May 23, 2020
It occurs to me that Bay to Breakers is canceled this year.
When I first arrived in SF ten years ago, it was all my new coworkers could talk about. Many of them had just completed their first march to the Pacific, and they were full of that residual ecstasy that boils over into constant storytelling. This person had made it all the way to the ocean, and that person had started in Hayes Valley and passed out in Alamo Square. It was the last year they’d ever allow floats, which had mostly become mobile beer coolers. “You have to do it next year,” they told me, “but it’ll never be the same.”
My first year in SF was punctuated by these events. Often scheduled on optimistically warm days, they were an excuse for people to walk the streets in costumes traditionally confined to Halloween. Free from the urban confines of car traffic and open container laws, the residents would break the grid, frequently with a corporate sponsor.
My introduction was Pride, the not-so-unique parade and celebration that was uniquely linked to the Castro Neighborhood. A college acquaintance who I had run into at a coffee/bicycle shop invited me to one of the edgier satellite events called The Pink Party, where we mostly watched athletic men get coaxed into stripping under a giant disco ball dangled by a crane. All around us people furiously danced to and mourned Michael Jackson, his insatiable pop blaring from every DJ rig.
College had shown me positivity, potential, and a world without overt judgment (full of an obsession for “cool”). This was college at scale, electrified by a current of MDMA.
And on they went, weeks of a recession-proof desk job I was lucky to have, were spent in anticipation of: Treasure Island, Outside Lands, Hardly Strictly, Lovefest, Critical Mass, Bike Party, Halloween (the real one), Santacon, and a block-party-like riot spurred by the Giants’ World Series win.
The weekends with no obligations found us sipping beers and inhaling burritos in Dolores Park, unconcerned with the incessant thumping bass of whichever aspiring DJ bothered to bring a PA system. Vendors would pass by, and we’d buy over-powered THC truffles from copper pots, dried mushrooms from tie-dyed backpacks. Then the fog would roll it at 3pm like a curfew, and later that night we’d see a band play surf rock on guitars made in the 60s.
It wasn’t long before I started to wonder if I was “part of the problem”.
I spent my first three years developing software for a game where you could decorate a house and spend real money on fake clothes. I wasn’t proud of this, but we were a small company doing well in a deep market slump. The city seemed excited to see some, any success. On a whim I left SF for a brief hiatus in NY where I quickly experienced buyer’s remorse. NY did not think I was special, SF told me I was every day.
When I returned rent had leapt up, and attitudes had soured. A viral essay identified the monstrous Google Bus, private transportation that made it easier for well paid product managers to live in SF and commute to the corporate campuses of Silicon Valley. Before the busses friends of mine had made a point to live like this; there was “nothing to do” in Palo Alto so they drove south every morning and braved the traffic. But now the situation was much more visible. Protests ensued and windows were broken. A VC compared things to 1930s Berlin, fearing persecution for his wealth.
SF had always loved its food, but the flavors began to shift. 90s holdouts with wordplay in their names (Squat and Gobble, Bean There Coffee) made way for ambiguous one-word signs (Eat, Restaurant, Supper). Chefs got creative. Ramen got fancy, and then it got everywhere. Michelin showered the city with stars, and brands expanded. Everyone was nursing a San Francisco sourdough starter and buying a vacuum sealer. (They wanted to make something real.)
And there was the toast. The year I returned it was all anyone could talk about. It was symbolic. It was $4 – for toast! it was really good.
The inequality of it all was obvious, and it was getting worse. Evictions and rent hikes were forcing old residents out and young, aspiring tech workers in. Rent and property tax control protected most, but it hurt to see friends pushed out of the city they loved. It hurt to not be able to afford coffee.
The morally concerned tech workers among us found a convenient philosophy in YIMBYism. Change was inevitable, and the city’s population had grown by 15% in half a decade. We just needed more homes.
But to long-time residents change was a choice. New towers and boxy modernism would fill with more highly educated transplants. The city would “manhattanize”. Artists would leave. No one would be able to find a parking spot.
Soon the homeless began pitching tents. People were horrified. Supervisors were emailed. Some wanted them out, some wanted them housed, but no one had a solution. Maybe this humanitarian crisis was just a housing supply issue, and the NIMBYs were the cause? Maybe we needed more public housing that the state and a gutted HUD couldn’t provide? Maybe I was the problem? Shouldn’t I have moved to a suburb and commuted 3 hours a day?
The problem got worse. Homeowners got richer. The horror abated and the tents stayed.
My friends turned 30. Parties became dinner parties, and we coupled up. My girlfriend and I adopted a 20-lb chihuahua, pug mix.
I began to explore the geography. Through runs and walks I kept a log of staircases I found, municipal concrete steps treated like streets, with names like Farnsorth, Vulcan, and Lion. At the top of every hill was a park with a post-card view of downtown’s bleached brutalist skyline. Sometimes you could hear the fog horn.
From here the city felt small, nestled on the peninsula like its Mediterranean aunts and uncles. Pointing out neighborhoods evoked memories: Fort Mason where an art festival had shown our weekend project, Corona Heights where I’d smoked a joint before descending to sing Karaoke at The Mint, The Castro Theater where my high school friends and I, after having driven 5 hours, had attended an animation festival, and The Mission where I’d emerged from the 16th st BART station in a daze, having flown from Rhode Island for my first job interview. From here you could see most of Hayes Street and Golden Gate Park, the route that Bay to Breakers would take.
Over the years my drunken walks through Bay to Breakers have matured to gruesome runs. I don’t dress up. I time myself. I push.
But the experience of crossing the city is the same. It is made small – small enough to hold. Each piece is suspended together, and it is easy to feel a sense of ownership. More than most American cities, its character seems to come just as much from its geography as its people – a geography that over the past decade is mostly unchanged.
Recently, at the top of Buena Vista park I met a neighbor who often holds court with his guitar and cheery wit. My dog walked up to him and was given a treat. We stayed 10 feet from one another.
He asked me what I thought of big tech going remote. There are no Google busses anymore, and companies have announced their intentions to keep it that way. From now on, most people making software won’t have to go to an office.
I turned the question around. “You were here for the last dot com bubble,” I said, “what was that like?”
He laughed and said he’d been here for a few other bubbles too. The hippies had come and went. The Aerospace and microchip engineers had too. Then we went back to plucking his guitar.
We both looked out over the city to the bridge. The air glistened in the heat.