Is it me, or does it seem like little kids are street-people magnets in this city? In the months after our son was born, my husband and I got a hearty “Congratulations!” from just about every homeless person we passed. Once, at an outdoor market at UN Plaza, a street person chastised me for letting the sunlight shine in my baby’s eyes. If you think unsolicited parenting advice is irritating coming from friends and family, try getting it from a wild-eyed stranger who appears to be wearing three pairs of legwarmers in lieu of pants. I looked down at my son, who was in fact squinting against the mid-morning light, and wondered what he made of all the glaring gritty hubbub of Civic Center.
My son is two now and still occasionally attracts the stranger danger element. Recently we were walking past the bus stop at Howard and 5th Streets when a man with a prodigious white beard and a paper bag full of beer started waving and making googly eyes at us. An unrepentant flirt, especially when it comes to people I’d rather avoid, my son grinned and waved right back. A conversation was inevitable.
“How are you doing today, ma’am?” the man asked cheerfully.
“We’re doing well. How about yourself?”
“Well, I just got a ticket for public drinking.”
I made sympathetic sounds.
“Of course, I’m not going to pay it. But the cop was real nice. He said, look, ‘I’m gonna give you a ticket for public drinking, but I’ll let you keep your beer.’”
“That was nice of him,” I agreed.
“Yeah, well, I was a cop for 8 years…” he said.
The story that followed was probably a fascinating one—in fact, I’m still wondering about it—but, knowing that such conversations can sometimes go from fascinating to unpleasantly weird on the turn of a dime, I was wary. Besides, I had a hungry toddler in tow, and so we bid the man good day and he waved us off amiably.
When I told my husband about my encounter with the former cop, I was triumphant. “He was a really nice homeless guy!” I enthused, “I’d be happy to run into him again.”
In the pre-kids era I worked by the freeway and sometimes took a bus that passed Howard and 5th, so I’ve seen a lot go down at that intersection. As the city makes its odd, abrupt shift from Financial District to SRO-row, I.T. types mingle with hobos and dealers at that particular spot along the number 27 MUNI route. And while the stop is sometimes used for waiting for the bus, it is also a great place (apparently) to smoke a spliff, take a nap, make out, or just celebrate being alive at 10am on a Tuesday by cracking open a beer. Once I saw some kind of spontaneous urban
exorcism take place at that corner, with a dozen or so people in matching shirts forming a tight circle around a teenage boy, their heads bowed in deep and concentrated prayer as though the demons of Howard Street were threatening to rise up and snatch his soul in broad daylight.
Next month our family is moving in right around the corner, into one of the grittiest parts of downtown San Francisco.
“Oh my god, why?!” gasped one of our current Cole Valley neighbors, when we broke the news about our move. Her shock was palpable, but she soon collected herself and managed to say something vaguely positive about how it’s great when kids learn to ride a city bus.
But I think her question was a valid one. Why? The word ricochets inside my skull in the middle of the night, as our move-in date looms nearer. Why are we doing this? Why are we trading our homey, green, safe, kid-friendly spot in a “desirable” neighborhood for the scary inner city?
The easy answer is that we wanted to buy a home in San Francisco and this neighborhood was one of the only ones that fit our budget and wasn’t bordering the runways at SFO. And while our new home is two blocks away from the rock cocaine epicenter of San Francisco (I’m making that up, but it’s probably not too far off the mark), two blocks in the other direction is SFMOMA, the Children’s Creativity Museum, Yerba Buena Gardens, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Furthermore, the home we found happened—remarkably, in that neighborhood—to come with two bedrooms and a rather nice backyard. So, in a way, our decision was a simple one. Before we even started looking for our home, though, we had to face a more complicated dilemma, the one that haunts local parenting message boards and city officials: why stay here at all?
Families leave San Francisco by the hundreds each year. If you didn’t read the recent San Francisco Chronicle article about family flight, check the newspaper’s online archives—you’ll find similar articles, on the same topic, from 2011 and 2010. The number of families living in our city has been in decline since 1960, and the number of residents 18 years or younger has dropped to 13 percent of the population—one of the lowest ratios in the country for a city of our size. In the ten-year period between 2000 and 2011, San Francisco lost over 5,000 school-age kids. The families who are leaving are primarily middle-class. A meeting of city supervisors was held, and a task force set up, to ponder why these families are so likely to move away.
