Living just south of San Francisco’s downtown, Divya Aiyar has seen a lot of unsavory activity—often, up close from her first-floor window.
There was the man standing outside, exposing himself and masturbating in broad daylight as he watched her work. There was another who demanded to use her mother’s cell phone, before removing his prosthetic leg and threatening the apartment building’s security guard.
But, mostly, there were more banal issues: homeless people living in the alley outside, syringes littering the sidewalk and garbage piling up.
On several occasions, Aiyar gave people in the alley blankets, food for their dogs and water.
“Spiritually and culturally, if somebody asks me for water, it’s hard for me to say no,” said Aiyar, who is originally from New Delhi, India.
Eventually, she had to stop for her own safety: People were knocking on her door to ask for—and sometimes demand—water or a lighter.
Despite it all, Aiyar is determined to stay put in her apartment. She loves San Francisco, its liberal values and the community in which she lives.
But she will be the first to tell you her area—South of Market, a Downtown-adjacent neighborhood that roughly stretches from First Street down to the Central Freeway—has problems. She isn’t alone in that opinion.
Often referred to as SoMa, the once “up-and-coming” neighborhood was for years a hotbed of tech offices, newly constructed apartments and popular clubs.
Covid changed that.
The new buildings remain, but many of the tech workers are gone. Businesses are shutting down, part of a spiral of closures hitting Downtown. The streets feel emptier, making drugs and homelessness more visible than ever.
As San Francisco lurches back from the pandemic, the question of SoMa’s post-Covid future feels existential: What happens to a neighborhood and its residents when the force driving its development—a booming tech sector—disappears overnight?
For most of its history, SoMa was never particularly glamorous. Traditionally, it mixed warehouses and factories with housing for immigrants and workers. Its inexpensive residential hotels sheltered sailors and low-paid laborers.
In the 1960s, the neighborhood became a center of the leather and LGBTQ+ communities, giving SoMa a cultural identity that persists to this day.
During the 1990s dot-com boom, internet startups converted warehouse space in the area into offices. Their employees moved in nearby, and the neighborhood earned the moniker “Multimedia Gulch.”
Even after the dot-com bubble burst, that period left an indelible mark on SoMa.
“There is some scruffiness, and you can still duck into a club too cool to post its name above the door,” a New York Times travel piece wrote about the neighborhood in 2006. “But for all its youthful spirit, SoMa feels more grown-up—not stodgy, but adult—than ever, with family attractions by day and energy that lingers after dark.”
In the years leading up to the pandemic, SoMa was again the center of a tech boom. Fast-growing startups like Uber, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Pinterest snapped up offices in the area, and cranes spinning up new apartments dotted the skyline. Tech employees flocked to the area and, particularly, the adjacent Mission Bay neighborhood. The population grew so rapidly, according to the 2020 Census, that, in 2022, San Francisco had to change the boundaries of its supervisor district to account for the influx of voters.
Then Covid arrived. Unchained from the office, tech workers fled the city.
SoMa was hit hard. Change-of-address request data from the U.S. Postal Service indicates a sharp net outflow of residents and businesses from the neighborhood in mid-2020. There has been no mass return.
Reflecting lower demand in the area, SoMa apartment complexes offered lavish discounts on rentals and condo values plummeted.
According to a 2023 report by real estate firm JLL, 33.9% of office space in SoMa is currently vacant.
Some residents say they believe the decision to convert multiple hotels in SoMa into shelters during the pandemic brought more homelessness and drug use to the area.
Matt Dorsey, who has represented SoMa on the Board of Supervisors since May 2022, believes the neighborhood was hit by a perfect storm: Covid, the decision to place a disproportionate number of shelter-in-place hotels in the area and the arrival of fentanyl in San Francisco.
“It changed the character in very visible and unsettling ways,” he said.
He paints the Good Hotel, located at the intersection of Seventh and Mission streets, as a poster child for the issue. When it was transformed into a shelter, that block “was just completely lost to drug dealers,” Dorsey said.
To make matters worse, SoMa wasn’t spared a slew of post-pandemic retail closures that hollowed out corridors in and around Downtown: The area lost a Whole Foods, Bed Bath & Beyond, OfficeMax, Cole Hardware and a Peet’s Coffee, along with numerous small businesses.
The losses even included cult establishments closely associated with the neighborhood’s culture: Last month, the city’s only cafe that also served as an education space for the kink community shut its doors.
It’s not hard to find local business owners and residents upset about the situation.
Adam Mesnick has lived in SoMa for over a decade and runs Deli Board, a sandwich shop at the intersection of Folsom and Russ streets. Although his eatery is doing well, he says SoMa has become a difficult place to run a business.
“You can be sure that the businesses that are left are doing everything to try not to close,” he said.
But drugs and crime make that harder, according to Mesnick, who actively—and, at times, angrily—writes about the neighborhood’s problems on Twitter under the handle @bettersoma.
