San Francisco Feature

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San Francisco Today

The quintessential boomtown, San Francisco has been alternately riding high and crashing since the gold rush. Those bearish during the heady days of the dot-com bubble had barely finished dancing on the grave of the Internet economy when biotech rode into town, turning bust to boom once again before the housing market downturn brought the city's previously stratospheric median home price right back down to earth and the nationwide economic downturn saw unemployment rates at 9.5%. So which San Francisco will you find when you come to town? A reversal of fortune is always possible, but here's a snapshot of what the city's like—for now, anyway.

Today's San Francisco

... is just as liberal as you've heard. Baghdad by the Bay, Sodom by the Sea: prudish types have been pegging San Francisco as a bastion of sexy liberalism since the town first rolled out the welcome mat. And we do tend to espouse a pretty live-and-let-live attitude here. Health insurance for city employees has covered gender-reassignment surgery since 2001. We voted in 2005 to ban handguns and city supervisors banned Happy Meals ("nutritionally deficient meals with toys") in 2010; we have a female fire chief, Joanne Hayes-White; and our biggest bash of the year is June's Gay Pride celebration, when roughly a million people descend on the city to party. Revered politician Nancy Pelosi, a favorite target of House Republicans, can still count on a huge popular majority at home.

Before moving on to become California's Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom, our dashing former mayor and a raging metrosexual, won the eternal devotion of gay San Franciscans when he decided to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, helping to shove the issue onto the Supreme Court docket as well as the ballot. And in this town he's considered a moderate. Newsom enjoyed the city's tolerance as well.

... embraces its eccentrics. If a 6-foot-tall transvestite in evening wear doesn't merit a second look, just what does it take to stand out in this town? If history serves, it takes quirkiness and staying power. For instance, back in the 19th century a San Francisco businessman declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Instead of shipping him off to a nice, quiet place, San Franciscans became his willing subjects, police officers saluted him, and newspapers printed his proclamations (among them that the Democrats and Republicans be abolished for bickering).

Today the Brown Twins, ladies of a certain age who dress alike in eye-catching outfits and are always together, have their own place on the list of San Francisco icons. There's also Pink Man, who rides a unicycle wearing a hot pink unitard and cape. (He says you can tell someone's a local when "they don't balk at Pink Man.")

One of the most celebrated eccentrics is Frank Chu, a middle-aged guy in a frumpy suit who's been faithfully carrying a picket sign around the Financial District since the 1990s. He accuses various politicians of being in cahoots and keeping millions of dollars from him and the population of the "12 galaxies." The city's response? Politicians and local businesses buy ad space on the back of his sign, and fans named a (now defunct) bar 12 Galaxies in tribute and created an online Frank Chu-style sign generator (acme.com/chumaker).

... may be exploring the limits of its tolerance. The sight of homeless folks camped out in doorways and parks has long been familiar in the city, but voters finally reached the end of their ropes. In 2010 they narrowly passed a law, aimed straight at panhandlers and the kids that line Haight Street, that makes it illegal to sit or lie on city sidewalks between 7 am and 11 pm. Looks like even laid-back San Franciscans have a limit to their tolerance. Even the city's quirky annual Bay to Breakers race, known for nudity and merriment as well as drunkenness and public urination, has had to grow up and clean up its act after neighbors finally tired of chasing inebriated participants off their property. Grown up doesn't have to mean stuffy, though—participants are still free to run naked. In fact, when a city supervisor proposed a law that would require naked people, some of whom regularly walk the Castro, put something between themselves and their perch when sitting in public and to cover up in restaurants, nudists took to the streets in protest. Even Santacon—that holiday celebration in which folks dress up like Santa and get drunk in bars—went naked that year.

... is reshaping its downtown. Limited by its geography, San Francisco simply has nowhere to go but up. The sprawling area south of Market Street was long an industrial center, but since that industry has dried up, new high-rise developments are underway. Plot the nascent high-rises on a map and you can see a radical shift southward, stretching from Mission Street to Mission Bay (where UCSF's 43-acre medical and biotech campus is rising). More than 20 towers are in the works, several of which will eclipse the city's current tallest building, the 853-foot Transamerica Pyramid.

Got your bearings? Then join the locals as they constantly check the pulse of the city. Although the frenzied adrenaline rush of the dot-com era has died down, a new wave of energy is gathering.

What We're Talking About

The food-cart scene continues to boom. Watch out for local favorites the Sexy Soup Cart, the Bacon Dog Cart, and, for dessert, the ever-popular Crème Brûlée Cart. Or find them all together at Off the Grid, a roaming food-cart marketplace.

We love to hate Muni. Grousing about Muni's slow and diminishing service and accident rates is a rite of passage. Commuters unite to share the good, the bad, and the dangerous on websites like munidiaries.com and www.munihaiku.com, with poetry divided by transit line.

You know the economy is bad when San Franciscans start curbing their dining-out expenditures. Sure, we still eat out, but we're spending less when we do. For the practice of ordering appetizers to share instead of entrées, waiters have dubbed us "non'trées." Ouch.

Are we taking back the term "Frisco"? From Emperor Norton to legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, residents have harangued against calling the city "Frisco." But lately some locals are rebelling, showing off hoodies and tattoos festooned with the F-word.

There's lots of hand wringing and gnashing of teeth in the Bay Area these days over the economic meltdown and the slipping housing market. Though the city hasn't been hit nearly as hard as most other Bay Area towns, the median home price is at a startling low and finally in range for mere mortals: $388,000.

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