Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area (“Bay Area”), some of my earliest memories as a child are taking out-of-town visitors to see the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley.
I recently read Sara Benincasa’s hilarious essay New Jersey Is Perfect and felt inspired to write an ode to my home. Reading about her love for her home state prompted me to try and capture in writing what my home state is like. I won’t even try to be funny as I can’t match her wit and humor.
California has been both the butt of many jokes and is sometimes portrayed as an idealized place in the TV and movie landscape. Yes, we have great weather and a beautiful coastline. But California is so much more than just the home of hippie liberals, Hollywood actors, pseudo-celebrities, and obnoxious tech bros.
For this essay, I’m going to focus on the Bay Area, which is just a small portion of the state. Yet it is almost the equivalent size and density of New Jersey. The region includes three big cities: San Francisco (aka SF or “The City” but never “Frisco”), San Jose (“the heart of Silicon Valley” but it’s still a pretty sleepy “big city” of over 1M people), and Oakland (a hella cool city that’s the birthplace of the Black Panthers, many major musical acts, and where the term “hella” originated).
Those three cities could not be more different in size, demographics, density, and attitudes. Together, they play a powerful economic and social role that affects the rest of our country and the world at large.
Before Silicon, There Was Fruit
Before the tech industry sprouted here, the Bay Area was a far sleepier region focused on farming and its position as a major port for moving goods in from Asia.
By the time I was growing up here in the 1970s, the huge orchards were largely gone. There only remained some small plots of land with fruit trees and rows of strawberries when we drove through the Valley. Back then, Silicon Valley was a known term but many still considered the Valley’s historical role as an agricultural hub.
In the past 10–20 years, almost all of those small plots have been purchased by developers and turned into dense housing complexes. I believe one of the last working farms in Alameda County has been preserved only because it’s a tourist attraction and part of the East Bay Regional Park District now.
We are not to be confused with the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, the inspiration for “Valley Girl” (the song and the movie). In case that reference doesn’t ring a bell, it’s the 1980s materialistic girl who spoke every sentence like a question and said things like, “Oh my God, like, gag me with a spoon?” Think of Cher from “Clueless” in the 1990s (although she lived in Beverly Hills, not the Valley).
Immigration and Migration Has Shaped the Bay Area
California is also now a majority-minority state, which means that, unlike many other American states, whites are not the overwhelming majority of the population. My kids’ first public school was about 40% Latinx, 40% Asian, 10% white, and 10% Black. This kind of diversity is more common in the East Bay than in the rest of the Bay (especially on the Peninsula and in Marin County, which are known for being very white with a growing Asian American population). There are a few historical factors that contributed to this.
First, California has long been an area that drew outsiders. The indigenous tribes who once lived here were brutally subjugated and their land was stolen from them and privatized. Then Spanish colonizers gave way to Mexican rule before Americans took over the state.
Given this history, it’s not a surprise that we have a large population of Californians whose ethnic heritage is Mexican. My Chicano/a friends proudly proclaim that they never crossed the border, the border kept crossing over their families. Our Latinx community has also grown as more immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution have come from other parts of Central and South America.
We also have had a thriving Black community, particularly in the East Bay (Alameda and Contra Costa Counties), as there was significant Black migration to the Bay Area during WWII. Per Golden Stats Warrior: “Wartime jobs in the shipyards and post-war jobs in manufacturing led the black population to increase by more than 300,000 people in just 30 years.”
Virulent anti-Black racism limited where Blacks could live, as many homes had racially restrictive covenants legally preventing who could purchase the property. Thus, there are plenty of neighborhoods in the Bay Area where Blacks never got a foothold even after such covenants were ruled illegal.
Even without explicit racial covenants, it was hard for BIPOC communities to thrive outside of the racially segregated neighborhoods. I met an elderly Chinese American woman who said her family had to hire a white lawyer when neighbors protested after they purchased her childhood home in San Francisco outside of Chinatown.
There have been Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the Bay Area for more than two centuries. That’s not a surprise, given the proximity to Asia and the Pacific Islands. Moreover, large numbers of immigrants crossed the Pacific to seek gold, work on the farms here, or build the railroads. After the devastating impact of the Vietnam War, we also started to see a surge in refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
There have also been internal migration patterns, where people from other parts of the U.S. came to California seeking new opportunities. It is common today for many Bay Area residents to admit they were born elsewhere and increasingly rare to meet a fifth-generation Californian (like my husband, who is of Chinese descent).
Newcomers to California may have been pushed out of their hometowns due to political instability or limited economic opportunities. They may also have been tempted to pursue the “American dream” that says anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, regardless of their family history or lack of connections. But they stayed here because the Bay Area is a special place with many wonderful qualities.
1. There is a vibrant, multicultural community in the Bay Area.
As mentioned above, the Bay Area has a uniquely diverse population. I love the incredible mix of people from so many cultures and regions around the world. The languages, cultures, and foods we’re exposed to in the Bay Area enhance our lives in so many ways. There are certainly many pockets that are majority white (with the most visible minority in white neighborhoods often Asian Americans) but you can find very diverse cities where there isn’t a clear racial majority.
Some have certainly come for the jobs created by the tech boom, but even before tech was big, many came from around the world to study in our region’s incredible universities. Then they stayed because they fell in love with the Bay Area.
