San Francisco may never be the same again. But it will always be San Francisco

Let’s talk about the good old days, two years ago, when we all went to work in an office or somewhere else five days a week, when a virus was raging on the other side of the world and a mask was something we wore at Halloween.

The world has changed since then, even in our little town by the bay. San Francisco was particularly vulnerable when everything shut down in March 2020. Our biggest industry was tourism. We were on a technology boom. Think of all those new glass towers south of Market. Remember all those shuttles with tinted windows filled with migration technicians?

Everyone wanted to live here, we were told. That’s why rents were so high and apartments so scarce. Business was booming and getting to work on BART or the Muni subway or driving on the Bay Bridge was such an ordeal that we used to thank God it was Friday.

All that has changed, and maybe forever. I was down Market Street at 5:30 last week. It was the height of rush hour, and I braced myself for the crowds at the Embarcadero station, using my city cunning to secure a seat on a Muni train. I knew exactly where to stand on the platform and how to get past the slowpokes. That way I wouldn’t have to stand in a crowd of strangers huddled together like the proverbial canned sardines.

I didn’t have to bother. The station was practically empty. Seats for everyone. Same with Montgomery and Powell. Later in the week, I took the Stockton Street bus, once notorious for its crowding. I also have a place there.

Something has changed; the job has changed. Maybe that’s good. But it is surely different. All those big glass towers. Even the venerable skyscrapers of Montgomery Street. Almost empty.

Recent figures from Kastle Systems, a Fremont company that measured access card swipes at buildings and businesses in 10 major cities, showed that only 31.6% of the workforce returned to the office in the second week of February. The highest return rate was Austin, Texas, with 35% of returning workers. The lowest rate of returning workers in the top 10 markets was San Francisco, where just 23.3% of workers were in the office. San Jose was in ninth place, with 26%.

This probably won’t change, even if the omicron variant fades and the masks come off. Salesforce, San Francisco’s largest private employer and occupant of the city’s tallest building, announced the other day that it expects much of its workforce to remain totally or partially remote.

Think of other numbers: San Francisco’s Muni system, the largest in the region, has half the ridership it had two years ago. BART has an even bigger drop. Both of these systems were built to move workers and commuters in and out of central cities and are hemorrhaging money. At some point, after the federal stimulus funds run out, there will be accountability.

Not to mention the city’s other problems: homelessness, crime, drugs and the feeling that San Francisco has lost its way.

I wonder if people will ever go back to work like we all did two years ago, or if the shopping district will ever come back to life, or if the city’s sense of style will ever return. I know someone who keeps telling me things will never be the same again, and maybe she’s right.

The COVID lockdown may have just been a catalyst for changes that were underway anyway – like the decline of in-person shopping and the growth of remote working. Why go to an office in a high-rise on Fremont and Mission streets when you can work in a shack on the coast of Sonoma County? Why drive and park downtown and go to a store when you can shop at home and have the goods delivered to your doorstep?

Maybe shutting everything down in March 2020 is like the Summer of Love that changed San Francisco, or the day in 2007 when Steve Jobs got up at Moscone Center and introduced the iPhone and changed the world.

The way we work in San Francisco may change and some of the famous parts of the city may disappear, like Old Town Paris, the Fox Theater and Playland-at-the-Beach are gone.

But through it all, the essence of the city has remained. It’s still a place that has a grand opera house, a parklet restaurant that looks like a Lisbon tram, another that offers Japanese Peruvian food, a landmark like the Castro Theater, dozens of little libraries on the corners of the streets of the neighborhood and people who care about the city.

The trick, of course, is to keep what makes San Francisco special. Right now, I think it’s a special moment in this effort, especially because everything has changed. The people who left the city seem to have already moved on, and those of us who stay seem to stay with San Francisco.

I think we have to be optimistic. It is a city that has always reinvented itself. Things will never be the same again, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s the good old days.

Carl Nolte’s chronicles are broadcast on Sundays. Email: [email protected]: @Carlnoltesf

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