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There is No San Francisco Without San Francisco

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I wrote this essay during one of the deepest parts of the pandemic. It’s from the upcoming collection The End of the Golden Gate: Writers on Loving and (Sometimes) Leaving San Francisco. The book is REALLY good and includes such luminaries as Margaret Cho, W. Kamau Bell, Michelle Tea, John Law, and more! You can preorder it right here.

It felt like moving trucks were parked on every block in town. There was a low hum of activity as friends, frenemies, lovers, ex-lovers, sometimes lovers, parents, stepparents, drag parents, and day laborers hired from in front of the U-Haul place on Bryant Street, all carried furniture out of buildings throughout the city. It was July 1, 2020, five months into the COVID crisis, and San Francisco was hemorrhaging residents. Apparently, all it took was a literal fucking pandemic for thousands to realize they’d finally had enough of this place.

All this time we’d been saying, “Just wait till there’s a big earthquake and watch all these people scurry back to Ohio or Wisconsin or wherever the hell they came from.” Little did we know that something far more microscopic would actually be the thing that sent them running.

The surprising thing was that it wasn’t just tech bros and social media managers fleeing. People who had been here for ten, fifteen, twenty years—who had come not for the tech industry, but because they were in love with San Francisco, or at least the idea of it—were now leaving, too. It wasn’t just programmers and marketers who were looking for exit signs but poster artists and poets, waiters and writers, and bartenders and blues musicians. The people we hoped a catastrophe would make more room for were getting swept out as well.

Obviously, all the death and economic fallout is the last thing anyone wanted, but was this emptying of San Francisco the thing we’d been hoping for for the past decade? Were we finally getting our city back, or would San Francisco just be a taller, emptier version of a place that was getting harder to remember?

I’ve spent nearly twenty years in San Francisco, and for the first half of them, this city was the true love of my life. Some friends and I had a saying that went, “I don’t want any relationship that gets in the way of my relationship with San Francisco.” But over the past decade that relationship has become more of an abusive one.

I love San Francisco. And I fucking hate San Francisco. This place gives so much while simultaneously taking so much away. I’m constantly inspired by the activism and the community building I see here. And I’m repeatedly gutted by the greed and selfishness that has come to define this place, making it a cautionary tale of what happens when a handful of very wealthy people actually get almost everything they want.

A protest from when Mayor Ed Lee pushed all the homeless people out to down town for a Super Bowl party for rich people.

There was a time when I thought San Francisco was the future of America, even if I didn’t know which future it would be. Would it be a Dickensian dystopia where the ultra-wealthy frolic while the rest of the population is either homeless, or a couple bad breaks from being so? Or would it be one where progressive ideals pave the way for a more equitable country where everyone has healthcare, housing, and education? With just a little more political will, San Francisco could be the city where such unfathomable wealth could be used to actually make sure everyone had a place to live, a decent education, and food to eat. We could be the shining example the rest of the country needs to see in order to make this a nation that is truly for everyone.

When I moved to San Francisco in 2002, I fell deeply and utterly in love with it. The city was full of misfits, dreamers, artists, and weirdos. It had spent the past half century as the place where you went if you didn’t belong anywhere else. Whether you were a refugee from Latin America or Middle America, this city opened its golden gates and said, “Welcome home.” Being a San Franciscan was something to be proud of because it meant you lived in one of the most special places in the world.

A decade later, Mayor Ed Lee gave substantial tax breaks to a number of big tech companies to keep them in the city, and this set off an avalanche of fuckery. Rents and property values reached unfathomable levels, record numbers of evictions happened as rapacious landlords tried to cash in, and newly evicted people with nowhere else to go often ended up on the street—causing our homeless population to become ever growing.

