San Francisco by the Numbers

Planning after the 2000 Census

Urbanist Article July 1, 2001

San Francisco is an old city by American standards. In 1900, it was the ninth largest American city with 343,000 people. The others were New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Cincinnati. All these cities are hemmed in by geography and fixed city limits. By 1950, before the massive post-war suburbanization really got underway, all of these older cities had gained population. Most reached their historic demographic peaks. In 1950, San Francisco was the 11th largest city in America, with 775,000 inhabitants.

A fascinating statistic is revealed by the just-released 2000 census. If you compare the 1900 and 2000 statistics, you will see that there are only two cities in the United States— New York and San Francisco—that were large in 1900, and, at the present moment, exceed their historic peak of population. New York has increased from its 1950 population of 7.9 million to slightly over eight million. It increased by nearly 700,000 in the last ten years alone, more than double the growth of any other American city. San Francisco has increased by a couple thousand from its 1950 population, and a substantial 53,000 from 1990. There is something remarkable about New York and San Francisco, the first and second densest large cities in the country.

Even a vibrant city like Chicago, which has grown over the last ten years, had previously been shrinking every decade since 1950; today, it’s still about 700,000 people off its peak in 1950. Philadelphia, too, is about 550,000 off its peak. And Detroit, the most troubled of large American cities, has shrunk from 1.85 million to only 950,000 in these last 50 years. Plagued by abandonment, Detroit is very much the antithesis to San Francisco. Like St. Louis and Buffalo, Detroit represents for me an extreme case of depopulation, a city that went from being one of the most important American cities to one of the nation’s basket cases.

Today, the top ten list includes Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, San Antonio, and San Jose, cities that would not even have made the top 50 in 1900. But they’re very different cities, huge in physical extent and for the most part suburban in density. What’s happening there is not really comparable to what is happening in San Francisco. They’ve grown horizontally. San Francisco can’t.


There are two critical conditions for a city of fixed limits to prosper and thrive in American society: one is immigration and the other is gentrification. If you look at St. Louis or Detroit, they don’t attract either immigrants or gentry.

The historical tendency in American cities is for the working class and the middle class to leave the central city when they have the opportunity. The search for more space is the traditional American pattern, and it has not changed. If cities can’t attract gentry or immigrants, they’re going to lose population. Of Detroit’s 2000 population of 951,000, only 5% are Hispanic and 1% Asian. Detroit isn't attracting the two most important immigrant groups of the past quarter century. By contrast, in San Francisco, 14% of the population is Hispanic and 31% Asian.

Moreover, wealthy, educated people from all over the world have flooded into San Francisco over the past couple of decades. Our population increase is not the result of more children being born here—those numbers are at all time lows. Rather, our increase comes almost entirely from migration, from almost everywhere. San Francisco’s problems are those of success. Here, people are less pulled toward the suburbs than pushed out of an expensive and desirable central city. One of the questions the census data begs to be answered is why has San Francisco, despite its high costs, continued to be so attractive? Look at San Francisco and Detroit again. Why would someone move here as opposed to Detroit? The answers are numerous. One, we have an equable climate; they don’t. Two, we have an amazing hinterland of natural attractions from the Sierra to the coastline and valleys which they don’t. Three, we have an incredibly vibrant cultural scene and vital neighborhoods. Because of beauty, because of vibrancy, because of climate, people want to move here. San Francisco’s social culture has always been extremely hospitable to newcomers. Experimentation is encouraged on an individual and group level. In a lot of other parts of the country, this not the case. That accounts for part of the attraction of San Francisco. It’s not just people from around the country who move here for these reasons, but from around the world. In fact, a lot of Europeans, a lot of Japanese, a lot of South Americans move here. This is a place that attracts people for lifestyle.

Much of this accounts for the technology boom that has transformed the Bay Area over the past 50 years. It has often been noted that San Francisco’s spirit of creativity and individuality created a great medium for nurturing the development of mainframes, PCs, and more recently, dot.coms. While they were never a dominant part of the local economy, and there’s a huge shakeout going on right now, they still are a big part of the reason we grew so astonishingly fast between 1995 and 2000.

