Big City America — When It Makes Sense, and Why I Love San Francisco

Chris Yeh and I are about as co-branded as Gladwell and Levitt, but even Gladwell and Levitt have their disagreements (see: abortion and crime).

A few weeks ago Chris made a side and snide remark about the City of San Francisco…He may have even used the "h" word. I told him to explain and he then did a follow up post articulating the 10 Reasons Why He Hates (yes, hate!) San Francisco.

Chris didn’t say how much time he’s actually spent in San Francisco, but I bet I’ve been here longer: 18 years straight, with the exception of a three week trip last year to Zurich and my current travels in Europe. During this time I have come to adore The City by the Bay, while recognizing its shortcomings. For example, 365 days a year you can’t leave the house after 6 PM without a jacket. The politicians are psycho (though I’m proud of our gay rights record). It has "big city" problems like homelessness and traffic. Public transit could be better. We don’t have four seasons. It’s expensive. After all, the main reason many non-SF Bay Area residents hate San Francisco is because they can’t afford it.

In return for these downsides, we enjoy stunning beauty, no snow, a diverse and highly educated population, city-wide wi-fi (soon), easy access to the Napa Valley (world’s best wine) and Santa Cruz Mountains (beaches and more), world-class universities (Stanford and Cal), and so forth. But many of these things are available to a lowly Palo Alto resident, too. Palo Alto probably has even warmer weather than we do. So why San Fran?

If you live in a big city, you value the accouterments of urban living over the side effects like homelessness. If you enjoy high culture (art, opera, etc.), professional sports teams, diversity of any kind, or any kind of in-person civic activity, the melting pot of a big city is the way to go. If you are focused on raising a family, an endeavor which requires time and money, you probably won’t sample the cultural offerings of a big city as much, and thus Palo Alto may be a better choice. On the other hand, a few months ago I was talking to a wealthy guy who’s about to have a kid. He moved to SF from the South Bay precisely because he wanted his child to be exposed to a bustling metropolis and see a better representation of the world (warts and all) rather than the somewhat isolated cities of Silicon Valley. For him, money isn’t a concern, so he can make this choice easily.

Me? I go to the World Affairs Council, San Francisco Giants games, and attended an urban high school which attracted students from all over the Bay Area, providing a range of perspectives not guarenteed in a tony Menlo Park school.

So, the interesting argument is not why someone from Palo Alto should move to San Francisco — those values / interests don’t change easily — but why, among the big cities, SF is a great choice. It seems to me weather is the big criterion. SF, LA, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Philly; all these cities offer a similar cultural pallette. All but SF and LA offer snow, too. There’s also the emergence of "b-list" cities such as Portland and Bloomington which try to offer the cultural wealth of a San Francisco without the dirt and expense.

On a side note, there are many super interesting urban studies trends in America. People’s living preferences are shifting. Suburbia is being complemented by "exurbia." More on all that in another post!

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