Story by: Lisa Gordon
I moved here over 7 years ago. Something was compelling me to San Francisco—I’d applied to three graduate schools, all of them here, and I can’t even really explain why. A friend of mine happened to be moving here around the same time; she arrived a month ahead of me and found an apartment for us. She Fed-Exed me my keys the night before my flight. I hadn’t been to San Francisco since high school, when I was on a West Coast vacation with my parents, and we’d only stayed a night. My friend and new roommate texted me: “Tell the cabbie you’re going to Page and DIVIS—not Divisidero. Then he’ll know you’re a local.”
To this day, I’ve never said Divisidero in full. I arrived at my new apartment, halfway up a hill and 4 flights up a set of narrow stairs, put my suitcases in my empty room, sat down on the floor, and cried. I had no idea what I was doing. But it was also everything I wanted.
To give you some context, it was August of 2008. My rent was $2,500 for a two-bedroom apartment. My cell phone was a Blackberry Pearl. Instagram, not to mention hashtags wouldn’t be conceived of for years, and Netflix was still something you received in the mail. Uber did not exist and would not for years, and Muni was the only way to get around, unless you had a car, which few people I knew could afford. The food truck movement was just burgeoning, with craft cocktails nipping at its heels. Obama wasn’t even President yet. And this was only 7 years ago.
I moved to San Francisco to change my life, and change it did. I walked everywhere. I saw art everywhere. I was studying something I was passionate about. I made friends with people I passed on the street. I took road trips to places like Point Reyes and Big Sur with my classmates and felt revitalized by new beauty and landscapes and different air.
I can’t say it was a simpler time, because I think, as we get older, we’ll always feel that way when we look back. But it did feel simpler, even though in many ways, it was much harder. Being able to afford my rent while I was still in school meant I had to I worked three jobs. I couldn’t afford to go to the nicer restaurants, so I mostly survived on burritos—one half for lunch, one half for dinner. In order to get to class by 4pm on the other side of the city, I had to leave my apartment by 2:45, walk the 6 blocks to the 22 bus stop, and hope a bus was coming in the next 20 minutes, because if it wasn’t, I’d be late. I learned to orient myself around the city by the bus lines. One evening, a friend and I walked home from school (From Potrero Hill to Lower Haight, no less—something we did often then but would probably never do now) and, as we meandered left, then right, he stopped me and said, “you know you’re following the bus route, right? And there are more direct routes on foot?” It had never occurred to me. I knew what I knew and I stuck to that. I was learning a new city and it was learning me back.
Back then, many of the same issues were prevalent. Rents were outrageous and people were moving to Oakland in mass numbers. Big tech companies like Google and Apple had infiltrated the area and the effects were becoming noticeable. But mostly, the population people complained about were the good old-fashioned hipsters. Equipped with their skinny jeans and their parents’ money they were an easy scapegoat for gentrification and the flattening of the city’s culture.
Now, of course, we all know who the blame tends to fall on. And there’s no simple answer to whether there’s validity to that or not. But even the most stereotypical tech bros have something in common with many of the rest of us who moved here from wherever we came from, and that is, very simply put, the chance to live in San Francisco. Having the occasion to move and live here is like a micro version of the privileged American Dream, where opportunity is plentiful—though not without its challenges—and everyone else is left somewhat envious that you’re off doing it, whatever ‘it’ is.
After more than 7 years I feel I can safely say a lot has changed from when I first arrived here. But 7 years is a mere blip on the scale of how San Francisco has changed, and will continue to change, overall. It changes every day, some days more than others, but it’s the people who’ve truly been here a long time who can lay claim. It’s the taxi driver who pointed out his apartment to me as we passed by, where he’s lived for 30 years because he pays only $350 and can never move. It’s the Muni driver who’s convinced he sees more ‘riffraff’ on the bus now, more than ever, because ‘everyone else can afford to take those cars’. It’s the people who know that NoPa is just a neighborhood other people made up and the people who remember when small businesses prevailed and when Halloween in the Castro was actually a street party not overrun with tourists who think they’re participating in something bigger. No, the ‘something bigger’ is ever-looming yet unpredictable, like the next earthquake, and it takes time to recognize that the San Francisco you’re witnessing is just as special as it is ephemeral.
The long-timers know that, and they’ve seen so much more than we could know. Those are the people I want to learn from. Because once you feel a connection to San Francisco, it’s like seeing baby pictures of your lover for the first time. You can’t believe it used to look like that and you want to know everything you missed in an effort to feel even closer, even though you know it’s impossible.
For more stories by Lisa, visit her site here!