A Baltimorean in San Francisco
Clearly I’m someone who loves the urban lifestyle of city living and, when I have time for vacation, I love the opportunity to explore another city and check out what makes it unique, historic and fun. There are certain baseball stadiums that are on my must-see list and San Francisco’s AT&T Park was on the top after visiting Wrigley Field a couple years ago. This summer provided the perfect opportunity to check out a great ballpark and explore another city, and what a great experience it was.
San Francisco’s nickname is ‘Fog City’ but it should be changed to ‘The Land of a Million Views.’ San Francisco is filled with hills as it is located in the mountainous San Francisco Bay area. It seems every corner you turn you need to stop to check out views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the mountains, the Pacific Ocean, Oakland, Berkley and Sausalito. At first you’re tempted to take a picture at every turn, but eventually you get used to the magnificent scenery.
Not only are there millions of great views, but the supply of beautiful housing stock goes on for miles. With heavy influences from Spanish and Victorian architecture, there is house after house, showing signs of the insurgence of wealth during the gold and silver rush of the mid-1800s to the 1990s tech boom, which they are still enjoying the tremendous fruits of to this day.
But with this beauty and terrific housing stock comes an expensive price tag to put your roots down. Fueled by the demand of the high paid workers of Silicon Valley, an infusion of wealthy tourists and investments from Europe and China, property values are the most expensive of any metropolitan area in the country. We were staying with a friend at a 400-square foot apartment in the San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood that included one parking spot and it was worth about $2800/month. I was told such a property would sell for close to $900,000… ouch!
Though the real estate values were very high, daily living did not seem as highly adjusted. Drinks and food were slightly more than in Baltimore but not nearly at the levels I’ve experienced in Washington, DC and NYC. There is no need for air conditioning with the winds off the bay and you’ll probably save yourself from the expenses of having a car since you probably won’t be able to afford it, but with very great public transportation it is very possible to live without it.
Speaking of cars, I’ve never seen a city with so few driving on the city streets. As we walked and walked (and walked) through the 60 degree daily weather, which was just perfect for taking a long pedestrian excursion while accompanied by a long sleeve shirt, it was amazing how few cars we saw everywhere. At points you could stand in the middle of the street and look several blocks down the road before you saw your first car in transit. The pedestrians and bikers rule the road in San Francisco. And why the lack of cars? Most people pointed to the expense and lack of parking spaces. A parking spot can cost you $300-$1000 per month and one or two parking spots typically stood in front of a property filled with apartments.
Since you probably wouldn’t bring your car if you moved there, you are in the perfect city for walking and biking everywhere, though the hills can be treacherous. It never gets too hot or too cold, the perfect weather for never breaking a sweat and never getting the wind burn of a cold winter day. Public transportation is top notch as the city has streetcars, trolleys, a subway, a light rail and buses. If you needed to take a cab, as with every place I’ve ever been, the fares cost less than they do in Baltimore.
Food + Entertainment
At times San Francisco feels like one endless bar/restaurant and shopping district. In Baltimore you are typically directed to a Canton, Federal Hill or Fells Point neighborhood, among others, as a place to go out, but in San Francisco there are bars, restaurants, cafes, bagel shops and stores seemingly on most blocks. The bodegas typically sell fresh produce and wine and if there if a place with outdoor seating there are probably dogs sitting by many of the tables, if not sitting in a chair.
We had many good meals while in San Francisco including a clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, which may be a touristy thing to do, but that is what we were and it was quite good. Like most cities it was filled with chef-driven restaurants, as well as a large Chinatown, Little Italy, Japantown and more.
We had an incredible meal at Burma Superstar in Inner Richmond. Worth going just for the Samousa Soup, the restaurant was filled with incredibly flavorful dishes from the Southeast Asian country including salads, noodles, rice plates and drinks bursting with flavor. I highly recommend going there, but get there before you are starving because there is a long wait all night long. We had a small wait and grabbed a drink at another bistro in the area that was very cool. The food smelled and looked delicious there too, so we may have to go back next time we head to San Francisco.
Another great aspect of San Francisco is the people. The city is filled with so many successful people, but, in our encounters, they were all laid back (both in their attitudes and style) and not overly showy about it. I brought a pair of nice shoes and I never put them on and girls would have to be stunt artists to wear high heels walking those hills. Just about everyone was friendly and easy to have a conversation with. Wearing my O’s hat several times, everyone wanted to talk baseball – not surprising as we were in the home of the World Series Champions. Though San Francisco has its own identity, the laid back attitude of California was very apparent and people had the approachability of the midwest.
The Black Horse London Pub become a favorite spot of ours – a bar that carried the recognition of the smallest bar in San Francisco, probably one of the smallest bars anywhere for that matter. It was practically a closet with a bar as there were less than 10 bar seats and the drinks came from a claw foot tub filled with ice and bottles of beer. We showed up with four people and within minutes we were deep in conversation with the other five or so people in the bar like we’ve known them for years. The Google bus even dropped a few people off at the front door. Great place!
