Estate just got real

By Andy McLoughlin on April 4th, 2012

Continuing the theme of using this column as a soap box from which I discuss whatever is currently going on in my life (see my thoughts on healthcare, written a few days after paying a King’s ransom to have my wisdom teeth removed, or my 1,200 words on The Crunchies that ensured Ron Conway never funds one of my ideas), I thought I’d use this month’s column to talk about another question I’m often asked by Europeans looking to make the jump to the West Coast: where should I live? You see, I’m currently in the throes of moving house.

This very same question plagued me in early 2010 as I began to plan my migration west. I’d decided early on that under no circumstances would I live on the Peninsula (what the locals tend to call the Silicon Valley area, fact fans) as I enjoy having easy access to culture, public transport and more than ten bars.

Despite having made many trips to the Bay Area in the preceding years, I’d always found myself staying in cheap-ish hotels near San Francisco’s Union Square and spending my evenings attending tech events in the city’s SOMA (South of Market) district. I prided myself on intimately knowing the triangular area bounded by Union Square, the Ferry Building and the Caltrain station; but beyond that small section of the city, I was clueless.

Employing the lazy formula I’ve since used countless times to get people to tell me things I should have researched myself, I sent an email entitled “PLEASE TELL ME WHERE I SHOULD LIVE” to San Francisco-based friends whose opinions and tastes I trusted. In the email, I explained that I was finally making my long-threatened relocation but literally had no idea where I should base myself, how I should find a nice apartment or what such a thing might cost in America.

The second two questions were easily answered. Absolutely everyone uses Craigslist for apartment hunting (“it’s ugly and difficult to use, but every apartments get listed there. Crappy apartments can stay listed for weeks but the good ones go in days”). Additionally, I gleaned that San Francisco rent is generally comparable to London (i.e. ludicrously expensive compared to almost everywhere else in the world).

The first question, however, sparked intense debate between a group of three friends. Let’s call them Paul, Sarah and Geoff (because that is their names) – they all agreed that neighbourhood is an all-important decision and (“sad but true”) you’ll be instantly judged on which one you pick. I admit I chuckled at this back then (funny Americans and their neighourthoods!), but now appreciate why locals can be so defensive of their own ‘hoods.

One of the first things that I figured out in the ensuing debate was that for a small place (seven miles by seven miles and roughly three quarters of a million people, fact fans), San Francisco has a lot of different neighbourhoods. Like, hundreds! Well, maybe more like thirty. But, still, plenty! The good news seemed to be that I could instantly dismiss about eighty percent of them: Bernal Heights? Crap transit! Richmond District? Too remote! The Sunset? Always foggy! North Beach? Full of tourists and cougars! The Tenderloin? “A crack-addled shithole”! Potrero Hill? Great views but too sleepy and hard to get to! The Marina? Douchebag central!

The Marina is always a point of contention as, like Marmite and Andrew Scott, some people love it whilst some cannot stand it. For a “certain type of person” – think the WASPish recent graduate who works in business development / finance / real estate and loves hanging out with his fraternity bro’s at the weekend – the Marina holds a great deal of allure. It’s home to dozens of lively bars and restaurants, has beautiful views of the Golden Gate bridge and is, um, full of other drunk and impressionable recent graduates. The detractors say it sums up everything that’s wrong with America’s often brash and consumptive culture. And it’s full of douchebags. My view is that it’s just too far away from where I need to be on a regular basis and the public transport sucks. Also, for bonus points, it is built on reclaimed land and rubble from the 1906 earthquake so is basically screwed come the next big tectonic shift.

The debate then moved from non-starter neighbourhoods to some actual, viable options. Given I wasn’t immediately going to buy a car (indeed, I’ve now been here for almost two years and still haven’t gotten around to it) and needed to get to the airport and Valley reasonably often, we focused on central areas with good public transport. Although San Francisco has a relatively good bus network, for sheer convenience I was advised to look at areas with easy access to BART (the fast subway line that goes to the airport, that with its smoked glass windows looks very much like an 80s vision of the future) or a MUNI Metro train line. You can take the boy out of London, etc. This discounted some really great areas such as Pacific Heights, Upper Haight, Polk Gulch and Russian Hill which, if you own a car, are good options.

While it’s generally accepted that the Tenderloin doesn’t have much to offer (beyond being the number one destination for the discerning crack buyer), Paul argued that if you travel a few blocks north into the area on the borders of the Tenderloin and Nob Hill (hilariously, genuinely called the TenderNob) it’s actually rather nice. “It’s five minutes walk to Union Square, loads of bars and shops and is great for 24-hour dining” he argued. This got me wondering why an area so close to the Tenderloin would have such a different vibe – walk a few streets and the homeless people simply melted away. Why was this? “Homeless people don’t like to push their crap up hills,” someone explained.

Next up was Hayes Valley, a charming little neighbourhood near the Civic Centre. Good for transport, close to the Symphony Halls and “the nicest area I’ve ever lived in as a grown-up” according to my friend Mark (he did live in London’s gritty Stockwell before coming to SF, so take that statement at face value).  My only problem with Hayes Valley is that it’s so damn nice that nobody wants to move out and, hence, good apartments are few and far between.

Sarah and Geoff were keen to impress the Mission upon me: “It’s definitely the urban local hipster heart and soul of the city. All the best restaurants and bars are here and it’s pretty central with great public transport. A lot of single people and web people live here. However, it is very urban so not for everyone”. The main drag of Mission St between 16th and 24th is indeed pretty grimy, but walk a block or two west onto Valencia St or Guerrero St and you’re in middle class thirty-something hipster heaven (think disgustingly-trendy coffee shops and designer furniture shops with nose-bleed price tags).

Walk another block and you’ll find yourself on Dolores Street and on the borders of Noe Valley. Home to Dolores Park (my pick for the best view in the entire city) and a thousand strollers, Noe Valley is to San Francisco what the Northcote Road area is to London. Historically less fancy (pronounced “fahhn-seee”) than Nob Hill or Pacific Heights, Noe’s proximity to the Mission’s nightlife, public transport and freeways,  plus its healthy number of Google, Facebook, Apple, Genentech bus stops has made it ground zero for well-heeled commuters with families. According to a recent WSJ piece, “the ‘Shuttle Effect’ means proximity to a stop can command as much as a 20 per cent premium” on already-inflated property prices.

The last stop on our email-based magical mystery tour was SOMA. Covering a huge chunk of the city, SOMA is a real mixed bag: huge warren-like apartment complexes near the ballpark, sketchy homeless shelters near the freeway overpasses, charming lofts around South Park, some terrific restaurants, and proximity to about 90 per cent of the city’s startups. Additionally, the entire district is convenient for both freeway and Caltrain access and the weather is consistently good. More than any other neighbourhood in the city, SOMA can radically change from block to block and streets that appear fine by day can be dodgy as hell at night.

So, where did I end up? I took the easy option and found a great warehouse conversion (with roof-top hot tub!) right off Market Street near Union Square. My girlfriend claims that “real people don’t live downtown”, but based on the people I meet in the elevator (lots of European entrepreneurs and recent transplants from elsewhere in the US), she should probably amend her statement to “real San Franciscans don’t live downtown”.  Having lived in my adopted city for almost two years, this probably explains why I’m moving to the Mission… I’ll see you in Ritual Coffee Roasters on 21st St where I’ll be drinking a $7 soy milk goatee-smugiccino.