San Francisco Streets

Life’s moving fast right now. My wife and I moved into San Francisco one week ago, so that I could start a summer internship with PopCap Games. Forty hours of my week were spent getting oriented at PopCap, but I’ve spent the remaining time settling in and getting acquainted with the city – at least the immediate area. I’ve been doing a lot of walking. I walk to work, we walk to the grocery store, and with the dog we walk around all of the nearby blocks and farther away to the parks. I’m just beginning to get a feel for the texture and flow of the city.

The thing that stands out walking around our area is the highly visible homeless population. It’s quite a change, going from the conspicuous absence of street people in Pittsburgh to their dominant presence here. Living in downtown Portland for two years I met plenty of street people, but there they seemed to move around and somehow vanish near nightfall – maybe the shelters were more spacious, or the abundant bridges better shelter. Here they seem both more numerous and more… stable. Installed. There are enough people that even the untrained eye detects a stratification, from those that cocoon in doorways at night to those that camp in schoolyards, all the way into a large group in assisted housing nearby. The begging is more persistent too – one subconsciously begins to dress in drab clothing, because it draws fewer pleas for pocket change.

The whole architecture of the area is consumed by this population. Usually it facilitates the lifestyle, full of nooks and crannies, narrow alleyways and sheltered garage doors and boarded subway entrances. Elsewhere it’s fighting back tooth and nail – every shop has bars for its windows and doors, every house has a patio ringed by a tall iron fence, tipped with spikes. The parks and bus stops are armed with unsleepable benches… or no benches at all. Trash cans are few and far between, and they’re all big cement bricks with locked covers (probably related to the trash everywhere as well). Every restaurant for blocks around has notices posted about how to ask someone to vacate the premises.

I’m not sure what to make of this socioeconomic war zone. I wonder about the circumstances that led to this concentration of relative poverty. I have heard that the dispossessed will migrate to the west coast for better living conditions, but surely San Francisco is one of the worst places to be down and out? Everything is expensive here. I haven’t seen a single handout. Even in midsummer, it gets awfully cold at night here – I shiver in my bed indoors. Housing is competitive and expensive here, and jobs seem to be the same. So there’s the other possibility – that San Francisco itself has done like cruel Las Vegas and driven the unlucky into the ground, trapped here without enough cash to move to a more amenable city.

Speaking of, there was a death at our building this week when somebody fell (jumped?) from a balcony.

The good news is, I’ve started to see a brighter side of the city as well. I was never thrilled about Pittsburgh – in spite of it’s impressive architecture, it always felt limp and lifeless. San Francisco is positively humming though – in addition to the homeless, there are lights and cars and business-people up and down Market Street at all hours of day and night. The air is filled with a city ambiance of chatter and horns and sirens. There are pet owners everywhere, and shops seem to be fairly pet-friendly. The motor traffic is incredible (which is great when you’re not actually driving in it), the foot-traffic equally so on certain corners, and there’s fresh air, and real hills, and dozens of cultures crammed together. We’re living cheap while we recover from moving expenses, but the restaurants look like tons of fun. My new job is a blast and my coworkers are exactly the sort of artist-engineer silicon valley types I would expect – professional and laid back at the same time. Swag abounds. And I’ve got to say – the city looks really nice through the glass wall of our tiny 24th-floor apartment.

If only it looked as good down there as it does from up here.

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