Growing by the Bay

City of riches

greedEarly Chinese immigrants to San Francisco referred to northern California as “Gold Mountain.” The name, an echo of the 49ers gold rush, expressed the promise of a land of riches. Many of those immigrants were doomed to disappointment, but the land of riches, has, apparently, come to pass. According to CNN Money, San Francisco is the third richest community in the nation, with a median income of $65,497. San Jose is second, with a median income of 73,804. (And, in case you’re wondering, Plano, Texas, is first at $77,038.)

It’s hard to be sure what this means. A median is the mid-point where half of the sample falls below, and half of the sample is greater. To pull the median up and rank among the top in the country for median income you would need a lot of people at the high end. But a high median can disguise the fact that there remain many people at the low end.

According to an article in the Chronicle, Hunters View, a 265-unit housing complex in Hunters Point, received one of the worst public housing scores from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of any housing in the nation. The inspection “found shattered glass on the ground, missing sewer and drain covers, roaches in apartments, malfunctioning appliances, and mold and mildew. Perhaps most remarkably, the inspection found 64 percent of the units had missing or inoperable smoke detectors. Hunters View was the site of the 1997 fire that killed a grandmother and five children – due, a judge ruled, to the San Francisco Housing Authority not having installed a smoke detector.”

The cost of living is high in San Francisco. It’s a difficult place for people with low incomes. I believe the city has lost some vitality because it is so difficult for adventurous young people to survive here. Today, Portland or Seattle seem in many respects more like the San Francisco of the mid twentieth century than our present San Francisco does.

Image: Zasu Pitts in Erich von Stoheim’s Greed (1924), based on the novel, set in San Francisco, by Frank Norris.


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  1. Good points in the article, if sobering and somewhat sad; I doubt if very many young people without a trust fund or generous parents could survive here now. I came here in the mid-60’s, managed to go to the Art Institute by working nights. My apartment cost $50 a month and came with a Murphy bed and I felt that I was the richest, most lucky person in the world. We all got cheap seats at the ballet, the symphony and the opera and could see a world class film almost every week at any one of the numerous small theatres around SF. Maybe it’s a sign of age but I think that we aspired to a deeper level of culture than what I see now (but not always – I’m trying to be fair). Now, when I look around the art scene, I see kids who can afford the huge tuition at the Academy of Art or the SFAI, wear expensive clothes, eat out in expensive places and have a life style that my generation of artists would not have imagined. They appear to spend more money on tattoos than I spend on clothes over a five year period. I wonder if a Diebenkorn, Still, Thiebauld, Nieri, Olivera or Joan Brown will emerge from their ranks much less a Ferlengetti.

  2. $50 a month for an apartment — wow!

  3. It wasn’t fancy but I “decorated” it with Indian bedspreads from Pier 49 and Japanese Paper lanterns from Japan Town and thought it was extremely chic (for the times). Most small apartments in SF in the 1960’s cost between $50 – $90 a month but we also didn’t make much money. Still, you could – with a little imagination and willingness to volunteer/ and/ or usher at events – have a great life style which would include opera, symphony, ACT and the ballet. I can’t remember what tickets cost for the Centro Cedar, The Surf or other small theatres but they were not expensive. Afterwards, we would go to Chinatown or North Beach and have a huge meal for less than $5 a person. I never thought I’d look back on the past with such nostalgia.

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