The landscape, vibrant economy, and tolerant social climate attract immigrants from Russia, China, Mexico, Latin America—the list goes on and on. So in addition to attracting American “gentry” migrants, we’ve been attracting immigrants of all classes. The same can be said about many of the other American “gateway” cities—New York most spectacularly, but also Los Angeles, Chicago, and others. In fact, immigration is probably the single most important factor in which city populations increased, or decreased in America during the 90s. The census numbers released to date don’t tell us the whole story yet for San Francisco, but they do show a substantial growth in Asians (21.4%) and Hispanics (13.3%), much of which can be assumed to be recent immigrants. And we’ve also seen a substantial white population increase in the Richmond, much of which I assume is due to the influx of Russians.

Both of these phenomena, gentrification and immigration, are not unique to San Francisco. What is fascinating about San Francisco, because it’s so small, and so advanced in its evolution out of a mercantile and industrial city into a service-oriented city, is that we are America’s most gentrified city. We are way ahead of the curve in lifestyle development, nurturing personal growth, experimental cinema, fine dining, alternative music and art. It often feels that each neighborhood of the city is a laboratory for the urban America of the future.

There seems to be no break in the gentrification process; it’s a condition that we’ve been seeing for the last 50 years or so, in which neighborhoods that were once working class are turning into neighborhoods for the middle class, and then the upper middle class. Telegraph Hill was once a working class neighborhood for people who worked in the fishing or shipping industries. Now Telegraph Hill is unaffordable. The same has happened where I live in Noe Valley. Noe Valley was a working class neighborhood 30 years ago. Then it became a middle class neighborhood during much of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Recently, it’s become a high upper-middle class neighborhood where it’s hard to find a single-family house for under a million dollars. In the recent boom, the domino effect of gentrification bounced from one neighborhood to the next.


Interestingly, in the growing city, some of the gentrified or gentrifying areas of town have lost population. In my neighborhood of Noe Valley, the population is shrinking. The building I live in is a two flat building, and for much of the 20th century it was owned by the Maloney family. The Maloney family had four inhabitants on the second floor and six on the first floor. Now there are four people living in the entire building, so it has gone from 10 to 4. And I think this kind of transition from large, working class families to singles and couples (with one or no children) among urban professionals is very characteristic, and still continuing. That’s why you see a decline in some neighborhoods even though the population as a whole is increasing. It’s no coincidence that in these same neighborhoods it’s almost impossible to add housing; the neighbors are extraordinarily sensitive to any increase in density. Increase the size of their own homes, sure. But block a view or worsen the parking situation, no.

Other parts of the city have grown substantially for opposite reasons. In neighborhoods like the Outer Mission, Crocker-Amazon, and Portola, larger extended families are replacing aging couples, and there is a racial transition from African American and white to Asian and Hispanic. That accounts for why some areas are growing with very little new construction. Again, immigration and probably neighborhood stabilization as well account for increased population. At this point in time you don’t see vacant houses in San Francisco. And you certainly did see them in the ‘70s and ‘80s in the poorest neighborhoods.

The largest percentage increases in population, though, are the old industrial districts where housing was traditionally far outnumbered by industrial uses. In South Beach, South of Market, and the Central Waterfront, former industrial buildings or sites are being converted to residential uses. Most of the new residential construction in town is here as well, whether its mid-rise apartments or live/work lofts. South Beach had the largest population growth, both absolutely and in percentage terms, of any census tract in the city.

The 2000 census shows two fairly distinct poles of growth and change. There are single family home neighborhoods in the southeast corner of the city, for instance, where large extended families are finding entry level housing. And then there are new neighborhoods of lofts and mid-rise condominium towers where the gentry are finding new housing. Immigrants and gentry each have their own strategy for coping with high real estate values.

Between the two are the people who are squeezed by the affordability crisis, whether they are artists in the Mission, low-income renters in Hayes Valley or home-owners in Bayview. Retirees may sell a home they owned for 40 years at a huge profit and move out of the city, or renters who want to buy may feel pulled and pushed to look in places like Oakland or even further out in Antioch or Vallejo. The confluence of these two trends is seen most clearly in the rapid drop of the African American population. The population has declined by about a fifth in ten years, a drop unprecendented in American cities. I think most of these demographic trends in San Francisco are going to continue. And we will probably see a time when there are no neighborhoods that have even close to any affordable housing within city limits. In this respect, San Francisco is different from our opposite coast success story, New York City. New York still has enormous affordable neighborhoods. The Bronx has not yet gentrified. Huge parts of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island are still working class. San Francisco is more like Manhattan in size, and in geography—the fact that San Francisco is bordered on three sides by water and the fourth side by a mountain, with only two or three real routes that head down the Peninsula. So effectively we’re almost like a little island here.


