The Reluctant Suburbanite, Or Why San Francisco Doesn’t Always Work


This week I’m helping a friend move house after watching her grapple with some unappealing options for the last couple of years. In the end she’s leaving San Francisco and moving to the suburbs forty-seven miles to the south. She absolutely hates the suburbs, but given all the possibilities it really is the right thing to do under the circumstances. Here’s a little background. She attended Berkeley University in the 1990′s as a foreign exchange student and fell in love with the Bay Area. She went back home, worked very hard, jumped through a million bureaucratic hoops, and eventually became a naturalized citizen. She’s lived here in San Francisco for the last fifteen years. Eight years ago she bought an apartment next door and we became good friends.

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Over the years she went from being a starving student to having a good paying job in the tech sector. Her work was initially downtown which was an effortless ten minute commute by BART (the local rail system). But a few years back she landed a job with one of the big companies in Silicon Valley. She had absolutely no desire to schlep that far to work so one of the terms of her employment was she would work from home most of the time and appear in person at the office once in a blue moon when absolutely necessary. That arrangement worked really well in the beginning. But then the nature of her position changed, she was promoted, she got a raise, and she found herself at the office more and more often. She bought a car and endured the long miserable commute with bumper to bumper traffic that took two hours each way and left her in a foul mood. She took the so-called “Google” bus (all the tech companies have private shuttle buses but they’re all generically referred to as the “Google” bus) but there were problems with that too. The company bus takes just as long as driving. While she was able to be more productive as a WiFi enabled passenger she was still spending an extra four hours a day schlepping back and forth. This was in addition to some very long hours at the office that sometimes involved spending the night solving complex urgent problems or synchronizing with coworkers in India or Singapore. Her life essentially became her job and her commute with little room for anything else. She wasn’t happy and she wasn’t even able to enjoy the things that she loved about living in San Francisco.

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There’s another aspect of the situation here in San Francisco that motivated her to leave. On three separate occasions in the last year she was approached by strangers as she got on or off the company bus. One guy spit on her, another called her a (well, I won’t use the actual word here, but it’s a crude reference to a female body part) and another guy lectured her about how all the newly arrived tech people were destroying the city. She began to feel distinctly unwelcome in her own neighborhood – and by people who may not even have lived here as long as she has. The irony of the situation is that because she plans to eventually return to San Francisco she needs to keep her apartment. She can’t sell it because she may never be able to afford to buy a new place here. But she can’t rent it either because local regulations make it extraordinarily difficult to remove tenants once they get settled in. In effect she wouldn’t be able to move back into her own home without a significant amount of sturm and drang and a big financial and legal battle. She’d love to rent the place for a few years so the rental income would cover her mortgage, but instead she’s leaving her apartment empty and paying both the city and suburban mortgages. It’s the only logical thing to do under the circumstances. The ordinances that are designed to protect renters are working to take units off the market since no sane person wants to be a landlord in the city.

You might ask why she doesn’t just quit her job. She did consider it. But she does a very specific kind of thing and doesn’t want to give up her position and the challenges that only a particular kind of company can provide. If she wants to continue in her career she’s most likely going to have to work for one of the other big companies in the southern suburbs. The job wasn’t the problem. The commute was. Now I can picture some of you out there rolling your eyes about this woman and her “problems”. Poor baby. But her dilemma is very similar to a lot of people who need to stay in a job for all sorts of reasons. For example, I know teachers and cops who are so over their jobs, but they’ve been plugging away for an eternity and they just need to hang in there for a few more years in order to collect a full pension. I know other people who lost their jobs and are now forced to do work elsewhere in order to make ends meet. People have their reasons and it’s hard to argue when you start poking at the particulars.

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So here’s what her new place is like. The house is a 1947 tract home with a patch of front lawn and a wee little back yard. She’s got two bedrooms and two baths. It’s cute and she and I agree that it’s very comfortable and has everything most people would want or need in a home. And at $645,000 it’s significantly bigger and less expensive than her one bedroom apartment in the city which is estimated at around $850,000. (She didn’t pay anything like that eight years ago, but prices have skyrocketed lately.) The really important thing about this house is its location a mile from her office. She could ride a bicycle to work if she wanted to, although she will almost certainly drive or take the light rail. It’s physically possible to ride a bike, but it isn’t necessarily safe or pleasant given the wide roads and high speed of the cars and trucks whizzing by. In fact, once you step off the front lawn there really isn’t anything in her neighborhood that’s even remotely worth walking to or as pleasant as what she’s leaving behind in San Francisco. The only place to buy milk and eggs was the corner gas station. But here’s where it gets interesting…

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I asked her where she’d eat since the only places in evidence were drive-thru fast food joints and low end chain restaurants in strip malls. She explained that her company (like all the companies in Silicon Valley) provides a variety of high quality heavily subsidized restaurants within the corporate campus. In fact she invited me to explore the place and we had lunch together a couple of times. Once I registered, went through security, and entered the complex there was an entire self-contained world to explore. These places employ tens of thousands of people from all over the world. At lunch there was excellent dim sum, samosas, saag paneer, dolmas, kibbeh, long salad bars, boreks, beef steaks and potatoes – all locally sourced, organic, seasonal, and beautifully prepared by professional chefs. Kosher? Sure. Halal? No problem. Vegetarian? Of course. Special menu for Diwali? You bet. It was all very good and ridiculously inexpensive. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night healthy snacks… they have it covered. We dined indoors, but most people drifted out to one of the many al fresco areas. As we walked from building to building I noticed well populated lounges for relaxation and socializing, Starbucks, volleyball courts, pool tables. There’s a farmers market in the parking lot. There’s a dry cleaners. A masseuse or manicurist can be summoned if need be. These companies have essentially taken over the functions of a town and provided them internally for their employees. Partly they do these things to keep their workers happy. Partly it keeps people at work longer than they might otherwise be willing to stay. But on a fundamental level these companies must know that their location in soul crushing sprawl is so lifeless and unsatisfying that they need to compensate by recreating all the aspects of a real town inside the landscaped berms of low rise office parks. And what about the people who live in the area but don’t work for one of these companies and don’t have security clearance to enjoy the buffet and foreign cinema night?

I understand why she’s moving, but I wouldn’t want to live there myself.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.