On top of that, the newcomers to San Francisco didn’t love the city like we did. They arrived from around the world to work for companies who only seemed to be creating apps to do the tasks your mom wouldn’t do for you anymore. They worked too many hours and got fed and boozed at work, so they didn’t spend nearly enough money at the local businesses that made SF unique. Not that they had much money left over, considering they were paying $3,000 a month to live in our loved ones’ former apartments. For a large number of the people who moved here, San Francisco was just a place to work and make money for a few years before going back to wherever they came from. They often didn’t know, or didn’t care, about the cultural carnage they were unintentionally part of as they created massive wealth for a handful of people and their investors.

For a large number of the people who moved here, San Francisco was just a place to work and make money for a few years before going back to wherever they came from.

Those of us who, through a combination of rent control and dumb luck, were able to survive this maelstrom, watched as the city that was such a part of the way we defined ourselves as people, became nearly unrecognizable. The betrayal was gut-wrenching; it was like going to high school and your best friend from middle school became the bully who picked on you.

So, what’s kept me here? Part of it is that I have nowhere else to go. I make my entire living by thinking, writing, and talking about San Francisco. My work is synonymous with what’s going on culturally and politically in San Francisco and a huge part of that is distilled through my two decades of personal connections and insights into this place. Considering the Venn diagram of my life is where media, activism, and the service industry meet, it would be impossible to build that somewhere else. For me to leave the Bay Area, I’d have to pick a new profession, and really, a new life completely.

But what’s also kept me here is still catching glimmers and glimpses of the place I fell in love with. Whether it’s a guy walking through the Castro wearing only a sun hat and a cock-sock, or the fact that city hall lights up pink, blue, and white for Transgender Awareness Week, or that Democratic Socialists get elected to public office, or that you can’t walk down the street without running into someone you know . . . there is still some real magic and it out- weighs most of the bullshit most of the time.

My fiancé, Kayla, is sitting on our couch, morosely wondering out loud, “Do I have any friends left here?” Lately we’ve gone to a number of going away parties in various parks, and the exodus is getting to her.

The history of San Francisco is a series of booms and busts, but this one feels different. While home and rental prices are dropping dramatically, I’m left wondering if anyone will be around to take advantage of it. Suddenly thousands of people have come to the realization that there is no San Francisco without San Francisco.

By which I mean: They’ve begun questioning the point of living someplace that’s dirty, expensive, and full of heartbreaking homelessness when they’re stuck inside their apartment. If none of the things that makes this place special are available, why even be here?

For all the people who’ve left, that question was already answered. Over the past decade, we’ve seen our favorite places close down and get replaced by yoga studios and high-end cocktail bars. Just take the corner Sixteenth Street and Valencia in the Mission District as an example. What used to be a Latino tiendita was replaced by an upscale version of a corner store where instead of buying panaderia pastries for a one dollar you can buy high-end versions of them for five dollars. I don’t think you can get a more literal example of gentrification. Or when the Lusty Lady—a peep show and the only worker-owned strip club in the nation—closed down, there was talk of turning the space into a peep show–themed cocktail bar. Thankfully that atrocity didn’t come to fruition.

The tiendita on the left was replaced by what google maps even calls a “Highbrow food hall with groceries”.

San Francisco is a city that’s been thoroughly plagued by wealth, greed, and gentrification. Yet, when it finally looks like much of what caused this is fleeing like locusts after a feeding frenzy, what’s left behind is far less than what was here before.

The people we love have moved or are moving. The places that make this city wonderful are closed or are closing. And what’s left over is a beautiful city full of empty buildings and far too many people sleeping in the streets instead of inside those buildings.

Recently I was walking around the Mission, seeing haunting fliers for shows that never happened and murals painted on plywood that covered the windows and doors of places that I love. And it hurt my heart. But I also realized that the murals weren’t just beautifully crafted Closed for Business signs, they were actually shouts of hope from a city that always rises back up. The fact, that when the world went to shit, a group of people figured out how to pay artists to take that shit and make it pretty . . . well, that just felt like the San Francisco I fell in love with.

The murals weren’t just beautifully crafted Closed for Business signs, they were actually shouts of hope from a city that always rises back up. Mural by Nora Bruhn on Chez Maman.

