San Francisco is ruined. You’ve been hearing it everywhere, from the London Review of Books and the Huffington Post (Solnit, Rebecca) to Valleywag (Tacy, Chris) to the East Bay Express (Cushing, Ellen) to the Chronicle (Nolte, Carl) to, indeed, this very magazine (Talbot, David). But haven’t we heard this tune before? Yes we have—for the past 158 years.
1855: When Frank Soulé wrote Annals of San Francisco only 10 years after the city’s name was changed from Yerba Buena, he still found enough material to fill over 800 pages, lamenting on recent events that “swept away nearly all the relics of the olden time in the heart of the city.”
1873: T. A. Barry and B. A. Pattens' Men and Memories of San Francisco, in the “Spring of ’50, looked back with nostalgia at the glory years before the Great Fire of 1851: “If we admit that change is progress, and that progress is improvement, ’tis with a sigh that we confess it.”
1894: One of the most successful attractions at the Mid-Winter Exposition in Golden Gate Park was the ’49 Mining Camp, where visitors could ride a stagecoach into a re-created mining town, drink in a spittoon-furnished saloon, and sing about “the days of old, when we dug up the gold.”
1906: Three days after the big quake, Will Irwin wrote a eulogy called “The City That Was” in which he said, “The old San Francisco is dead. The gayest, lightest hearted, most pleasure-loving city of the western continent…is a horde of refugees living among ruins.”
1920s: Every year on April 18, the South of Market Boys—a fraternal order of men who had grown up before the earthquake in the working-class, Irish neighborhoods “south of the slot”—dressed up in old-fashioned 1906 duds and caroused all night.
1949: No one peddled San Francisco nostalgia like Herb Caen. “Once there were rows of studios on Telegraph Hill,” he wrote, “but now they're gone, and in their places stand $200-a-month ‘studio’ apartments.”
1960s–1980s: Bruce Brugmann's Bay Guardian screamed that the powers that be were turning the San Francisco skyline into an “ultimate highrise.” Meanwhile, activist Alvin Duskin took out full-page ads in both the Chronicle and the Examiner, demanding that voters “stop them from burying our city under a skyline of tombstones.”
2000: During the first tech boom, Rebecca Solnit’s Hollow City warned that artists and the working class could no longer afford to live here: “San Francisco has been for most of its 150-year existence both a refuge and an anomaly. Soon it will be neither.” Thirteen years later, she is still at it.
2013: Capping a flood of local essays about the changing face and values of San Francisco during the second tech intifada, veteran startup guy Chris Tacy pens the dreariest screed yet: “Douchebags Like You Are Ruining San Francisco.” Ironically, it is published in a tech blog.