San Francisco: What’s it really like?

Despite misrepresentations of the city in the media, for USF students like Natalie Ryu, San Francisco feels like “an extension of home.” Photo by Jordan DelFiugo / SF Foghorn

San Francisco’s allure has pulled people in for decades. In Haight-Ashbury, the draw comes from its tie-dye emporium, welcoming murals, and lights. In the Western Addition there’s the six-block legacy of Japantown, the oldest and one of only three left in the United States. The Golden Gate and Bay bridges are a hypnotizing entrance to the city itself. There are unique features to every square inch of San Francisco, but according to the most recent data, the city saw an overall loss of 3,867 residents in 2022, due in part to the post-pandemic economy exacerbating affordability concerns, as well as COVID restrictions slowing the migration that has always sustained population growth. 

Though Time Out dubbed San Francisco the “world’s best” city to live in just two years ago, recent updates to the Chronicle and Examiner, two of the city’s prominent newspapers, present headlines of sinkholes, school lawsuits, and questions of safety on transit with COVID-19 surges. The titles are realistic responses to current events, but their negative implications have the ability to downturn overall perception of the city, regardless of content. 

With seemingly constant headlines about crime, it’s no surprise that 46% of Americans think of San Francisco as unsafe. This is a troubling addition to the city’s survey metrics, which showed a decrease in residents’ safety rating from 85% in 2019 during the day to only 63% in 2023. 

Yet last year, USF had 9,688 enrolled students. Many of them relocated to its campus from around the globe, an irony that implies key differences between student and university-unaffiliated perceptions of life in the city. 

Despite public perception, San Francisco actually has a lower crime rate per capita when compared to most major cities. According to ABC, San Francisco’s crime levels are “close to the bottom of the list of major cities, with 6.9 homicides per 100,000 people.” For comparison, according to the same article, St. Louis has a rate of 66.5 homicides per 100,000 people. 

The negative crime perception of the city is false and its impressions aren’t always the reality for students on campus. 

“It’s hard to find positive things about this city in the media,” first-year biology major Corra Laza said, speaking about her love of Hayes Valley and exploring the city. “But you can’t have an actual opinion till you’ve lived here.”

Caydance Caldwell, a sophomore business major, said, “It’s a good place to go to college, but I hate the hills.” Caldwell, who relies on public transportation to avoid the city’s terrain, is part of 83% of city residents who have used the Muni at least once so far in 2023. Despite media impressions of San Francisco as unsafe, the Muni, which measures related crimes per 100,000 miles, has an average of less than three reported crime incidents per month over the last three years. As a frequenter of Cole Street and Golden Gate Park, Caldwell explained her comfort with Muni and the easy student learning curve, saying it’s “pretty straightforward with maps.”

Some students also relied on the university’s orientation while learning to use public transportation. Keshav Goel, a first-year international student, said, “The first time going to the baseball game helped a lot. I’d never used public transit.” A trip to Oracle Park, led by student orientation leaders, was an optional welcome weekend activity for freshmen and a chance to be guided on how to navigate the city. 

Christina Koetteritz, a senior nursing major, said student amenities like previously-free Cruise rides made her more open to exploring the city. “The more experience, the more comfortable I got,” she said. For safety, she’s “had to be a lot more aware, coming from a smaller town.”   

Campus resources allowed both Goel and Koetteritz to learn their way around safely. The risk of getting lost on transit or having to walk back to campus late at night was decreased, which allowed students to keep up with the pace of the city. 

Natalie Ryu, a first-year politics major from Fremont, emphasized that “the city is always really fast.” She mentioned finding campus as a reprieve from the rest of the city’s bustling nature, as it “doesn’t feel super urban.” 

The headlines about San Francisco haven’t scared off students despite low national safety opinions. While media perceptions of the city may provide reasons for the loss of city residents each year, student enrollment rates persist regardless. Living in the city has uplifted, not deterred them. Whether this is because of not having responsibility for vehicles and real-estate, some universal property of collegiate adaptability, or simply USF’s location in the heart of the city could be debated. The mass influx of students each year shows that the history which shaped San Francisco’s districts, and the charm that has brought its residents from around the globe, is a stronger influence for students than any negative perceptions.
On moving to the city, Ryu told the Foghorn, “I didn’t think I was going to like it,” but said now that she’s here, it feels “like an extension of home.” Whether it’s lunch out at Good Luck Dim Sum, ice cream in Fillmore at Miyako’s, or a gratifying trip to the de Young museum, she was happy to say she “loves all of it.”

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