And that got me thinking: Maybe this is San Francisco’s chance to get it right. We’ve stood at the crossroads and seen two possible paths—hell, we even ventured a little too far down the dystopian one. Perhaps this culling of people and companies, this exodus of exes and friends, can act as a reset button. Maybe this is our chance for San Francisco to finally live the ideals it preaches.

After a decade of fighting greedy landlords, destructive venture capitalists, rapacious housing developers, and nearly omnipotent tech giants, it feels like we can finally catch a breather. As these forces of displacement choose to displace themselves, those of us who somehow withstood the onslaught can fill those spaces with art, community, and people we love. And I mean spaces quite lit- erally. Just imagine what kind of cool and creative places can open up when they don’t have to worry about a landlord raising rent by $30,000 a month.

That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of work ahead of us, but maybe once again, San Francisco values might mean something more than just the value you can generate in San Francisco.

Preorder End of the Golden Gate right here!

A portion of the profits will go to support families experiencing homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, poet, TV host, activist, and general shit-stirrer. His website is one of the most influential arts & culture sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and his freelance writing has been featured in Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Bold Italic, and too many other outlets to remember. His weekly column, Broke-Ass City, appears every other Thursday in the San Francisco Examiner. Stuart’s writing has been translated into four languages. In 2011 Stuart created and hosted the travel show Young, Broke, and Beautiful on IFC and in 2015 he ran for Mayor of San Francisco and got nearly 20k votes.

He's been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero":SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York.


  1. May 14, 2021 at 6:55 pm

    Stuart, as a fellow 40-year-old San Franciscan (I was born here, and our birthdays – I shit you not – are a week apart) who also makes his… I can’t much call it a “living”… writing about my hometown (for the Weekly, Examiner, and more, as shown on my website), this essay of yours hit me hard.

    As a theatre artist, I’ve not only watched as a bunch of pretentious white bois have slowly squeezed out diverse voices, but I’ve seen much of the latter vacate over the past year. As one of the few Black artists and critics left, that hurts me.

    But, like you, I see the past year’s racial reckoning and WFH necessity as signs that although my hometown is ailing, it isn’t dead. The people who came here to hurt it had/have no connection to it: the out-of-towners who break shit during Giants or Niners victories; the asshole who brought a gun to Hallowe’en in the Castro, shutting it down forever; and yes, the tech bros who think this city is a 7×7-mile condom for them to fuck and toss away. Those folks either don’t vote or don’t care enough to vote in the City’s best interests.

    So I won’t miss ’em. But the wonderful freaks left over? I pray the still-sustained activism of the past year holds – in the ballot AND with the wallet. Freaks are what make this City flourish. They always have been.

    • Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap
      May 16, 2021 at 8:19 am

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I am optimistic. I think those that are still here want to be here and want to fight for the best SF possible. I’m glad you’re one of them.

  2. tommy strange
    May 26, 2021 at 1:09 pm

    I really like the heartfelt emotion in this article. But it is really ‘lie’ by omission to just treat massive expulsion of working class people from cities and destruction of affordable housing (well, where there are jobs, of course) , as some ‘thing that just happens’. It is bi partisan policy, and has been since the 90’s, to pump up the finance sector. After the 2008 crash the Obama crew pumped over $12 trillion into the big banks at near zero interest rates. To create a new asset bubble. The fed and treasury now are doing the same, with trillions of assets on their books. There is money here in the USA to do everything, including even green socialized dense urban housing. The political will, by neither party, is there. Homelessness, and skyrocketing rents in cities and building of million dollar condos is not ‘market forces’… is funded, and enforced political policy by both parties. Something ‘occupy’ tried to make clear years ago.

    • Theo
      June 4, 2021 at 10:07 pm

      The financial crash won’t be properly treated until it is properly diagnosed. The inflated home prices in San Francisco are a market signal to build more homes in San Francisco. But because San Francisco doesn’t believe in market signals, only a slow trickle of luxury homes and luxury-cost affordable housing are built, and the prices continue to be extremely volatile.

