San Francisco vs San Jose: Comparing the Bay Area’s largest cities

San Jose > San Francisco. At least according to the US News & World Report. Their recent list, ranking the best 100 cities to live in the country, put San Jose at number 3 and San Francisco at… 16. No one has ever considered San Francisco vs San Jose a great debate, and I doubt few of even the most dissatisfied SF residents dreams of life in the South Bay. And of course, these list-makers pick and choose from a wide range of criteria in their estimation of good livin’.

But still, all this list making made me cast a critical eye on how the two cities compare, and not simply dismiss SJ out of hand as a vast suburban wasteland like most SF residents do. And I ended up mostly shining a light on what SJ is all about (vis a vis SF), since the pros and cons of life in SF are fairly well documented.

First of all, I’m probably not writing this, and SJ wouldn’t be the 3rd largest city in the state, if not for one overzealous city manager (Dutch Hamann) who in the 1950s and ‘60s went on a dubious mission to expand San Jose into LA by the Bay. The city was a tenth the size, both in area and population, when Dutch set out to annex every town and hamlet within shouting distance of city hall, helping popularize a phrase along the way: urban sprawl. Besides straining public services, the unmitigated growth and lack of planning had an effect on a variety of city amenities still felt today. By comparison, SF has long been stingy when it comes to growth and development, the last 5-10 years aside.

That’s the backdrop. But for purposes of comparison, I looked at some of the criteria I believe are important for the typical urban dweller attracted to life in the Bay Area. Diversity is one of those things. Both cities are fairly diverse, but San Jose even more so, with Hispanics and Asians each making up roughly a third of the population, while whites are just over a quarter. In San Francisco, nearly half are white.

But that only tells part of the story. San Francisco has a rich tapestry of ethnic communities that date back well over 100 years, including Italian, Russian, Scandinavian, Spanish/Mexican, Irish, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino; though most of those groups are now diffused throughout the Bay Area. San Jose in its formative days mostly attracted farming and ranching types, whether Japanese, Spanish/Mexican, Portuguese, Italian. For latter-day diversity, the winner is San Jose, with sizeable Indian/Pakistani, Vietnamese and Ethiopian/Eritrean communities.

Why is this important? For one, food! One advantage I’ll give San Jose and the South Bay: they have far more and better neighborhood ethnic eateries. On the other end of the food scale, and other than Manresa and Adega, the restaurant and foodie scene in San Jose can’t hold a candle to the variety and innovation in SF. The City also easily wins in the coffee, beer and cocktail bar category. San Jose has some options, but they’re just too few and far between. Relatedly, the culture, arts and entertainment options in SF are much greater. There’s way much more to do and see, whether that’s museums, performances, events, etc.

And in general, SF is a much more interesting place to live, has a fascinating history, and is far more attractive both in the natural (hills, bay, parks) and built environment (beautiful Victorians, walkable neighborhoods). It’s one of the most charming and enchanting cities in the world. By contrast, SJ is mostly flat and nondescript, Long Beach without the beach. Its poor planning dating to the days of Dutch has led to areas in the city where housing abuts light industry, too few business and retail options, and an overabundance of that bane of suburban existence: strip malls. Plus, unless you live and work in downtown SJ, you pretty much need a car to get around.

So why would anyone choose SJ over SF? This gets to another demographic issue with SF. At times, it seems everyone living here is a single, white tech worker between 18 and 35, a post-college Logan’s Run bubble, a #fakecity. Kids? Old people? Working class? You have to search the outerlands to find any regular people of the kind that make up a typical community.

Which is obviously what San Jose is about. There might be more community spirit in SF, but there’s more community in SJ, where you probably know your neighbor’s first name. The reasons anyone would leave SF for SJ – house with a yard, non-mystifying school system, easier commute to Silicon Valley offices, affordability, safer, cleaner, parking – are why it might rate on a list of livability. People with families are more vested in their communities, connected through their kids’ schools, and motivated to make things better in their town (versus packing up and moving to Portland).

So if you find yourself exiled to San Jose, look on the bright side: parking! Plus, it’s less than an hour’s drive to San Francisco.

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