All cities are experienced differently by natives and newer residents, but the differences feel more extreme in San Francisco, probably because there are fewer natives here than in most major cities.
For natives, San Francisco is frequently seen through a kind of Proustian mist. Reminders of The City’s past are everywhere, and our consciousness frequently moves back decades in time when passing a building, street corner or even a bus stop, raising memories. Natives often communicate with each other through a shorthand of places and businesses that used to exist, and we carry a memory of The City that is different than that of newer residents, especially if we are over 50.
Many natives are not happy with the influx of newer residents over the last decade or two, particularly those associated with tech money. These newer San Franciscans have remade The City’s vibe, while driving up prices of everything, especially real estate. More than a few natives also temper that frustration with gratitude if they managed to buy a place or get into a rent-controlled unit before the cost of real estate in San Francisco skyrocketed.
Newer migrants to The City may see natives as provincial, too concerned about their property values and quality of life and unwilling to build new buildings or roll with the transformations of San Francisco’s economy and culture. This is a bit of a caricature, but like many caricatures, is not entirely inaccurate.
A small proportion of natives can trace their roots in San Francisco back several generations. Yet for most of us, our sojourn in San Francisco began more recently, as we are only a generation or two removed from the East Coast, the Midwest, Asia, Mexico, Central America or somewhere else.
Many of us were part of another transformation, one which lasted from roughly 1965 to 1990 that also remade The City. During those years, San Francisco became more racially diverse, politically progressive and gay than it had been for all of its previous history. Back then, we were the ones who were resented for changing the feel and politics of San Francisco.
In those decades, San Francisco transformed from a much more conservative city — one that elected Republican mayors every year from 1911 until Jack Shelley was elected in 1963 — to a city that has a well earned left-of-center reputation. Back then, longtime San Franciscans believed their city was being taken over from radical outsiders, and to a large extent they were right. The transformations in those 25 or so years beginning around 1965 saw The City emerge as an epicenter of American radicalism, the counterculture and the gay rights movement.
At the center of those changes was a largely successful effort by newer San Franciscans to wrest control of The City from older and more conservative natives and to remake San Francisco in their image. That struggle took the form of bitter and hard-fought elections, political movements and even violence. The dynamic in The City between natives and newer residents over the last decade or so is not altogether different from that.
In both these eras, the positions of natives were similar: We believe we have a unique understanding of this city, have an institutional memory and will be here in the future, so our opinions about The City should be respected. And in both eras, the newcomers believed they had the right answers for The City, were bringing important new ideas and were making San Francisco better.
Today, it is important, but never easy, to recognize that both sides are at least partially right.
Natives are right to bristle at the idea that people who, in many cases, are just passing through for a few years, should drive decision making in The City. Nonnatives whose knowledge goes back only a few years frequently lack a perspective that is essential for understanding San Francisco. However, nonnatives can play the equally essential role of waking up a city that, at times, feels too satisfied with itself and lacking in innovative ideas.
Nowhere is this tension more acute than in discussions around housing.
Many natives believe, rightly or wrongly, that the scale of San Francisco — the second most densely populated city in the country, though devoid of large apartment buildings in most neighborhoods — is an essential part of The City that must be protected. For older natives, San Francisco’s growth over the last decades, in which new neighborhoods have appeared, abandoned buildings have been replaced by highrises and congestion has grown at a seemingly exponential pace, has seemed too fast. Newer residents, on the other hand, often see a city where huge areas, particularly in the western part of San Francisco, look like a sea of small buildings and single-family homes, and wonder why we cannot build more apartment buildings.
There is room for compromise here. But that compromise is hard to reach as both sides dig in more. Native San Franciscans should recognize we need more housing and that medium-sized apartment buildings are not going to ruin the special feel of so many of the neighborhoods that collectively make this such a great city. Similarly, newer residents should not dismiss concerns about neighborhoods as the conservative NIMBYism of provincial locals; they might take a moment to remember that they decided to move (and then stay) here in substantial part because of The City that natives and longer-term residents built.
It is likely this conflict will not be resolved, and San Francisco will continue to exist on parallel tracks. We natives will continue to pine for a city that no longer exists and ask each other where we went to school — which means high school here — and then judge each other based on that. Newer residents will bring new energy and ideas — some good, some less so — and seek, like many of our parents before us, to remake San Francisco in their image. This could be a powerful synergy that drives The City forward, but the tensions are not going away anytime soon.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.