San Francisco is still America’s best city

I’ve seen a lot of recent criticism of San Francisco, particularly its problem with homelessness. Thus I looked forward to spending a few days there to see for myself.

I stayed in the “Tenderloin” district, which contains San Francisco’s largest concentration of homeless. Each day I spent an hour or two exploring different parts of the city on foot, in different directions.  Here are my highly subjective observations.

1. There is a lot of homelessness in San Francisco, but much of it seems concentrated in a few small areas, including the area where I stayed.  LA’s problem is far worse.

2. Homelessness is obviously a problem for the homeless themselves, but it doesn’t seem to me to be much of a problem for most residents of San Francisco, except in a very restricted area. I walked by lots of homeless people and was not hassled a single time. I don’t doubt that problems occur, but the issue seems overrated to me. As far as cleanliness, that may be a generational thing. I grew up in an America where pets were allowed to poop on the sidewalks, so I don’t freak out about the dirt and the needles.

3. The vast majority of San Francisco remains America’s most beautiful city, by far. Boston recently built a new neighborhood along the harbor just south of downtown, and San Francisco has built a far more impressive one in the same general location. I visited the new bus station the day it opened (yesterday), and it has to be the most impressive bus station in the world. There’s a huge park on the roof that is vaguely reminiscent of NYC’s Highline, but less crowded (see below). The airport and mass transit system are far superior to those in LA.

4. San Francisco is a much denser city than LA, but even so there’s still lots of room to put up 20 story apartment buildings in older industrial areas, such as south of Market Street. That’s already being done, but much more is needed.

Visiting both San Francisco and San Jose on this trip, it was clear how much these cities have pulled away from middle American cities like St. Louis and Cleveland. The wealth and sophistication in the Bay Area is visible everywhere; it’s perhaps the first time I intuitively grasped the difference between the 20th and 21st centuries. While much of Middle America is still in the 20th century, the SoMa district most certainly is not.

5. I doubt whether San Francisco’s success is due to good governance. More likely, the incredible natural beauty, mild climate, and the proximity to Silicon Valley are bigger factors.

It was a lot of fun walking through the city.

Tyler Cowen recently made this observation:

I was in San Francisco last week, and most of my conversations eventually turned to the same topic: Could some other region supplant the Bay Area as America’s tech hub? San Francisco, after all, has sky-high rents and taxes — not to mention dirty streets, unpleasant strip clubs and numerous homeless. . . .

[C]onsider the virtues of the Los Angeles area. It has splendid weather — warmer and sunnier than San Francisco — and a deep pool of talent. . . .  It even has a subway, albeit an underdeveloped one. I would argue it has much better food, and of course a much larger and more diverse entertainment scene. You might reasonably conclude that top talent might prefer to live in or near Los Angeles rather than the Bay Area. . . .

Northern California had an original advantage over Southern California as a center of free thinking and thus as a tech hub. Think back to Haight-Ashbury, the 1960s, Beatniks, LSD and the Whole Earth Catalog, the psychedelic movement, the bohemian and gay cultures of San Francisco. All of that bred an atmosphere of rebellion, and it helped birth the personal computer and a large movement of non-conformist hippie programmers, often working out of their proverbial garages.

But those cultural roots have largely faded, and if anything today San Francisco and the Bay Area are better known for political correctness and a conformist culture of scolding and groupthink.

At my age I prefer the sunny warm weather of SoCal, and the convenience of driving in Orange County.  But if I were young, I’d vastly prefer the San Francisco area, and it’s not even close.  To say LA’s subway system is “undeveloped” is an understatement—I’ve found it to be worthless.  Both cities have political correctness, but judging by the delightful and colorful gay pride parade I witnessed over the weekend, San Francisco is still free of the dreary, hypocritical puritanism that mars so much of American culture.  Whole families attended, obviously not concerned that their darling little ones would be scarred for life if they saw a bit too much skin.  (I won’t offer an opinion on whether San Fran’s strip clubs are of the “pleasant” or “unpleasant” variety, as I lack the expertise to challenge Tyler’s judgment.  But I presume that those who don’t care for that sort of thing would just stay away.)

Despite these reservations, LA may well be the next Silicon Valley, for the reason’s identified by Tyler.

PS.  Just to be clear, while the city has some nice architecture, I would not rate San Francisco number one without its natural beauty.

PPS.  I often criticize Trump, but to his credit he recently admitted that America’s homelessness problem began after he was elected president:

After the president mildly protested that only “some of our cities” are like that, the Fox News star said that New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles all “have a major problem with filth.”

“Why is that?” Carlson wondered aloud.

“It’s a phenomenon that started two years ago,” Trump declared. “It’s disgraceful. I’m going to maybe—I am looking at it very seriously.”

Yes, do that.



14 Responses to “San Francisco is still America’s best city”

  1. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    2. July 2019 at 12:43

    As someone who has lived in Silicon Valley all my life and worked in the tech industry, I’ve seen many predictions over the decades that some other place would become the tech center of the US. And the relatively high cost of living here isn’t new. That’s been the norm for a long time.

    There are two things which are likely to help keep this area the tech capital of the US for a good number of years to come. First, there’s the concentration of tech companies that have a presence here. A number of years ago, I had a brief encounter with some people from an Israeli tech company who told me the company was going to relocate to Silicon Valley because of the business networking opportunities. (Looking at it in economic terms, there’s an opportunity cost for tech companies located in places other than Silicon Valley.)