Our geography conditions the characteristics of neighborhood transition. Elsewhere in America, population groups have historically moved along great linear paths that lead outward from the center. When people want to leave a neighborhood, they often move to the next neighborhood down the line. You can see that pattern over decades in cities like Chicago, Boston, and New York for all races and classes of people. What’s interesting about San Francisco is that, because of our geography and topography, the linear paths are few. The Mission corridor is probably the great linear corridor of San Francisco, and has the clearest ethnic association, with the Hispanic Inner Mission expanding into a Hispanic and Asian Outer Mission. But the Chinese population of San Francisco had to first leap over several neighborhoods between Chinatown and the Richmond. And, more recently, Chinese Americans are locating in all sectors of the city. So, too, the black population is scattered in four separate concentrations, all of which are shrinking. The white population, if anything, is coalescing in the northern tier of the city—Telegraph Hill through Pacific Heights and out to Seacliff—and the gay/yuppie arc from Cole Valley through the Castro and Noe Valley out to Glen Park. These two very white areas are far more concentrated than most Asian, Hispanic, or Black neighborhoods, and are increasingly joining together by the growing white population in the Western Addition and South of Market.


Even though neighborhoods as diverse as South Beach and the Outer Mission have been changing most rapidly, change has been more controversial in other areas. In South Beach, there were no neighbors to oppose change, and it has undergone a complete transformation with a perfect lifestyle-marketed name. In the Outer Mission, change came through the transition of one homeowner selling to another, each typically happy with the transaction.

It’s in the Mission that neighborhood change has been most controversial. Filled with artists, the working class, recent immigrants, homeless people, and bohemian gentry, the Mission became for a couple of years the poster child for yuppie eradication. Yet, despite the perception, if you look at the gross demographics, the Mission is still remarkably diverse. Why the doomsday scenarios? Perhaps because there is a justifiable feeling that there is no longer anywhere else to turn in the city, no other neighborhood to settle. It may seem a bit ludicrous to oppose urban change, for that is the way of American cities, whether we like it or not, but I don’t think it’s being reactionary to try to create ample housing for low-income persons and artists. Somehow, through all the real estate pandemonium, the city put forth hardly any substantive programs (and money) to stabilize existing affordable housing stock and create new affordable housing.

San Francisco will continue to change. No doubt about it. But why can't the city, its citizens, and its elected officials plan for change? To this extent, I believe, San Francisco has to look to Europe. Because of our density, because of our age, because we are so gentrified, holding fast to the American paradigm of exclusive market-driven change will be disastrous. When you look at European cities, which are far older than San Francisco, what you normally see is a tremendous acceptance of change because people have lived in these cities for hundreds of years and they understand that this is part of what cities are about. But you also see a tremendous level of governmental involvement. European cities accept preservation and they accept change. Often, in San Francisco, we preserve old buildings without realizing that people and culture count most of all.

A lot of the recent anxiety about change in San Francisco resulted from the incredible power and intensity of the economic boom of the late 1990s. The period we just went through was probably one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the state of California. In a state that has had incredibly tumultuous economic booms, this was a whopper. Certainly since the Gold Rush of the middle 19th century, there hasn’t been a period of this intense influx of new people and money. The real estate spike of between 100-150% throughout the Bay Area in less than five years is historic. The recent panic is completely understandable. We were in the middle of this incredible and terrifying transformation. Now that things have subsided, we can actually look at it with a little more perspective.


I think we’re going to be in for other periods like the boom we just had, perhaps not as intense, but no doubt profoundly momentous. Given the state of gentrification and the ceiling-high real estate prices, another boom might bring about the kinds of changes that people really were fearing: a city that will not attract young people; a city that will not be able to maintain small artist’s spaces. It’s bad enough now. If you’re a young musician, if you’re interested in theater or filmmaking, or any endeavor not geared to high salaries, why would you move to San Francisco? You need space and you need affordability. You need a work environment that doesn’t mean that you have to constantly think about paying an exorbitant rent. I’d imagine that these kinds of people are already choosing not to move to San Francisco. And not only artists. Where are immigrants going to find housing? Will they have to commute from Manteca and Modesto? In the future, how is anyone going to be able to live here without constantly worrying about money? Certainly the options are decreasing steadily within the whole Bay Area.