When you explore San Francisco you also can’t help notice how clean, well landscaped, and horticulturally-sound it is. It is clear the pride in cleanliness starts with their Department of Public Works and trickles all the way down to their residents, property owners and businesses. You constantly see people watering plants; parks have separate bins for trash, recycling and compost; and the city even goes through your trash to make sure the recyclable materials are separated (…in Baltimore I’ve seen the recycling truck dump half of a bin on the ground and just drive away, unfortunately.) At a party I saw a guy accidentally put a bottle in the trash bin, located next to the recycling bin, and he felt really bad about it. This encapsulated the city’s evident feeling on trash removal in a nutshell.
Since it’s the tech city of all tech cities, there is an app for everything in San Francisco. A light show application runs every night on the Bay Bridge; if you need a helper at a party, there is an app for that; Yelp reviews are life and death for restaurants; and people talk with pride about the Tesla, a locally produced, computer-inspired touch screen electric car. Just be careful, if you tell people you have a video production/multimedia company, they may talk your ear off about a startup they are involved in to make it faster or convince you San Francisco is where you need to be.
And, we did make it to a baseball game at AT&T Park. Situated on the San Francisco Bay adjacent to a marina, the park truly is stunning. The fan experience was amazing, especially for children with slides, miniature wiffle ball stadiums, and the chance to run the bases after the game on the Sunday we attended. It was even Dog Day the day we went, surprising for a sold-out stadium, but the canines were all so well-behaved. Open concourses allow you to see the game while grabbing a beer, taco, hot dog or California wine. San Francisco has a lot of micro climates and AT&T Park found a spot of the city that is very warm, no long sleeve shirt needed.
When visiting any city I always like to think about Baltimore and what we can be doing better. We’ve seen a massive resurgence in many Baltimore neighborhoods, especially around the harbor, and San Francisco has the feeling that they are about 20 years ahead on that same trajectory. Seeing what has happened in Baltimore over the last 15 years, San Francisco in a way provides a peek of what is possible if that continues on at the same pace for another couple decades with its miles of safe and vibrant walkability and neighborhood after neighborhood where demand out-duels supply.
My first thought is we have to find a way to keep Baltimore cleaner. It starts with our Department of Public Works and our leaders and it needs to trickle down to all of our business owners and residents. South Baltimore is a fabulous area ahead of most revitalization in Baltimore, but we have a level of cleanliness that would be unacceptable in most parts of San Francisco.
Just like when you walk into a clean house and you want to take your shoes off, a cleaner city can create more pride and urge people to take better care of it. A lot of visitors have preconceived notions of what Baltimore is and when you come here and see trash on the streets, overflowing trash cans, and bottles in the harbor it can be an easy way to confirm those assumptions. And when you pay some of the highest property taxes in the city, it shouldn’t be up to volunteers to uphold regular maintenance.
Another thing Baltimore can really learn from is the transportation in San Francisco. It’s much easier to choose a bike over a car when there are safe bike lanes to use and secure bike racks everywhere. San Franciscans have the option to choose from a streetcar, light rail, bus, trolley, subway or affordable cab when they are looking to travel without a car.
Funding is a major drawback when it comes to constructing transportation options and I can’t help but be concerned that the state, city and potentially federal government are ready to spend $2.6 billion on the Redline. It is troubling to think that the only money we will probably get for a major transportation project in the next 20 years will go to one East-West line that will miss 90% of the city including all of South Baltimore. While I can see the benefits of the Redline, and think it would be a great addition to Baltimore in a better economy, the cost and the fact that the leaders of Canton are putting up a full court press against it, leads me to believe there has to be a better solution for our money and the other 90% of our neighborhoods.
Instead of spending all of our money, which includes $519 million in recently pledged dollars from Governor O’Malley from the State of Maryland, we should think of more practical solutions. Spend money to construct more bike lanes, expand the very popular Charm City Circulator and take a much closer look at a much less expensive streetcar system that is already being urged by our District 46 Delegates and Senator as well as a group downtown.
I urge all of our politicians who represent Baltimore and make decisions in Maryland to spend a few days in San Francisco and ride their public transportation. Though there is a light rail and subway just like in Baltimore, the majority of the system is made up of an outstanding streetcar system using charming old restored cars purchased from other cities.
The San Francisco area is the hottest tech hotbed in the world and they are so far ahead that second place isn’t really even worth mentioning. But seeing how the tech industry has invigorated an entire area, it is encouraging to see the massive growth in the tech sector we are seeing in Baltimore, especially as our great hospitals are investing a lot of money in biotechnology.
Innovators in Baltimore are doing a great job of building up the tech infrastructure and luring in talent that will create a stronger pool of employees for future companies and startups. While no city will probably ever catch up to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, as Baltimore’s tech industry grows and gets a more solid foundation, Baltimore could provide a great location for companies looking to pay less money for office space and the salaries needed for people to live a comfortable life in the Bay Area.
San Francisco is a terrific, beautiful city and a great idea for a vacation if you are looking for something a little more active than sitting on beach or at a resort. Baltimore and San Francisco are two completely different cities with different demographics, geography, architecture and economies, but a trip to San Francisco can certainly generate some great ideas on how to improve the great city of Baltimore without taking away our uniqueness.