As the regions flanking San Francisco deal with hundreds of wildfires, area residents added an alarming worry to an already toxic mix of stress stew. Piling onto months-long coronavirus fatigue, heatwaves descended on the towns and cities here last week, creating a conundrum for people: Open the windows and face unhealthy, polluted air, just to cool off? Or keep them closed and swelter inside?
A week later, and residents are still wondering if it’s safe to breathe.
The events that poisoned the air to begin with are devastating wildfires numbering more than 700 and scorching more than 1.3 million acres. In the course of 10 days, the fires have claimed seven lives, burned nearly 2,000 square miles and destroyed at least 2,000 structures, and counting.
Altogether the series of overlapping disasters set the stage for a looming question: Can life here ever be the same?
Northern California has suffered through numerous wildfires over the years, including the Kincade fire that ripped through the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions in 2019. But the latest catastrophe, sparked by lightning strikes and clustered into three main complexes in Silicon Valley, wine country and points east, are historic.
The SCU Lightning Complex Fire to the east, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire to the north and the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in the south collectively have a footprint larger than the entire state of Delaware.
According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, California has set an unprecedented pace in acreage burned so far this year. But it’s “putting every single asset we possibly can, deploying every conceivable resource to battle these historic wildfires,” he said Wednesday. The enormous effort is making gains, with improved containment, though in the 24-hour period ending Wednesday afternoon, the state saw another 423 additional lightning strikes and 50 newly reported fires.
This is just the latest blow to the region, capping off a series of bad news on both a local and nationwide basis.
In the U.S., COVID-19 has taken nearly 180,000 lives, infected 5.8 million people and hobbled the economy. In the Bay Area, the pandemic period is defined by a homebound lifestyle stretching into its sixth month, people fearing or experiencing job losses while living in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. and a tech sector-fueled work-at-home trend that’s arguably helped spur mass departures from the city while at the same time propelling the stock market to record highs on the backs of strong results at Apple, Alphabet, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft.
In other words, more tech workers can work from wherever they want, and they’re taking these policies to heart.
Data from online real estate tracker Zillow reveals that the number of San Francisco homes for sale is swelling. According to its “2020 Urban-Suburban Market Report,” the city’s inventory of residential properties has skyrocketed by 96 percent compared to last year. The number of apartment rental listings in San Francisco shot up more than 150 percent in a year’s time, while rents have fallen by as much as 20 percent from their peak.
The urban flight may also be due, at least in part, to downturns in the local economy. According to figures from the state labor agency, the Bay Area added a record 110,700 jobs in June, but only one-fifth of that in July, at 21,200 jobs, representing an extreme drop in employment momentum, largely due to business re-closures.
Add the overall trends of people leaving cities due to the virus — which makes living in cramped, perhaps crowded, dwellings a frightening proposition — and it’s a recipe for an exodus.
Whatever the reason, not everyone is sad to see the migration.
One tech company director, who requested anonymity, explained that remote hiring is becoming standard, so professionally, it’s no problem for his company. Personally, he doesn’t see a mass exodus as a big loss, either.
“I think a lot of them are transient workers,” he said. “If they move, it leaves the city to those of us who come from here, who love it here. And frankly, we’re not new to disasters, so we’ll be OK.”
But he acknowledged one big potential downside: The potential that fewer residents will lead to fewer city services, stores, restaurants and other venues. “That would be really bad,” he said. “That would make it tough to live here for those of us who stay.”
The mere thought is a stark contrast to how the region was viewed just one year ago.
Prior to 2020, luxury brands and other retailers considered the Bay Area a must. Some were intrigued, attempting to demystify a culture known as much for its Birkenstock-loving hippies as hoodied tech bros and vest-clad venture capitalists, while others felt the gravitational pull of America’s tech capital and all of the innovation, influence and affluence there. It created a heady combination and a compelling case to set up shop in the region.
At this time last year, Emily Holt, owner of Hero Shop, talked to WWD about fashion’s view of the local scene. “When I was working in New York, there was all this interest in what’s happening in ‘Silicon Valley,’” she explained. “All the brands want the money out here, and they want to know what the style’s like out here.”
She wasn’t wrong. From Supreme in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood to Jeffrey in Palo Alto’s Stanford Shopping Center, retailers flocked to the area in recent years or reaffirmed their Bay Area commitment — such as Hermès and the reestablishment of its 9,000 square-foot flagship in Union Square.
That may as well be a lifetime ago, and it literally was for retailers like Jeffrey. The luxury store was shuttered by Nordstrom in May along with Jeffrey’s outposts in Atlanta and Manhattan.
A lot of fashion’s momentum in the Bay Area was designed to cater to tech workers, with their disposable incomes and love of consumption, or to work among the venture capitalists and technology giants, as if innovation could be transferred by osmosis.
Now, if the tech workers are leaving, what reason is there for fashion to stay?
It’s an open question, and it arrives following some dismal retail news for the area, from Macy’s closure of its San Francisco tech office — first reported by WWD in January and confirmed by Macy’s in February — to The Gap cutting most of its local stores, including its flagship, this month. Along the way, scores of local businesses have shuttered forever.
According to Yelp’s second-quarter consumer interest report, the Bay Area has suffered among the most COVID-19 business closures of all U.S. metropolitan areas. San Francisco and San Jose account for two of the four highest per-capita closure rates in the country, behind Los Angeles and New York.
What is clear is that the Bay Area is not alone, whether in facing natural disasters — particularly now, as Hurricane Laura hits the Texas and Louisiana coasts — or sharp downturns in local commerce.
Holt believes the challenges are the same across the country. And with fashion brands rushing to adapt to the online imperative, no one’s thinking about establishing a physical presence in the Bay Area or anywhere else.
“In the last year, retail has changed really quickly, in terms of digital and direct to consumer,” Holt said. “Whether or not the consumer is physically here is only one small part.…So if you don’t decide to come here, it would be for a number of factors.”
Those factors aren’t changing anytime soon, she added. “I don’t think anything is reversing quickly. That’s not just retail, it is absolutely every aspect of our lives.”
It’s too early to know if that’s true, but it rings true. And, according to experts in technology and retail, it’s a certainty for the e-commerce trends cemented by this pandemic. The nature of shopping appears to be irrevocably shifting, which, for any city or town, might flatten the landscape and dampen the local character. That would be a punch to the heart as much as the wallet.
For San Francisco and Silicon Valley, a creative, quirky region that until very recently was considered a hotbed of investment and interest for fashion brands and retailers, the hit would feel especially hard.