31 Jan

What it's like to live in San Francisco

Background: In Spring of last year, I moved to San Francisco from Toronto to join Disqus, a commenting startup. More here.

Living in San Francisco, I often meet up with Toronto startup folks who are in town on business. Inevitably the conversation goes from industry news, to what’s going on back home (“Rob Ford is ruining everything!”), to settling on “How do you like living here?” I get the impression startup people in Toronto are genuinely curious: is San Francisco all it’s made out to be?

After 9 months here, I feel like I can comfortably generate an opinion on the matter. Short answer: it’s a great place, and I’ve definitely enjoyed my stay here — but like any city, it’s not without its faults.

For the long answer, please consult this jumble of thoughts I’ve put together:

Pros

  • San Francisco attracts people from all over the US — and the world. I feel like Disqus and other SF startups host a pretty diverse-crowd of non-locals; even our small roster of 15 people includes folks from roughly 9 US states and 4 countries. You won’t feel like an outsider, because everybody is.
  • The meetup scene here feels unparalleled. On any given week, I can go to a Ruby meetup, a GitHub meetup, our own JS Pub Nite, and countless others. They’re well attended, and the crowd is pretty incredible. It’s nice to rub elbows with employees from all your favourite Bay Area start-ups and companies.
  • There are no shortage of visitors. San Francisco hosts so many conferences, business meetings, and just straight-up tourists, that it’s common for me to meet up with friends and acquaintances 2-3 times a month.
  • San Francisco has a terrific food scene. It’s a little more on the expensive side, and I miss my cheap Toronto Chinatown eats, but otherwise I can’t complain. The city’s Mission district hosts some of the best Latin-American food I’ve ever had. And if you’re a real foodie, “neighbouring” Napa Valley also hosts some incredible Michelin-starred restaurants.
  • The weather is always mild. Right now it’s late January, and the temperature’s a comfortable 15 degrees. And it will be like that all year, basically. Some people tell me they find the lack of season change boring, but after 20+ years of snowy winters, I can make that sacrifice.

Wash

  • Industry talk dominates the city. You’ll hear it on public transit, inside cafes, and just walking on the street. It’s a surprising change coming from a finance-dominated city, but can sometimes feel tiresome. For me, at least.
  • The transit’s okay. Subway coverage is very light, which isn’t surprising for a city with a history of earthquakes, so you’re largely dependent on buses and streetcars. On the plus side, all the transit authorities are well connected, and getting up-to-the-minute schedule information via your phone is easy.

Cons

  • The rent. I’m not a big fan of commuting, so we’ve chosen to live in San Francisco’s SOMA district, which is home to a huge collection of start-ups and the Disqus offices. But, you sure do pay for it: 1 bedroom apartments here start at $2100/month. And there’s no rent control either; landlords are free to arbitrarily raise your rent after your lease is up.
  • The city itself is reasonably safe, but there are areas that are really uncomfortable to walk through. Toronto has its share of rough neighborhoods, but the upside is that you’d never want to go there — whereas in San Francisco, the Tenderloin and Mission districts are in the middle of the city and host some great restaurants and bars.
  • Cabs are cheap, but also scarce; a confusing economic situation. In Toronto, you can’t walk a block at night without being hounded by a cab or three. Here you’ve got to get lucky or wait 20-30 minutes. I’d rather pay the extra $3-4 I’m used to than sit on a creepy street corner alone at 2 AM.
  • There is a terrible homeless problem in San Francisco. I recognize it’s common of many West Coast cities, but I’ve been to Vancouver and Seattle, and my anecdotal experience says that San Francisco has it worse.