      The lack of homebuilding in San Francisco forced people to move to other cities, spreading gentrification to Oakland and beyond. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve believed that the increasing home prices were due to too much home building instead of too little, so they restricted the access to money for homes until the banks crashed.

      The banks needed the cash to restart, but access to mortgages remains restricted, so now we have a nationwide housing shortage instead of merely a Bay Area housing shortage.

      In conclusion, it was wrong from the beginning to fight the real estate developers. You weren’t satisfied with developers being 90% stopped, but the restrictions caused a housing shortage that hurt almost everybody in the entire country.

  3. Jenn Hickman
    May 28, 2021 at 7:15 pm

    You have read my heart, Stuart. Thank you. You are as San Franciscan as me, and I was born in Letterman Hospital, baptized at Dolores Church and mom says conceived during a heatwave in Dolores Park.

  4. Vitorio Ferrinezza
    June 1, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    Well finally! Thank you Stuart for thoughts and blunt analysis. Now if you had the perspective of someone who’s been in the area since 1964, having lived in the Potrero and Sunset before moving on to Marin I could relate even more. I loved the City. I remember a time when a man could buy a house for 27K on a handshake and raise his family on 14 bucks an hour with a modest a side hustle. A place where proud Italians came together once a week or month at a Sons of Italy or Italian Catholic Federation function to share ideas, a good meal, dance the night away, or even try and conceive. Free concerts at Stern Grove, the old Amusement part at Ocean Beach, or getting together every Sunday with family and friends at Golden Gate Park. I was 3 when I threw my first Bocce Ball at the Embarcadero, later to find out my father would make bets with his Italian buddies at how how good I could hold out against the old timers, who were dumbfounded to see the little Argentinian boy beat them. Fresh crab or shrimp cocktails at Alioto’s when SF had a mayor with the same name. Later, coming of age, sneaking into Busby’s (sp) or The Stud, or the I-Beam to dance with friends that weren’t spun up on Meth or tripping on who knows what, well maybe a Quaalude or two. Back then, Polk street was a lot more like the Castro. Of course we can’t forget the Elephant Walk in the early days or The Mabuhay. Anything Haight Street. The sadness of Harvey Milk and Mayor Mosconi’s murder, the riots that followed the verdict. I was there at City Hall. I was deeply and profoundly disappointed in the events that happened that night. Witnessing how Pride became more commercialized. The Sister’s of Perpetual Endulgence. The I-Beam float. Dykes on Bikes. Watching the BART construction along Market. Seeing the skyline transform with the building of the Bank of America and Transamerica buildings and eventually the erection of Sutro Tower. OMFG I thought to myself. Candlestick Park half complete and watching Bobby Bonds play. Watching the Concorde land and take off it’s only visit to SFO. Attending my first black church with a buddy off 3rd St. AC/DC at the Cow Palace as well as the never ending RV /Boat shows not to mention my old man collecting horse manure when the rodeos were there because it was free and the Tomato plants loved the attention. Watching the Godfather at the drive in next door when it first came out. Rocky Horror, the movie and the stage show. Crazy. Obviously nothing’s in order as my stream of consciousness floods my thoughts. Now years later my wife of 33 years and I recently went to the Marina to fly a kite just like the old days. But it’s not at all like the old days at all. The energy is completely different. The people, while still polite and freindly aren’t the diverse group they were. The kites weren’t run of the mill 5 and Dime types either. And the view of the Golden Gate….well….. not exactly the same color as when the paint that had lead was replaced to the more environmentally friendly kind. Even the Sour Dough tastes different to me. But what hasn’t changed is that beautiful scent of the fog rolling in, that fresh crispness in the air standing out by the bay or beach. That constant of predictable weather and humidity – no allergies. And the fog horns, like no other in the world. I miss that about the City, the little things. Thank you for allowing me to experience these last minutes reading and reminiscing.