2. We have a phenomenal food scene if you love to eat ethnic cuisine.
Per the 2010 Census, 32% of the residents in the Bay Area were born overseas. I think this has contributed to the phenomenal food scene here. I’m not talking about the fancy “farm-to-table” restaurants. I’m focused on the array of ethnic cuisine, including some hyper-specific regional cuisine, that we can enjoy here because of the eclectic mix of people who have settled in the Bay Area.
Do you feel like Chinese food? Sure, but what regional type of Chinese food are you craving? We have Shanghainese, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Hunan, Szechuan, Islamic Chinese, upscale “fusion” Chinese, and Americanized Chinese restaurants.
We also have enjoyed ethnic cuisines less common in other regions of the U.S., like Afghan cuisine, Ethiopian cuisine, Burmese cuisine, and Salvadorean cuisine. For people who love the opportunity to try new foods, the Bay Area is a great place to do so.
3. It’s too cold to get in the ocean without a wetsuit, but there are still incredible outdoor adventures.
I don’t have a wetsuit and haven’t been in the ocean past my ankles anywhere on the California coast since childhood. It’s just too cold here. But there are so many incredible outdoor adventures in this beautiful area. Just in the Bay Area alone, people can hike, run, rock climb, bicycle, fish, kayak, and more. We have fantastic state, regional, and city park systems, in addition to the national parks. If you’re willing to drive 3–4 hours east, you could surf and snowboard on the same day or visit Yosemite National Park.
Even if you’re not into the outdoors, you can still enjoy what the Japanese call “forest-bathing.” Soak in the views of the incredible California oak trees studding the hills. Watch the waves roll in under the Golden Gate Bridge at Baker’s Beach. Or enjoy a wine tasting while you admire acres of vineyards in the Napa/Sonoma area. It’s a gorgeous region year-round.
4. We have incredible live entertainment options including pro sports teams, theaters, opera, ballet, and more.
What’s your preference? We have so many options for your weeknight and weekend entertainment. Perhaps you enjoy professional sports teams? Get tickets for ice hockey (San Jose Sharks), basketball (Golden State Warriors), baseball (SF Giants and the Oakland A’s), football (SF 49ers and Oakland Raiders), or soccer (San Jose Earthquakes).
For the record, I was a fan of the Warriors back in the 90s and 00s, well before they became the powerhouse that they are today. I also remember watching the 1989 World series on TV featuring the Giants versus the A’s when a major earthquake hit.
My family now prefers college sports over pro sports (you can also get better seats at a cheaper price!). We have taken my girls to see the men’s and women’s basketball games at UC Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion. Stanford and UC Berkeley both have world-class athletes (and Olympians!) on their athletic teams and I know a ton of Bay Area kids grow up watching them in person or on TV.
Want to enjoy the more “cultured” arts? Go see a performance of the SF Opera or the SF Ballet at the War Memorial House, see a play at the Berkeley Playhouse, or watch a movie at one of the historic movie houses in Oakland like the Grand Lake Theater. There are also a number of clubs for live music or comedy.
5. We have a place to fit every mood.
The Bay Area has a remarkable range of micro-climates and locales. Do you want to sit on the beach and watch the waves crash on the rocks? Do you want to hike under a canopy of redwood trees? Do you want to follow a creek as it carves its way through the golden hills? Do you want to watch the fog settle into place, obscuring houses and trees?
Do you want to people-watch while sitting at a sidewalk cafe on a crowded city street? Do you want to browse bookstores or antique shops? Do you want to marvel at an incredible city skyline? Do you want to stroll through the beautiful gardens of what was once a wealthy family’s estate? Do you want to see nearly 200 varieties of roses?
So What’s the Down Side?
The tech boom has caused housing prices to skyrocket and a host of problems followed due to that. Firefighters, nurses, teachers, and others who are not in the tech industry can no longer afford to live here.
I regularly hear of folks commuting 2–3 hours per day as they don’t want to rent a tiny 1 bedroom apartment here when they can purchase a 4 bedroom house for the same amount of money 100 miles from here in Central California.
I also know of nurses who live in RV vehicles parked near the hospital to avoid that horrendous commute. After 3–4 long shifts and staying in their RV between shifts, they’ll head back to their homes located beyond the Bay Area.
In fact, the nurse who set up and monitored my father-in-law’s kidney dialysis machine told me his wife and kids are in Texas. He works here 3–4 days and then flies home to be with them. I was stunned that we have healthcare staff commuting by plane because the pay here is so much better.
Many of my childhood friends moved away, unable or unwilling to deal with the cost of living here. It has become a privilege to live here, affordable only to those with high salaries and/or who had the good timing to purchase homes during the real estate crash (or decades earlier).
For those of us fortunate to have been homeowners here before the tech boom, we have very good reasons to stay. Yet I am hopeful that the trend of tech companies now allowing full-time remote work will mean fewer tech employees will move here. Maybe some of them will even return to their home states, relieving the housing crunch.
In the meantime, our elected leaders and policymakers are struggling to find a way to help address the many problems caused by an overheated housing market. Let’s hope they can figure out how to preserve what makes the Bay Area special yet also address the tremendous pressure that is forcing people to leave.