San Francisco, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

by Tom Dale

It’s impossible to argue that San Francisco hasn’t changed my life dramatically. When I moved to the Bay Area four years ago, I was an inexperienced kid who was working at a Genius Bar in an Apple Store. I didn’t know JavaScript at all—hell, I could barely program and my useless liberal arts degree was doing nothing for me.

Since then, I’ve helped found a company that, I’m proud to say, is both profitable and invests serious capital back into open source software. On the way to get coffee, I regularly bump into people that are changing the way I think about technology. I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world and share my half-baked ideas with other developers. The sense of excitement in the air is palpable—the sense that we’re always on the cusp of something big.

That excitement has attracted plenty of investment dollars, and it has a dark side. Enough ink has been spilled whining about how wealthy tech people are ruining the city. It’s bothered me, too; not because I think there is anything wrong with wealthy tech people, per se, but because it’s become like the classic Star Trek episode, The Trouble with Tribbles.

The brobdingnagian salaries we’re getting paid haven’t just skewed the market; they’ve taken it in two hands, turned it upside down, and shaken it like a British nanny. My friends who are not in technology keep getting pushed further and further away, or into smaller, dingier accommodations.

The recent BART strikes are just a single data point in a larger trend: we’re alienating everyone who isn’t in technology. It’s not sustainable. The stomach-turning coverage of the BART strikes should throw into stark contrast just how bad things have gotten. Even I, who makes a decent salary, have seen the great American dream of home ownership recede into the distance.

It took a long time for me to realize I was part of the problem. Yeah, I might be in tech, but I’m not one of these social media douchebags, I thought. Doesn’t matter. The fact that I get embarrassed when a girl at a bar asks me what I do should have been my first clue.

But as I said, there has been enough hand-wringing and navel-gazing. Whiny blog posts do nothing. What can I do?

Exactly what Adam Smith would want: I’m moving to Portland.

In Portland, my mortgage payment will be the same price as the rent I pay in San Francisco. The only difference is that, instead of sharing a small house with two other dudes, I can have a larger house to myself. Portland offers all of the great restaurants, coffee shops and bars that I love about SF, without having to overhear conversations about Series A rounds or monetization strategies.

And I’m looking forward to whatever small part I can play in helping Portland’s burgeoning tech scene. I’m excited to be neighbors with the likes of Panic, Sprint.ly and Simple.

But.

I am going to miss the hell out of San Francisco. I grew up in a small town, and went to school in Orange County. Both were heavily conservative and well-to-do. The tolerance of San Francisco has been eye opening.

I remember the October I moved into my place in Noe Valley. It was Halloween, and I was driving back from the Marina. I didn’t yet know enough to avoid the Castro on days the city dresses up in costume.

I was stopped at the light at 18th and Castro when a man strode in front of me, wearing nothing but a glow ring around his… undercarriage. I was flabbergasted. Where I came from, you would have been arrested immediately. Here, no one cared, as long as you weren’t harming anyone else.

San Francisco is where I learned not just to be a programmer, but to be an engineer. It’s where I learned about design, and tolerance, and business, and how to let your hair down.

Last night I was flipping through 7×7 magazine and started reading Robin Rinaldi’s What It’s Like to Leave the City of Your Dreams. I came close to having a full-blown anxiety attack, thinking about leaving the city that has shaped me and delivered me from the life-long depression that I thought was just intrinsic.

After I calmed down, I realized that it was just like when my last serious girlfriend and I broke up. We had been fighting all day, and at some point I turned to her and said, Do you still want to do this? She said no. I think we were both relieved.

But then, as I drove her home, we started reminiscing about all of the personal struggles we had helped each other through. We had both been new to the city when we met, and both had plenty of personal issues to work through. It was a tearful affair as we finally parted ways. It was hard to come to grips with the fact that even though we had been good for each other, we weren’t right for each other.

And that’s how I feel about living here now. I owe an inordinate debt to San Francisco and its people. But I think, now, the relationship is doing more harm than good.

But, I can’t help but think: maybe, someday, when we’ve both changed, we can try to make things work again. I’ll miss you. And I’m sure I’ll still see you around.

If you want to follow along with my move, I’ll be tweeting about it from @tomdale.