years transforming into a seaside “simpler times” theme park for San Francisco’s stratospherically wealthy. Eleanor had watched her foggy hometown gorge with tourists in $300 jeans on a mission for an idyllic, sand-weathered NorCal experience.
But hating rich tourists simply for flooding the place with money is not the reason Eleanor is leaving the Bay.
“We understand that with our respective shares of the rent, we could be paying mortgages on entire houses in Denver or Austin. But we are here.”
She was a manager at an artisanal goods boutique, which directly served this crowd of fast-culture beneficiaries hungry for slow-culture products. She is also the child of interracial parents, who built their own house in Stinson when she was little more than a baby. The town was essentially her cocoon for over 15 years. As an adult, she quickly got hired at the boutique because, to quote Eleanor, “the owners know the signs of a townie who has returned with swallowed pride and no prospects.” But the tourists did not know these signs. The new deal for living in Stinson—her hometown—was getting used to hearing “Where are you from? Here? No way!” repeatedly from rich white people, who didn’t know how to fit a brown girl in their vision of an authentic seaside experience.
She would then go home to an in-law unit, while those people retired to one of the many vacation rentals that are starting to overwhelm permanent housing in West Marin. “Imagine working at Disneyland, then going home to your place in the back of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride while drunk frat grads puke into the water,” she told me.
To be clear, she loved her town and its bearing in the coastal California fantasy. She wanted to share it, brag about it, celebrate it. But selling bourgeoise yogurt crocks and $100 bottles of wine to people who didn’t see her as part of their shabby-chic fantasy was becoming difficult to bear. She was also onboarding other displaced “village kids” who were doing exactly what she was doing: moving back home, into their parents’ offices, in-law units, and backyards. Having only kind words and a dead-end service job to offer them was making her grow thorns.
She was unhappy. The boutique was becoming a psychological warfare zone. She had tried her hand doing sales at a startup, but the work was soul-fraying. Art made her happy, and she was genuinely talented, but working at a couture costume shop and an internationally acclaimed ceramics studio wasn’t enough to pay the bills. She couldn’t afford to move.
The muse was not only dead—it couldn’t afford the resuscitation fee.
This is why I never doubted her desire to leave the Bay Area. But my guilt came from somewhere else.
I had not been facing these problems. I dabble in dance, but I was too cowardly to ever accept the life of an artist. I work in tech.
“Leaving the Bay Area is the best thing you can do right now, if you have a dream.”
To clarify, I am not a programmer. I say I am a “techie” in the sense that I have positioned myself, through a combination of hard work, luck, and privilege, to benefit from the startup bomb that exploded in my backyard 10 years ago. I was handed a sales job by a family friend right out of college, and I took it greedily, not looking back until, well, now. Mostly I have worked in sales, marketing, and user research. For my efforts, I live in a gritty but familial part of the sprawling, controversial metropolis of Oakland. I have my own en suite bathroom and a tiny balcony where I can grow useless amounts of herbs and play at “connecting to the land.” My roommate is a professional journalist with a blue checkmark on Twitter. We’re both in our 30s. We understand that with our respective shares of the rent, we could be paying mortgages on entire houses in Denver or Austin. But we are here. Our friends (what’s left of them) and family are here; my job network is here. Two fully employed middle-class women in their 30s splitting bills on Venmo and figuring out how to most diplomatically accuse the other of eating more of the peanut butter. This is normal in the Bay Area. Only programmers live alone. Only rich programmers own houses.
Setting aside for a moment Oakland’s own gentrification culture war (which would be another 20-minute essay), it is a two-hour drive away from Eleanor’s home in Stinson. It should only be an hour, but the traffic on the 580 moved from “rush-hour average” to “perpetual nightmare” sometime in 2014. With a regular work week, you don’t often have four hours to spare for a round-trip drive to see a friend—even the one who wouldn’t leave your side when your dad died.
Had we drifted? Of course we had. But it was more than the traffic and geography that was the source of my guilt. I felt I had played into the system that was financially and culturally kicking her out. And I’d realized it for the first time just as she was leaving.
“I’m scared I haven’t been a good enough friend to you,” I confess to her.
“I do feel loved and supported,” she says.
