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The sucker punch of covid on San Francisco

San Francisco feels like a whiplashed version of its pre-covid self—the techies have left in droves and ‘For Lease’ seems to be the new slogan

A pedestrian walks by a commercial property for lease on 27 October, in San Francisco, California. (Getty Images)

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The November evening was chilly, as is often the case in San Francisco, and I was trying to meet my friend Z for a coffee.

He suggested a café at the corner of a popular park. I arrived bundled up in cap, scarf and jacket at 6pm to find it tightly shuttered. Perhaps it closed early on Sundays. Or perhaps it was because of Thanksgiving weekend. Or perhaps it was just the new San Francisco.

“Let’s walk,” Z suggested. “We’ll find a café. This is the Castro (neighbourhood). It’s always busy.” We passed boutique florists, wine bars, pet stores, pizzerias selling pizza by the slice, gay knick-knacks but not a single café.

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“That’s the story you can write,” laughed Z. “Coming back to San Francisco after the pandemic and walking around for blocks trying to find a cup of coffee in the Castro.”

That was an exaggeration. Just as we were about to give up and settle for a glass of wine or perhaps an Irish coffee, we did find a coffee shop, an outlet of a local chain and we got our cappuccinos. But it was certainly a lot harder to find that cup of coffee in San Francisco than many neighbourhoods in Kolkata, where cafés selling coffee, cascara and artisanal teas are mushrooming as the spectre of covid recedes.

San Francisco feels like a whiplashed version of its pre-covid self. Downtown, once filled with techies and bankers, feels deserted. Everyone is still “working from home”.The bus loads of Chinese tourists riding the cable car are missing. This means countless bustling lunch spots have folded. The food courts have emptied out. San Francisco mayor London Breed says the office vacancy rate is 22.4% right now (and this was before the big Twitter layoff) and office attendance is just about 40% of pre-pandemic levels. All of that resulted in a $400 million (around 3,280 crore now) hit to the city’s tax revenue last year. Salesforce, a cloud-based software company and San Francisco’s largest employer, has a grand tower with panoramic views of bridges and the bay but it is listing 40% of a 43-storey building it has across the street from its main tower. “For Lease” seems to be the new slogan of San Francisco.

San Francisco seems far more shell-shocked by covid than Kolkata. It comes with putting all our eggs in the tech basket, a San Francisco friend said. Now the techies have left San Francisco in droves and are showing no signs of coming back soon, leaving in their wake a desolate downtown. The mayor realises this as well because she says, “San Francisco needs a diverse set of industries to support a resilient downtown and economic core.” The sucker punch of the pandemic is palpable in a way it isn’t in Kolkata, where it’s rapidly gone back to business as usual.

In a way the two cities I have called home have flipped places. Once, every time I returned to Kolkata, I dreaded having to remap the city anew as old landmarks disappeared one by one, felled in the name of progress. Our local warren of a market got swallowed up by a shiny mall. The old movie theatres became boxy stores. My favourite takeaway Chinese restaurant, with its glum proprietor and a sign that sternly forbade us from combing our hair inside the restaurant, turned into an overly bright shawarma place. When my bag’s zip came apart, I discovered that the local bag-repair shop was gone too, replaced by some costume jewellery shop which seemed like a metaphor for the kind of change sweeping Kolkata.

San Francisco had felt more rooted in some ways, its rituals of homecoming unchanging for years. I knew where to get my cheesy quesadilla, the cheap Chinese restaurant where they served a big plate of roast duck and rice. I would go downtown to get my clothes shopping fix at Uniqlo and Gap, wander around the cool gadgets at the fancy kitchen stores like Crate and Barrel and buy another garlic press I didn’t need. Even my 24-hour gym would be still there, its equipment a little shabbier but welcoming nonetheless. Now Uniqlo and Gap had fled downtown. The kitchen stores were gone from the city entirely. And the 24-hour gym no longer called itself 24-hour. It had neither the staff nor the clientele to be open all day and all night. It’s become provincial, complained a friend, half the restaurants shut down by 8pm. My old farmer’s market where I bought persimmons and kale had become a covid-testing centre. Everything I had taken for granted as things that I could come “home” to in San Francisco had been unmoored by the pandemic and drifted away, leaving behind a city that seemed utterly bewildered, lost in its own streets. A city that prided itself on being the centerpiece of the world’s imagination was struggling to reimagine its own future.

The homelessness problem is shocking. City Hall gleams in the night but in front of it are tent cities. It’s not just under a freeway or near a bus terminus. There are tents springing up in front of boarded storefronts all over the city, where people and dogs eke out a living, with faeces on the sidewalk. A man whirls in front of a pharmacy, screaming obscenities, his pants falling down to his knees, shaking his fist at the glass door. Another man watches and shakes his head. Later I realise he too is homeless, living in a tent in front of a trendy club clothing store that’s gone defunct. He’s just quieter in his despair. While the cause for homelessness are many and a commentary on America’s frayed safety net, it all adds to a post-apocalyptic vision of the city. Officials in San Francisco estimate that as many as 20,000 people will have experienced homelessness at some point in 2022, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Many of them are lower-income, people of colour, who lost their service jobs in the pandemic. A report says Latinos are 16% of the general population and 30% of the homeless population. But inside the trendy little bar I go to, the cocktails are fancy and cost $15 and we order them as if they were magic spells to summon up San Francisco’s past.

That old San Francisco isn’t entirely lost. It still puts up a brave front. All the paraphernalia of Christmas is up—the giant tree with a star in Union Square, an ice skating rink, the red and green wreaths on the huge windows of the iconic Macy’s store. But the store itself felt deserted on a Friday morning. Once spanning almost two city blocks, it was now squished into one building.

“But I’m glad they put up the Christmas tree,” one woman tells another as they pose for selfies against it. The city is lit up but it feels hushed, its energy dampened—like a city trapped in the night after Christmas, all dressed up but nowhere to go. But we have to take our comforts where we can find it in these times. At least the cappuccino at our little hard-found café tastes exactly like it did in the before times.

Then the barista comes up behind us and says, “We need to close now.” We look at the clock. It’s 7pm. The barista smiles apologetically.

We thank her and walk out into the misty night.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

@sandipr

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