Getting back to our original contrasts of San Francisco with Detroit and New York, we’re in an enviable position not having to plan how to yank ourselves up from the bootstraps, but we also have an insolvable problem when we try to address something like housing affordability. Avant-garde filmmakers are probably not choosing to move to Detroit, despite the fact that it’s cheap. They certainly came here in droves and established an amazing scene over the past 50 years in the Bay Area. But will San Francisco choke on its own success? Manhattan has always been thought of as unaffordable, and yet Manhattan has never stopped being Manhattan. But, you must remember, Manhattan has the boroughs and New Jersey. San Francisco has the unaffordable suburbs of Marin and San Mateo counties nearby. If we are becoming comparable to Manhattan, Oakland may be our great hope at maintaining diversity and affordability close by. I think Oakland is definitely going to be one of the most interesting parts of the Bay Area in the coming decades. But after Oakland, what’s left in the inner Bay Area? It’s ironic that the New York area, because of its size, has a far larger reservoir of what we could call urban potential than the Bay Area. That we’ve preserved a lot of land here as parks is a great thing. That we have such high standards for the development of new housing is sometimes a great thing, but often our ridiculous resistance to increased density just makes the crisis worse.

I think the if you look at planning for San Francisco in the coming years and coming decades, this is the kind of world you have to operate within. You don’t operate within the world of a city that has been falling apart, losing industry, and needed to remake itself like Detroit. Rather, you operate under the scenario of dealing with a city that is tremendously attractive to people. And how do you plan for that? How do you plan for growth? How do you plan for the reality that there will be a continual influx and no additional space? Influx is almost the singular characteristic of San Francisco. New people have always come, they’ve always contributed to the culture, they’ve always left their mark in the arts and business. Shouldn’t that continue? So my sense is that planning efforts for the future have to expect newness and growth, for a San Francisco that will be a world city, not a collection of unchanging yuppie villages. It’s time for untold numbers of San Franciscans, including plenty of neighborhood activists, to abandon their precious and reactionary vision of a Victorian wonderland, and emerge into the 21st century. All too often, the planning agenda in San Francisco is dominated by discussions of negative impacts. People get together to oppose things, not to work together on a new, radical, urban visions. And that’s precisely what we need now. New thinking. Magnificent contemporary architecture. Increased density.

I think it’s possible. For one thing, despite our small size, there’s still a tremendous amount of under-developed land. There are grossly underutilized places like Mid-Market street, that are right on transit and near everything, which could be developed for high-rise housing and the arts. Another solution, if you look around San Francisco, is to develop the plentiful land in industrial districts at much higher densities. Granted, there’s been a tremendous amount of development in the ‘90s. I work at the California College of Arts and Crafts just north of Potrero Hill. Twenty years ago, it was moribund. Today it has started to bustle. But why are three-story residential condominiums rising with false ornament and bay windows, as if they were in Pacific Heights? Why not build much larger apartment buildings in the new architectural languages of our time? If there’s a singular challenge to San Francisco, it is to say we are a city with limited land that must really maximize the potential of all future development—for what I’m calling urban zones that can incubate the next generations. Why not start planning now to create—in those districts along the eastern half of the city—zoned areas for affordable housing for working class people, zoned areas that where you could have space for nonprofit theaters, cinemas, art galleries, universities or colleges? Thoughtful planning should foster districts that will change over time, but whose change will provide a place for the kinds of people and uses that cannot easily exist in a high-income economy. That’s what we should be planning for right now.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

Mitchell Schwarzer is Associate Professor of Architectural History and Visual Criticism at California College of Arts and Crafts. He is the author of numerous articles -- including several on Bay Area architecture and landscape -- as well as the books German Architectural Theory (1995) and San Francisco: Architecture and Design (1998). He is currently finishing a new book, entitled Zoomscape: Architecture, Transportation and the Camera.

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