“Housing and schools” were the two answers that rang out from the blogs and comment exchanges that proliferated after the article. Some believe it’s more of one than the other, but the two issues are entwined. First you have to find a place to live (preferably one that’s not just a bathroom attached to a hallway), with a mortgage or rent that’s affordable when combined with paying for childcare (or budgeting for a stay-at-home parent). But that’s not enough. You also have to think about kindergarten and wrap your head around the neighborhood schools vs. school lottery debate, not to mention the perception that SF’s public schools are terrible and its private schools are impossible to get into. Task force or no, the goal of keeping any but the most determined middle-class families housed, and schooled and within city limits, may just be an intransigent problem.
Housing and schools are huge, but there are related but less publicized pressures that caused me, in my weaker moments, to ponder Oakland, or Austin, or Petaluma. It’s not just housing that’s an issue, but also the people who don’t have a home; the friendliness of certain bus stop denizens notwithstanding, the homeless population in this city doesn’t always mix well with curious toddlers. It isn’t easy to explain to your kid why there’s a man sleeping on cardboard boxes on the other side of the
playground gate, and it’s even harder to explain to yourself why you hardly cast a second glance at people living on the street anymore.
It’s not just the public school situation, either; it’s the Preschool Panic Syndrome: the sense that if you didn’t get your child’s name on the lists for all the “best” preschools by by his or her sixth month of gestation, you’re a negligent parent. There’s also the pressure to teach your kid to properly kick a soccer ball and count to twenty in Spanish, English, and Mandarin by the time she’s three, the need to extensively research the most engaging swim teachers at La Petite Baleen, the temptation to throw a catered birthday party for a one-year old, or the worry that if you don’t have the latest wooden German balance bike, your progeny may never become the facile and confident cyclist you hoped for. (Not all of these neuroses will apply to all of us, but there are enough to go around.)
What happened to us? We went from laughing it up at the naked people running in
Bay to Breakers (or actually being one of them), to agonizing over a toddler’s foreign
language skills. How does a city that is so exhilarating and liberating for so many young people also have the potential to turn into such a competitive slog for families? It may well be that the most difficult thing for parents in San Francisco is keeping our perspective and remembering what living in the city meant for us before the kids came along. If we once took such joy and sustenance in the spontaneous strolls over misty hilltops—or the view from a picnic blanket on Crissy Field; or the jumble of treasures and treats on offer at the Alemany Flea Market; or Mission-style tacos; or whatever else about this city that makes our mouths water and our hearts race—who’s to say our kids won’t be just as enchanted and edified by the same things?
Deep down, my husband and I knew we were playing a rigged game: as an at-home
mom with a couple of freelance contracts and an arts administrator at a not-for-profit, there was no tech IPO in the world that would make it so we could afford a palace in Pac Heights. Or, really, even a condo in Cole Valley. Yet in the years since our son was born (and I left full-time work) we kept at it anyway, somehow finding room in our budget for toddler dance classes and picturesque birthday party rentals. But eventually we came to realize that those things aren’t why we want to stay here. And we met other families like ours—families working in the arts, and/or families with stay at home parents—who were living in San Francisco too, by hook or by crook. It’s not like we didn’t scour the suburbs of Berkeley and Oakland for better options—we did—but something kept us coming back to San Francisco, back to our beleaguered realtor, saying, “There’s got to be a place for us here.”
So while our decision to stay here was in part to make a stand (“We’re here! We’re
middle class! Get used to it!”), and while much of the activity in our new neighborhood gives me the shudders, my husband and I also find something intriguing in the unbeautifulness of the South of Market area we’re moving to. As lovely as many of San Francisco’s more established neighborhoods can be, they’ve already been colonized by shops selling biodynamic coffee and locally-made soaps and desserts with bacon in them. In whatever way a geographical area can be self-conscious, those neighborhoods are Mandarin-speaking Soccer Tot stars, and they’ve got the real-estate prices to prove it. Theoretically, I want our new neighborhood to “transition,” or at least become a place where people are less likely to do drugs on the sidewalks. But these days, I’m unexpectedly thrilled about the fact that we get to experience the city outside of that self-conscious parenting bubble—that my son and I can escape the heightened expectations of the “nice” neighborhoods for a time and just be what we are: a city kid and his mom, kicking around the busy streets in search of a good place for hot chocolate (hold the bacon).
That, as much anything, was part of the choice we made when we signed our mortgage and committed to stay. In retrospect, I realize this wasn’t a conscious decision or a recent one, but something that happened a long time ago, when we first came to the city, with all its tragedy and transcendence and high housing costs and gritty possibility, and said, “We want to live here, no matter what.” And I could be wrong, but, fancy preschool or not, I think our son might someday thank us for it.