“I’m glad,” I say. And I mean it. I feel greedy for this absolution because I realize beyond the guilt, there’s another feeling: paranoia.
For the first time, while sitting in full-stop traffic before the Bay Bridge in the ironically named “fastrak” lane, I count them in my head: 11 people I care about have left California in the past two years. Eleanor is number 12, and apparently the final straw that’s really making me pause and think, “What the hell is going on?”
She shifts next to me in the dead-stop traffic. I know her well enough at this point to know she is teeming with anxiety. “We’ll make the flight. We left early,” I say.
“I know,” she says.
But we both know this is not why she’s nervous.
She’s nervous about the life shift. The constant cloud of “failure” that threatens to downpour on you at any minute if you live in the Bay Area is still looming over her head.
What she doesn’t know yet is that this cloud, for her, is about to dissipate. Leaving the Bay Area is the best thing you can do right now, if you have a dream. She’s going to be fine. She just doesn’t know it yet.
Moving, especially moving across the country, is an enormous, yet hardly uncommon, life shift. Leaving one’s hometown to forge a better future in a new city is one of the most traditional adult rites of passage that we as Americans have. Eleanor and I had a few friends who left the Bay around 2012 and 2013 for career opportunities, to be with a spouse, or to take a rare internship. We wished them well. It was hard, but normal. We were in our early 20s.
There’s something not normal, however, about the number of people who have taken flight out of California in the past year or so.
If you go to Austin, New Orleans, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and Denver—to name just a few—you can easily find folks transplanted from other cities and states. You can also easily find a band of locals bemoaning, specifically, the “fucking Californians” who are flooding their home, driving up rents, installing yoga studios, polluting the local vibe with new technology, and generally making everything suck while sipping kale juice. We’re threatening Austin’s weirdness and erasing Bozeman’s cowboys. We seem to be everywhere you look, ruining other cities, apparently by not staying where we ought to—back in California.
It would appear we are fleeing California like it’s on fire (which, actually, it literally is lately); only large quantities of “foreign” people moving into one area typically disrupt culture and incite hatred like that. Yet San Francisco rent continues to lead the nation based on white-hot demand. This doesn’t really make sense.
Let me offer a snapshot of San Francisco in 2018:
A friend is having a birthday party at a funky dive bar in the Mission and has invited you. Despite the ostensibly blue-collar aesthetic, you pay $14 for a cocktail containing house-made lavender syrup and organic gin. You lean against a vintage pinball machine, a shrine to the predigital adolescence half the people in the bar never had, and proceed to make small talk with the other guests, asking, “Where are you from?”
They reply: “Wisconsin.”
And, of course, you encounter several international immigrants from Europe, Latin America, and Asia, who never ever seem to complain about housing costs, traffic, Whole Foods, or you.
One person says, “I’m a Bay Area native.”
Being a Bay Area native does not mean this person is Miwok or Ohlone (two Native American tribes who originally lived here). It just means they lived in the Bay before tech took off. It’s like wearing an invisible bachelorette party sash that says: “The startup tsunami basically came to me. I am both riding the wave and I can complain about it.” (Or, depending on their shoes, it could mean, “My dad founded a venture capital firm and my apartment’s lot is worth more than your entire life.”) This person will proceed to complain about rent and the general loss of culture they have witnessed over the past 10 years.
But what this “native” Bay Area kid won’t do is start blaming the guy from North Carolina or Wisconsin or Boston—basically every other person in the bar—for propelling the rents into the sky and inadvertently forcing the “locals” to flee. Someone may disagree with me here, but I just haven’t seen it done. If the conversation actually manages to advance far enough into blaming something for the Bay’s loss of culture and housing woes, the finger falls on the companies who employ these newcomers: Google, Genentech, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc. Even still, this finger of blame rarely gets raised above the hip; we use these companies’ products or benefit from their research every day.
There is an apocalyptic amount of people moving into California, and no one blames them for the overcrowding and the shifting culture. But when too many Californians leave California and settle in, say, Portland, they are blamed for ruining the place by way of simply being themselves. I visited Seattle for the first time a month ago and was warned someone might throw a bottle at my car for my California plates. In Portland, I saw “No Californians” signs slapped onto “for sale” signs in yards. In Denver, I read news articles about friendlier locals advising Californians to tell people they were from literally anywhere else. You can Google virtually any city plus the phrase “hate Californians” and find pages of forums and articles giving voice to the hatred of Golden State jerks “ruining” cities. This is not true for other domestic migrants.