At its worst, SoMa’s biggest victims are working-class people trying to go about their jobs, he says.
“The most marginalized people are victimized and terrorized by what goes on here,” Mesnick said.
Mark Sackett, who owns the Box SF event venue near Seventh and Howard streets, says his business has lost over $100,000 in revenue this year, which he blames on poor street conditions.
Most recently, Sackett was working to organize a corporate event at the Moscone Center worth $40,000. But after the company’s CEO saw the neighborhood, he pulled out, Sackett said.
Sackett tried to save the deal by touting the facilities in the area, but “we can’t do anything about the state of San Francisco,” he said.
It wasn’t the worst thing that had happened to Sackett: In June 2021, he was stabbed when trying to help a nearby business owner during a robbery.
If there’s one organization that knows the street conditions firsthand, it is SoMa West Community Benefit District, a nonprofit whose team of cleaners clear garbage and excrement from the sidewalks. But even they have frustrations.
Echoing an opinion expressed by others, the nonprofit’s executive director, Christian Martin, said the city is sequestering its social problems like homelessness and drugs, and the services related to those issues, in SoMa.
“It’s hard to keep a clean and safe atmosphere when you’ve got that many people struggling on the street,” said Martin.
“To an extent, we’re battling the city to preserve the quality of life in our area, which should not be the case,” he added.
Few in the neighborhood feel that city leaders are hearing their voices.
As the supervisor responsible for SoMa, Dorsey acknowledges their frustrations. But he also thinks that the neighborhood will bounce back if the city can better respond to its drug crisis. He’s called for fully staffing the police department and is working on a charter amendment requiring the city to have a minimum number of officers.
But Dorsey, who has been public about his own struggles with addiction, believes an effective response will also require interventions that push people into treatment.
“I think San Francisco is going through something in political terms that isn't different than what a family goes through when they have somebody who is struggling with addiction,” he said.
If you only read the news, you might think SoMa is a dangerous wasteland. But store closures and homelessness only tell part of the story.
For many residents, it is also a happy home—a place where people live, work, socialize and create.
Kayla Brittingham, an interior designer who lives in the part of SoMa that abuts the Mission, says that her neighborhood has fared well, despite the pandemic. Local businesses, LGBTQ+ bars and street markets are going strong.
“The drag queens are really keeping our side of the neighborhood alive,” she said with a laugh.
As for homelessness and drugs, she said they have always been present in the area. To her, SoMa today hardly looks different from a decade ago.
Brian Wiedenmeier, who leads the organization Friends of the Urban Forest, has lived in SoMa since 2010. He believes the area has a lot to offer: a unique urban form mixing broad streets and narrow alleys, vibrant immigrant and queer communities, and nightlife.
While he doesn’t feel unsafe in the neighborhood, he acknowledges that other people do—and the loss of businesses and foot traffic isn’t helping, he said.
“When you don't have nightclubs, businesses, restaurants and things activating the neighborhood, there's nothing else to counter that narrative,” Wiedenmeier said.
But he also believes that some of the challenges stem from larger issues that receive less attention than drugs and homelessness: Too much of SoMa has been built to accommodate automobiles and big-box stores, and for the neighborhood to thrive, that may need to change, he said.
“I think one important thing is for city leaders to treat this neighborhood like a real neighborhood,” he added. “We're not just the freeway on-ramps and off-ramps.”
It isn’t just a home for Costco and freeway infrastructure. It’s a vibrant, multifaceted community—something that can easily get lost in the parade of negative stories, Wiedenmeier said.
Maria Jenson agrees. In just seven years leading the SOMArts Cultural Center, she has watched the neighborhood's fortunes spike and then collapse.
To break the cycle of boom and bust, she believes the city should focus on supporting the arts and creative production in the area, not tech and big-box stores.
“I think that this is a moment of reckoning and people returning to the roots of the city,” she said.
Small businesses and “people making things” put down roots in the neighborhood, attract others to the area and form the fabric of a community, she said.
Community may be SoMa’s saving grace. It’s what keeps Aiyar, who has struggled with the situation outside her window, rooted in the area.
Aiyar, who describes herself as “very liberal,” hosts a party each year for Folsom Street Fair, a leather festival held every September.
“I love the neighborhood because I just celebrate every form of whatever goes on,” she said. “The people are great.”
As San Francisco celebrated Pride last month, people got a taste of a different SoMa. Despite the overcast weather, revelers spilled out into the streets dressed in colorful outfits. The sounds of music and conversations filled the neighborhood.
Fillip Ilgner, one of Aiyar’s neighbors, took note.
“I remember saying to my girlfriend that it's beautiful to see the city so vibrant,” he said. “But, at the same time, it's quite sad because you know the vibrancy only lasts for that weekend.”
Matthew Kupfer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org