They left their hearts in San Francisco.
The saying is trite but true for many, who leave the Bay Area for reasons we’ve all heard before: it’s expensive, crowded, tech-filled.
But it’s also complicated.
“There’s a lot out there but it’s still not the Bay Area,” said Gary Pischke. He moved back to the region this fall, after a decade in Oregon.
Over the past year, I’ve written a series of stories about folks leaving the Bay Area for elsewhere. Is the grass really greener in Austin? Sacramento? Portland? Many of those I interviewed responded with a resounding, yes!
Sacramento’s got craft beer bars, too, they said, and Austin is the land of plentiful tech jobs and housing. But have you heard what’s happening in Atlanta? Up-and-coming, indeed.
We read their stories, and sometimes daydreamed about moving ourselves. Yet so many of us stayed, resigning ourselves to sweat on cramped BART trains and cloister with roommates in short-term rentals.
There’s got to be some magnet in this city that keeps us here, in spite of it all – or rather, a series of micro-charges that add up to a pull we couldn’t deny if we tried. But where, exactly, can one locate these hypothetical currents?
They might be in the stalls at the Ferry Building or the seals on the pier. They could be in the sounds of the early-morning foghorn or the fog itself. Or, maybe, it’s not about the place at all, but the people who assemble within it, like a West Coast Island of Misfit Toys.
I spoke with a handful of longterm Bay Area residents who left and came back. The answer to my inquiries, I thought, might be found in their reasons for returning.
“The Bay Area is like a self-selected crew of quirky misfits, and when you’re a quirky misfit yourself, it’s hard to imagine a better place to be,” said Oakland resident Marion Denny, 41.
Denny moved to Atlanta for a work opportunity in May 2016. He didn’t last long, and moved back to the East Bay in October, without the thing he left for in the first place – a job.
“We had the best of everything at our fingertips in the Bay,” he said. It took leaving to realize that.
When you move away, he said, “a lot of stuff just feels like a step down.” Food and weather, sure, but politics especially.
The recent election only heightened this sense for Denny, who considers himself more conservative than most Bay Area residents. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a blue dot such as Atlanta, a “hostile state government” made him realize the place could never be a home like California.
A West Coast state like Oregon, Pischke found, also lacks the political openness of the Bay Area.
“Even the liberal types were conservative there,” he said of his 10 years “abroad” in Roseburg, a city in Oregon’s Umpqua River Valley.
Pischke and his wife enjoyed the first half-decade in the Oregon town, but time – and a devastating mass shooting at Umpqua Community College – made them realize there’s no place like home, especially when it comes to finding like-minded folks.
“We ended up living in an area that sounded great on paper, but was not what either of us had anticipated,” he said.
“So back to California for us.”
No place is perfect, but some are better than others (at least subjectively speaking). It’s not always a matter of finding “the right city,” but one that’s simply more tolerable than others. No matter where you live, concessions must be made, priorities codified.
Family was the first priority for Mike Lee, 62, a San Francisco native in the process of returning to the Bay Area after more than a decade in Honolulu. He and his partners recently bought a house in Pleasant Hill, a shorter commute to Lee’s elderly mother in Marin, compared to a five-hour flight from the islands.
“Being back, just to be close to her, is an important value to me,” he said, speaking by phone from Hawaii.
Plus, the Bay Area modus operandi is “imprinted” on him. “Here, I can express my values and be around people of like mind,” he said. “That’s special.”
That is the exact reason Annie Gray, a 25-year-old Marin native, cites for having to leave the Bay Area after college: “I needed to remove myself from the bubble I grew up in.”
Gray says her two years in Boston taught her valuable lessons, like don’t complain about the Bay Area’s weather unless you’ve experienced an East Coast blizzard. Weather notwithstanding, Gray said a few years away made her realize “what a West Coast brat I was.”
“Not everyone wants to be a Californian,” she said.
She eventually moved back, too, buoyed by a common phenomenon she observed in Boston. Many of her friends lived with their parents, often into their late-20s. She decided to do the same and moved back in with her parents in Marin for a few months before securing a place in San Francisco.
“In Boston, I came to respect people who have strong relationships with a multigenerational unit,” she said.
So she returned, and in her short time away, the Bay Area felt very much changed. That’s a risk you take when you leave and come back: Sometimes you find your city looks different from the one you left.
“Everything has changed [in the last 10 years], even the freaking skyline! The Bay Bridge!” said Jen de Lumen, a 35-year-old Emeryville resident who spent a brief stint in Los Angeles a few years ago.
But, “you’ve got to expect that in a big city like this,” she said. “I think it’s always been that way in San Francisco.”
San Francisco, as Herb Caen famously wrote, “isn’t what it used to be, and it never was.”
The city changes and, in turn, changes those who live in it.
“Did it ruin me?” mused Denny, a native of the southern U.S. “Yes. I would say I’m hooked.”
“It’s hard to imagine leaving again,” he continued. “I learned my lesson the first time.”
Michelle Robertson is an SFGATE staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter at @mrobertsonsf.