Revisiting San Francisco

It’s funny how East and West Coast cities seem to change a little differently. John Smyre, a good friend of mine from New York, visited the City recently and I couldn’t meet with him unfortunately because of my work that took me to a London Arts Fair. He noticed some aspects that I wasn’t aware of so as I’mĀ confronted with the San Francisco looks and habits on a daily basis. Here is what he wrote to me.

I was last in San Francisco in August 2004. At that time, as a New Yorker visiting the city by the Bay, I was struck by the inability to drive anywhere without being confronted by billboards trumpeting the virtues of countless dot-coms. No less striking was the start-up feverĀ still gripping the city despite the spring market correction five months earlier. At that time, New York had already started its about-face, turning away from its passionate, albeit temporary, participation in the dot-com party and returning to its more cynical, skeptical roots.

Visiting San Francisco again a few weeks ago, I was struck not by the way things have changed but by how they’ve stayed the same. I’d expected a more grim pall over the city, a waft of desperation and dried-up dreams. No, there aren’t as many billboards advertising Internet start-ups. Yes, friends formerly employed by now-defunct companies have moved on, realizing it’s tough to make a million.

But oddly, despite rampant layoffs that have left many young, talented people out of work a few years ago, there remains a feeling that all is not lost, that there’s a trace of hope that Internet-based businesses could be viable. Where The New York Times seemingly gave up years ago making Internet business front-page news (Wednesday’s paper buries AOL’s repricing announcement on page C10 of the business section), the San Francisco Chronicle plants startup stories throughout its pages.

The cynical New Yorker in me drives around San Francisco’s rather desolate South-of-Market area balking at Advertising.com’s offices and an old warehouse tower sporting Spinner.com’s logo. Like Hollywood celebrities you read about then see in person, they look much smaller and kind of sad in real life.

But they’re still there, trying to work it out, like a lot of other Internet companies that haven’t yet thrown in the towel. It’s a different mentality than the cynical place I come from. But which is right? Perhaps both. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other, and maybe it’s time to strike a balance between skepticism and hopefulness of achieving the successes for which we all still wish.

Mark Thomas