California Exit

February 25, 2020

I was born in Los Angeles. My parents were programmers. (Random coincidence: they together worked with the now-forgotten technical cofounder of Amazon.) With my birth they decided they'd had enough of LA and they uprooted to a small town outside of Seattle. "There was only one traffic light when we moved there," my mom likes to say.

As a kid I hated being out in the woods, where all I could do was read books, ride my bike, and build treehouses. As soon as I could I spent as much time as I could in cities; most recently I lived in San Francisco for about fourteen years. But with the birth of my own son last year I finally got to relive my parents' experience — a programmer in California with a newborn — and also their reasoning. Books, bikes, and treehouses sound pretty good in retrospect. And so, much like the salmon I grew up eating who swim back upstream to spawn, I have too moved back to the northwest.

The "I'm leaving California and here's why" blog post is almost its own literary form, canonically opening with a description of past beauty followed by a lament about how it was lost. Compared to the standard form I am more mixed.

To be sure, the standard list of complaints about cost and trash and general dysfunction apply. There's a joke I make whenever I travel: "It's so clean here! The transit system is so great! Everything is so cheap!" It's funny because coming from San Francisco it applies pretty much anywhere.

But also there is so much to love about the bay area, including the weather, the nature, the food, the job opportunity, and in particular the concentration of weird and talented people who are also there for those things. Out for dinner the other night I realized I was the only person at my table who was actually born in the US — the other five people had ended up in SF, far away from home, in part because they were exceptional humans.

As if to remind me of what I'm losing, just after I decided to leave I ended up in the park with my AI researcher friend and her friend from the EFF as they discussed policy. (I recall when 22-year-old me considered the job offer that brought me to California, that the idea I might someday know someone from the EFF was genuinely one of the considered perks.) And if you had told me when I was growing up in the sticks that one day I'd have a real drag queen as a friend I'd have never believed you.

So I wouldn't say I was eager to leave. If I didn't already live in San Francisco and I was asked to choose where to live, SF would definitely be on the list — especially if the cost of housing were comparable to other places. But for me the housing problem really isn't even about the price of buying a house (I'm lucky to be ok with and able to afford just renting) but it's all the consequential effects, like how expensive and scarce everything else becomes, and how everyone outside of my industry is priced out of the area.

Beyond the talk about prop 13 and NIMBYs, I can't help but also feel like the bay area is just full: even if more people could live there, the freeways are full, the BART is full, and everywhere you go there are waiting lines. (At my work, employed by a company with more money than God, we were stuffed in so tight there were even lines for the toilets.) Other "real" cities do way more density way better — after living in Tokyo, it's become a pet peeve of mine when New Yorkers brag about their supposed density — but I have trouble imagining how San Francisco could increase BART capacity given its inability to accomplish even small things. Since I left, the repeated failures of attempts by the state to fix its housing policy have only confirmed that impression.

And so we moved to the Portland, Oregon area, in a place chosen for its proximity to my wife's family. Our house has a laundry machine (it's been 13 years since I have had access to one that wasn't a trudge up/down a hill!) and also trees. My commute to work downtown is still by public transit and takes about as long as my SF commute did, but unlike SF it's reliably on time and covers twice the distance because Portland's public transit isn't dysfunctional. I am sad to leave behind my morning walks to Dolores park and brilliant friends but I am cautiously optimistic that I will be able to make a good life here too.