People complain that Americans are insincere with their friendly greetings, but the coffee barista who’d just served me a £4.50 latte sounded like he meant it when he thanked me for being a ‘loyal customer’.
After all, apart from him, his two under-employed colleagues, and a solitary couple poring over a laptop in a distant corner of one of San Francisco’s largest and smartest coffee shops, we were entirely alone.
At this hour, the establishment — Joe & The Juice on Market Street, the city’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfare — would once have been heaving with thrusting young technology workers stocking up on pricey coffee and ‘cold-pressed’ fruit juice before heading off into their gleaming offices to spearhead the digital revolution.
But on Wednesday morning last week it was almost empty and, even more astonishingly, there was barely anyone on the street outside. If you ever want to experience the real meaning of ‘ghost town’, head to the ‘Downtown’ financial district of San Francisco.
It’s a once-thriving area packed with the headquarters of technology giants including Uber, Airbnb, Yelp, Square and Twitter. The only problem for the folks at Joe & The Juice — and for San Francisco in general — is that there are so few people actually in them.
The undeniably beautiful ‘City by the Bay’, which for years was the one destination on America’s West Coast that tourists missed at their peril, is now a must-see in a rather different way — as a bleak warning of what could kill cities around the world as they struggle to cope with the lingering economic legacy of the pandemic and the flight from offices.
For San Francisco is falling into what economists call an ‘urban doom loop’, essentially a vicious circle of interconnected trends and forces that send cities spiralling into economic and social ruin.
Although the trend of ‘remote working’ is the root cause of the city’s troubles, San Francisco’s woes have provided an alarming illustration of what can happen when an achingly progressive Left-wing local government turns a blind eye to crime, drugs and homelessness at the same time as encouraging an invasion by tech companies that forced many local people out.
With salaries that often started at $200,000 (£161,000), the techies (who’d been lured with tax incentives from Silicon Valley, centred on the city of San Jose 48 miles to the south) first made San Francisco too expensive for most people to live in by encouraging landlords to charge sky-high rents and have now left in droves to work from home.
While other industries regard it as essential that staff return to the office, tech companies have realised their line of work — involving large numbers of people devoted to the solitary occupation of writing code — relies less on people in an office.
And San Francisco depends financially very heavily on its technology industry and the Downtown area where it’s clustered. Although some 373,000 tech workers constitute 10.9 per cent of the jobs in the wider San Francisco Bay Area (almost triple the national average), they account for the lion’s share of the region’s tax income.
Read More: Why San Francisco is in the grip of an apocalyptic DEATH LOOP