It is apparently Californians who are unique in their snobbery and ability to ruin other places.
Yet I am having trouble feeling snobbish and superior when I’m losing friend after friend after friend to cities that don’t make it impossible to be a teacher, a painter, a bakery owner, or even a damn barista in order to have a full fridge and a fulfilling life.
“I don’t want California to stop being a hub of brilliant, ambitious people. What I want is for California to be affordable to more than one kind of life.”
Also, above all, I don’t want California to stop growing and benefiting from all the international and domestic migrants who flock here for opportunity and/or safety. Despite the fact that my rent makes some people do spit-takes, I am still a beneficiary of an inflated Bay Area salary. On a daily basis, I get to work with freakishly brave, casually brilliant minds, curated and imported not just from across the United States, but from India, China, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and South America. At a dinner party, I get to sound like a comic book super scientist (“we’re finding the algorithm for love”) or a Bond villain’s understudy (“we’re building a robot army”). I am also proud to be part of a liberal community that is trying to be a safe zone for people who would otherwise be persecuted in other parts of the country or the world. And, to frost the cake, I get to experience all of this while being surrounded by majestic redwood forests, nationally conserved seashores, famous wines, temperate weather, and the entire food, music, and art accessory package that comes with being in a world-class city that international business kings and technology icons call “home.” Holy shit. The Bay Area is fucking awesome, right?
Yeah. Except for the part where everyone I love is leaving.
I don’t want California to stop being a hub of brilliant, ambitious people. What I want is for California to be affordable to more than one kind of life. And I want the record set straight about who exactly is moving where and, above all, why.
We are witnessing two migrations. One is the continuation of the Californian dream, where young people flock here for gold and glory, ready to hustle and disrupt, hammering to hit the motherlode and laughing at the odds. The other is the migration of young people out of California, which seems to have affected everyone I know, but which I rarely hear examined. These people want to be artists, teachers, blacksmiths, therapists, mechanics, and musicians. They want to have children, open bakeries, own a house. But they can’t. There is no room here for those kinds of dreams anymore. They hear about someone’s success in New Orleans, Kansas City, or Pittsburgh, and they leave their families and communities behind on the chance they will, ironically, strike gold.
To the angry locals of Portland, Seattle, Denver, New Orleans, Kansas City, Phoenix, Austin, and elsewhere, please hear this defense: The Californians who are coming in and “ruining” your cities are not snobs. They don’t have trust funds. They aren’t entitled. They are the opposite. They have been kicked out of their own backyards for not learning Python fast enough or not having a dad who could introduce them to VC firms or not wanting to live in their family’s in-law unit at age 30 or not being able to afford a $2,000/month studio on a $20/hour paycheck. They aren’t techies; they had the audacity to want something besides tech. They are some of our best, most creative, most hardworking people—and you are getting them. We are losing them.
We are kind to your friends who move here to grow, to start things, to feel safe, to dream. So, please, be kind to my friends and their dreams too.
At SFO, I watch as Eleanor walks inside the terminal with all her possessions: two trunks and a carry-on full of handmade ceramics. We hug. We tell each other I love you—something I rarely say—promise to keep in touch, and say all the other sentiments humans use to anesthetize loss. She turns the corner and is gone.
I get back into my car. I take a breath. Instantly I crumple, like an angry teenager, gasping and wiping tears all over my face. I want to slam the steering wheel and have my own private “it isn’t fair” meltdown. But I don’t. The meter maids at SFO are fierce and will bear down on you if you idle in passenger loading for more than 30 seconds. The airport is a zoo of emergency lights, Ubers competing for space, attendants blaring whistles. At San Francisco’s busy pace, there is no time for examining loss.
I take another breath, remembering that I am happy for her. I’m an adult. People move all the time. This is normal. It’s not my fault she’s gone, that all 12 of them are gone. Normal. People move all the time. Nothing I could have done.
I can’t change the rent.
This article first appeared on Medium.
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