I’m old enough to remember when SF was dead

A still showing a destroyed NYC in the movie "I Am Legend"

The world moves fast. Our attention spans and memories are shrinking faster. “I’m old enough to remember…” is a running series of posts where I look back at bad takes and overblown trends.

About 5-7 years ago, every 3rd article written about San Francisco was by some disenchanted soul who was on the verge of leaving. I think at one point, one local blog was only accepting articles about bailing on San Francisco. The preferred relocation destinations and the reasons for leaving were predictable. NYC always topped the destination list.

First impressions waned. Complaints piled up faster than tech bros on a BART platform. Quasi-analytical reasons rode shotgun to provide rationale to highly personal reasons. Same malaise, different day.

But these were never just “me first, SF” rants. Everybody here knows you need data to tell a story and the data – by way of real estate apps – made the case broader and clearer. Many people, with good reasons, were definitely moving out and definitely *not* just window shopping on their phones while they watch TV. The “data” backed the theory, you see. Social proof had joined the chat.

Why go?

The “SF is dead” MadLib looked like this:

  • [The price of anything]
  • [“Tech”]
  • [Crowded/ugh who are these people]
  • [My friends are saying/doing…]
  • [An infrastructure woe]
  • [Evolution, i.e. something happened to a favorite bar or restaurant]
  • [Least favorite social policy]

Where to?

The case was clear. SF had beaten something out of them. That something sat gift wrapped for them as soon as they unloaded the moving truck elsewhere. Back then, elsewhere looked like this:

  • NYC, Chicago, LA, Philly, Boston: I want a “real” big city.
  • Oakland, Portland, Denver, Vancouver, Toronto: I want a “real” city, but also a hipper anti-city (iykyk).
  • Austin, Seattle: I actually like SF, but I’m sick of roommates and I can take a hit on the weather.
  • The South and Midwest: I want human connection. And to own a home.
  • Anyplace rural: I want to raise goats and grow weed.

My favorite was Oakland. No one denies that Oakland boasts it’s own culture and it’s a cool place to live. But the thought of railing against the decline of The City and heading off to start fresh in The Town – 4.5 miles away – always made me laugh the hardest. Especially when gentrification was cited as a reason for leaving San Francisco.

Which leads us to…RIP NYC

Today, it’s New York’s time in the barrel. A podcast founder declared NYC “dead” forever(!) no less. Jerry Seinfeld wrote a rebuttal op-ed, essentially thanking the author for coming and bidding him well in a way New Yorkers are especially inclined to do.

The post seems COVID-inspired. It’s not. The obituary for New York is as formulaic and weak-spirited as all the San Francisco laments were. A beloved lifestyle is lost. A less fortunate, troubled person inconvenienced or upset them. There was some violence. (In the largest city in the US and the 28th largest in the world… imagine!)

For substance, these takes make confident declarations, complete with supporting stats that explain the problem with galaxy-brained precision. Stuff like:

There won’t be business opportunities [in NYC] for years.

…Wait a second – I was paying over 16% in [NY/NYC] state and city taxes and these other states and cities have little to no taxes? And I don’t have to deal with all the other headaches of NYC?

Everyone has choices now. You can live in the music capital of Nashville, you can live in the “next Silicon Valley” of Austin. You can live in your hometown in the middle of wherever. And you can be just as productive, make the same salary, have higher quality of life with a cheaper cost to live.

If you don’t think about it too deeply, the future’s looking great everywhere but in New York. Fewer headaches? Little to no taxes? Opportunities for the taking? Makes you wonder why every city doesn’t operate this way, and how NYC reached it’s status despite these shortcomings.

Yes, everything will be leaving New York, but somehow Nashville will remain the “music captial” and Austin’s trajectory as the “next Silicon Valley” goes uninterrupted. Wouldn’t those industries (all industries?) decentralize, too? Nevermind. You’ll be as productive as ever and your employer won’t catch on that you’re living in “the middle of wherever” and adjust your salary. (Just go with it.)

