Philly vs. San Francisco: Which city has the brighter future? | Perspective

The Center City skyline, photographed from West Fairmount Park in January.

I’ve split the last year and a half between practicing law in my native Philadelphia and teaching law in San Francisco.  It seems that Philadelphia is succeeding despite and because of its failures. Meanwhile, San Francisco is failing despite and because of its successes.

Let’s begin with Philadelphia.  Most of the metrics are horrible.  It’s the poorest of America’s big cities.  Life expectancy in Philadelphia is seven years less than in San Francisco.

The public schools in Philadelphia aren’t effective.  A Philadelphian is half as likely to have a college degree as a San Franciscan.

Unemployment in Philadelphia is still high. If the nation’s economy catches a cold, Philadelphia rightly fears it’ll contract pneumonia. In San Francisco, there’s a job for anyone who can work.

Per capita income in Philadelphia is $21,000, which is less than half of San Francisco’s per capita income of $46,000. Median household income is similarly imbalanced at $41,000 vs. $104,000.  That seems comparatively bad for Philadelphians.

But the silver lining in Philadelphia’s structural economic woes is affordability. Philadelphia’s median home price of $135,000 is barely one-tenth of San Francisco’s shocking median home price of $1.3 million.

A nice studio apartment in San Francisco is $3,000-plus per month. This has led some people to move into dormitories, where for about half that much they rent a furnished bedroom and share a bathroom down the hall. Others have fled across the bay to Oakland or exurbia.

Just about everything costs less in Philadelphia. A great cup of coffee may seem overpriced at around $2.50, but it’s roughly double that in San Francisco.

There are many more spectacular restaurants in San Francisco; doubtlessly due to dot-com, high tech, and IPO gilded net worths.  But the good mid-price restaurants in Philadelphia tend to be better than their San Francisco counterparts.

That’s probably because it’s so darn expensive in San Francisco to obtain space, recruit chefs and servers, and meet local regulatory mandates.

Philadelphia’s affordability has created a recent uptick in population — led by an increase in 20- to 35-year-olds, any city’s literal future lifeblood.

Conversely, in San Francisco, the hollowing out of the middle class is associated with erosion in the quality of life.

A car is roughly six times more likely to be broken into in San Francisco than in Philadelphia.

The cleanliness of streets and sidewalks is hard to measure, but the dean of San Francisco Chronicle columnists, Carl Nolte, recently described his city as a “dump.” Historically, Philadelphians are hard on Philadelphia, but rarely that critical these days.

One of San Francisco’s assets —  temperate weather — has helped produce its greatest liability: a profound and suffocating homeless problem.

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Square miles of downtown and adjacent neighborhoods are teeming with the homeless. Most are substance abusers or mentally ill, but some simply can’t afford to live indoors, such as a public school teacher whose life on the street was recently chronicled.

San Francisco reacted by earmarking nearly $50 million on housing for schoolteachers. That wouldn’t happen in Philadelphia, both because the city can’t afford it and because housing is already reasonably priced.

Local hoteliers have publicly called out San Francisco for its dangerous and repulsive environment.  Recently, the city’s visitor bureau head called San Francisco “disgusting.”

Although these public complaints might discourage tourism, the plight and blight of homelessness and trash is so bad that they reckon they need to tar the city’s reputation in order to save it.

But away from the neighborhoods riddled with the homeless, filth, and petty crime, San Francisco’s bay, bridges, hilltops, and pastel homes — gleaming in near-daily sunshine — are intoxicating. While Philadelphians pine to go “down the Shore,” much of San Francisco is so breathtaking that few seem to care it’s on an ocean.

These natural advantages have helped San Francisco attract and build nearly incomparable wealth. And so it is hard for some to understand how that wealth — $300 million per year of city tax dollars spent on the homeless problem alone — isn’t solving these problems.

But the fabric of a community is sewn by its working class, which is priced out, grossed out, and moving out of San Francisco. Thus, perversely, the successes of San Francisco are working against it.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s relative affordability encourages a more tightly knit, durable, and expanding working class. Its economic modesty has helped to save it from profound structural challenges.

So, while the sun will likely shine tomorrow in San Francisco, the future might be brighter in Philadelphia.

Shanin Specter is a founding partner at Kline & Specter in Philadelphia and a professor of practice at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.