    And the second reason has to do with physical data networks. Palo Alto is the location of one of two major network interchange points in the US. You want ready access to all the major network service providers and the internet as a whole, this is the place to be. This is why all of the companies that sprang up to index the internet before Google reigned supreme were located here.

  2. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    2. July 2019 at 13:59

    Yeah, SF is great, though it is curious how successful the capital of American progressivism has been at driving out black people.

  3. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    2. July 2019 at 14:34

    “dreary, hypocritical puritanism”

    That about sums up Tyler Cowan nicely.

  4. Gravatar of Racer Racer
    2. July 2019 at 15:30

    “It’s a phenomenon that started two years ago.”

    If Trump has dementia, how long would it take for us to tell?

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. July 2019 at 15:37

    Gordon, Interesting.

    Brian, There’s a new film out with that theme.

    Benny, I don’t think any of those three terms fit Tyler.

  6. Gravatar of FiDiGuy FiDiGuy
    2. July 2019 at 17:21

    I would disagree and suggest SF is just second best. Having left a small rural town in middle America and lived 5/6 years of my adult life in both SF and NYC; NYC is definitely better than SF (although California is better than New York state!).

    Yes, SF wins for natural beauty and has the nicer weather (better than NYC and probably much of the country too), but NYC wins in my opinion in most categories that matter for cities – it beats SF in scale, has better cultural institutions, the architecture is hands down better, and shopping is better too. NYC ekes out the win for best nightlife (4am last call is wonderful and terrible). I’d say the food scenes are about equal with both cities playing to their strengths. I find NYC people more attractive too if that matters and also smart unlike some other California city that won’t be named.

    Sure there is a sticker shock moving to NYC (noticeably more expensive when moving from SF) so it definitely helps to be in the 1%. Europe is close enough to have weekends in Paris when you are NYC based. What’s not to love?

    Ps, why do conservatives hate coastal liberals?

  7. Gravatar of BC BC
    2. July 2019 at 17:51

    “While much of Middle America is still in the 20th century, the SoMa district most certainly is not.”

    Other than the material benefits of higher income, what would you consider to be better about the 21st century relative to the late 20th century, say 1985-1999? Is the only difference between SoMa and Middle America that SoMa residents are wealthier or is there more than that?

  8. Gravatar of Michael Makdad Michael Makdad
    2. July 2019 at 21:19

    SF is not nearly as earthquake-prone as Tokyo, where I live, but I have concerns about its resilience after a 1906-size quake happens. Building standards in SF were pretty lax in the first half of the 20th century, from what I understand.

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. July 2019 at 09:17

    FDG, You make some good points, but I put a lot of weight on scenery and weather. NYC is also dirty and crowded. But culturally it’s light years ahead, as you say.

    BC, I don’t view the 21st century as being better, but then I’m just an old reactionary. By most standards, the lifestyle of a 30 year old in SoMa is so far ahead of what I experienced at the same age that it’s like another world. I walked into a grocery store in SoMa and the selection was vastly different from what you’d get in St. Louis. I’d guess they are also more tech savvy, but am not certain.

    There are downsides to the 21st century, such as the loss of privacy.

  10. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    3. July 2019 at 10:15

    Tyler the hypocrite writes extensively about how awful it is that New York pulled subsidies for Amazon, blogging about it extensively. But what about Arizona pulling subsidies for Nike? Silence.

    Tyler the dreary Puritan clucking his tongue about the virtues of Mormonism due to their abstinence despite being an atheist himself.

    Tyler the dreary purtian clucking his tongue at the poor. How mean they are to the rich! How dare they.

    Go ahead and shill for your fellow economist. What an intellectually bankrupt profession.

  11. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    3. July 2019 at 16:47

    SFO is great if you don’t mind having to throttle your brain down 50% when you communicate with the natives.

  12. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    4. July 2019 at 15:11

    I wonder if a young Scott Sumner would move to the West Coast at all. He was said to be of the frugal nature.

    I thought you would get a kick out this blurb about a new apartment complex just east of downtown Los Angeles, in what until recently was a Detroitified industrial zone:


    “In recent years a lot of attention has focused on the Arts District, as the once sleepy neighborhood has attracted a slew of housing, cultural and culinary projects. But almost everything that has come online in the past decade pales in comparison to The Aliso, a five-building complex at Third Street and Santa Fe Avenue that has 472 apartments.
    Coincidentally or not, that time period — a decade — is almost as long as the developer has been trying to get the project built….The project has studio to two-bedroom apartments. Units have quartz countertops, electric stoves, LED lighting and washer and dryer systems; there are different finishing options, depending on a resident’s tastes. A 479-square-foot studio starts at $2,330.”


    Yes, a 479-square-foot studio starts at $2,330. “Starts.”

    The West Coast is not yet Hong Kong, and given offloading to the Inland Empire, Las Vegas, Phoenix and (perhaps indirectly) even Nashville, maybe we do not see Hong Kong in L.A.

    But I suspect the young Scott Sumners of the world are moving to Nashville or Austin. Who knows? Maybe Milwaukee will make a comeback.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. July 2019 at 18:24

    Benny, I see you don’t know the meaning of ‘hypocrite’. . . .

  14. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    8. July 2019 at 07:03

    Scott you’re such an intellectually bankrupt shit. But because you are also ignorant of basic things here is a chance to teach you something:
    Definition of hypocrite
    1 : a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion
    2 : a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings

Leave a Reply