Like those SF rants, NYC’s undertaker offers suitable relocation options with (yup) Redfin “destination” data to support his theory. FWIW, “destinations” are where you’re going. Redfin is as much pastime as anything else. It’s like House Hunters in your hand, where you’re the show’s producer *and* the crazy couple who can’t agree on what your budget is or what you’re really looking for.

Anyway, Miami sounds good to the author. Its red hot housing market isn’t at all troubled by water bubbling up through the ground, trying to drown the place or the steady stream of shady investors who’ve been running money through that city since the 1980s. Young people have caught on and are leaving Miami for higher ground, despite the author’s Redfin usage data, proving once again that using this type of info is about browsing and not buying. The key motivators for people moving to Miami seem to amount to “I can deal with heat, humidity, and alligators, and I won’t still be alive when these bigger problems come to bear”. Sure, NYC is experiencing tough times. Move to sunny Miami, where a population that’s aging out isn’t going to waste their precious time or their fixed incomes addressing problems they won’t live to experience.

Phoenix is tempting to the author, too. I’ve spent limited time in NYC – just a handful of visits in my life – but I lived in Phoenix. No two US population centers (I’m hesitant to call Phoenix a city) could be more different. NYC instantly conveys a sense of awe – the scale, the diversity, the 24/7 rhythm of it, the industry and economic power driving it all.

Phoenix, by contrast, isn’t even a clearly defined place. It’s an under-developed downtown for a city it’s size that quickly goes flat, then extends out to a network of homogenous suburbs that are split into even more homogenous communities.

Mesa’s Phoenix. Glendale’s Phoenix. They’re 30 miles apart and can take 2 hours to drive with traffic. Every few years, more towns are added to Phoenix. Phoenix has the same branding problem Xerox and Kleenex have.

But, the author notes, you can Zoom into meetings there. This is an interesting selling point since you can do that anywhere, but even more interesting for a place where most locals work in retail, hospitality, manufacturing, and construction. The last industry exists to build an endless supply of new homes and retail that quickly age the previous batches of new homes and retail. In Phoenix, if your home is getting a bit dated (meaning <10 years old), people don’t renovate. They buy one of the model homes from the new development 3 miles away. This, presumably, will go on forever, until all the desert is used up or the threadbare lace that holds together the country’s 5th largest metro area finally falls apart. And this is where a New Yorker fearing collapse should go?

It’s worth noting that Miami and Phoenix have COVID too, despite these places’ best attempts to ignore it or meet it with half measures. But hey, neither MIA or PHX were ever NYC to begin with, so let’s just skip all the 1:1 comparisons and call it even. They’re better positioned going forward, because they were never as good to begin with. (Just go with it.)

The thing about cities

Cities don’t ask for – or need – your permission to evolve. They don’t apologize. They know we’re just passing through, an idea that a lot of us forget until we grow disenchanted.

And that’s where Seinfeld’s reply comes in. World-class cities have an energy that other places don’t. This energy draws people to it. They’re aren’t perfect, but they’re ever-adaptable, which makes them relevant. Over a long enough timeline, they’ll overcome their problems and endure. If not for you, then for the people who hung in or just arrived to pick up what you left behind.

So to those seriously considering the argument that NYC is dead, I say go find what you think you’re looking for elsewhere. In my experience, it’s a huge quality of life boost to live someplace that makes you happy.

But watch the predictions and promises that don’t make sense to begin with. Your money may go farther, until it doesn’t anymore because the market adjusts. Your new city will have it’s problems, because cities have problems. If you have “little to no taxes,” then expect them to go up or expect to lose amenities and services. You may be playing the home version of House Hunters again sooner than you think. But your departure will be more an act akin to shedding – not fatal, and supportive of new growth in the city you left.

And stop declaring cities like NYC and SF “dead.” San Francisco’s still here, limping right now due to a host of reasons, just like New York and everywhere else. But neither place, nor the other relevant, rare cities like them, are going anywhere.

But don’t believe me, check out the author’s Redfin data. The Bay Area is on the list of places New Yorkers are “fleeing to.” There’s already a resurgence going on, even though San Francisco’s population grew by nearly 100,000 people in the last decade.

Not bad for a city that died years ago.