San Francisco might be the most beautiful place in the world.
If you’ve ever been here, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. The bay, surrounded by hills on all sides. The bridges and container ships and ferries and cable cars. The brightly painted townhouses and crazily curving streets. The people are pretty too, wind-kissed women striding the streets.
So why does the city feel like it’s dying?
I’m not even talking about the homeless crisis on the streets around the Civic Center and the Castro and the Mission District. I spent the day walking the city’s northeastern quadrant, neighborhoods that so far have resisted the tent encampments and open-air drug markets and sidewalks littered with needles and human feces to the south.
The day was bright and breezy, a perfect San Francisco spring afternoon.
And the streets were practically empty, aside from a few blocks in Chinatown, as lifeless as they were beautiful. The city felt like the backdrop for a dystopian sci-fi movie, with ads promoting brands that don’t seem to exist anywhere else and strangely outfitted self-driving cars popping up surprisingly often.
Adimab? What’s an Adimab?
Most disconcerting of all, I’m not sure I saw a single child. I must have, but I can’t remember any. I certainly didn’t hear any, didn’t hear them yelling or running or laughing. I would have noticed, they would have stood out.
San Francisco has been desperately short on children for decades. As a percentage of its population, it has fewer kids than almost any other major American city. Barely 1 in 8 of its residents are under 18.
San Francisco is expensive and difficult, but Manhattan is also expensive and difficult, and Manhattan has far more kids. No, for whatever reason, the pretty girls and boys here seem particularly unable to pair off and take the final step into adulthood.
Before the pandemic, the lack of kids was less noticeable because San Francisco was growing overall. But from mid-2020 through mid-2021, the city’s population fell almost 7 percent, a huge shift. Only Manhattan had a bigger drop. (Yet home prices in both are higher now than they were two years ago despite the outflow - a disconnect from reality driven by easy money.)
The missing children reminded me that San Francisco had imposed some of the strictest pandemic restrictions anywhere in the United States and held on to them longer than almost anywhere else. It kept its schools closed longer too.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Cities are their residents, and no American city has more narcissism and beauty and fear than San Francisco. It - its wealthy residents, anyway - live in a present too perfect to make room for the future.