Salt Lake City. Last month, I wrote that salt water taffy is the top-selling souvenir purchased by tourists visiting Salt Lake City, and tourists buy the stuff simply because they make a mental association between salt water taffy and the Great Salt Lake, even though there is no salt water in salt water taffy. Since then, 2 very well-educated people I know and who read my newsletter told me that purchased salt taffy at the Salt Lake City airport as souvenir gifts and assumed that it was made from Great Salt Lake water. Well, I saw the same sort of thing at Lake Tahoe last week. I was at the lake for a couple of days. While I was there, I visited a number of the souvenir stores that line Highway 50, the main street in town.
Huckleberries. Huckleberry food products were – by far – the best selling edible souvenir at Lake Tahoe. Several gift shops at South Lake Tahoe had big displays of huckleberry products, including Lake Tahoe brand huckleberry jam and jelly, huckleberry taffy, huckleberry syrup, huckleberry truffles, etc. All of them had the name of the lake on the label. However, there are no huckleberries at Lake Tahoe. They don’t grow anywhere in the Lake Tahoe basin. So why do tourists buy this stuff? It is simply because people mentally associate huckleberries with the mountains, and there are plenty of mountains at Lake Tahoe. The fact that there are no huckleberries at Lake Tahoe doesn’t matter at all.
Moose. Nearly every souvenir shop at Lake Tahoe had clothes for sale with pictures of moose on them. I also saw plenty of carved moose figurines and moose ash trays with ‘Lake Tahoe’ on them as well. People buy moose clothes at Lake Tahoe for the same reason they buy Lake Tahoe huckleberry jam. People make a mental association between moose and pine-covered mountains. However, moose are not mountain dwellers. Moose do not live in steep terrain, like mountain goats. Besides, there are no moose at Lake Tahoe. In fact, there are no moose anywhere in either Nevada or California. The nearest moose are hundreds of miles away.
Clam Chowder. I am beginning to think that this sort of thing happens at all tourist destinations. People buy souvenirs based not on what is actually there but rather based on the things that they mentally associate with the place. I suppose that is why the Number 1 selling menu item at restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and the Santa Cruz Pier is clam chowder served in a hollowed out bread bowl. However, the only restaurants in California that I am aware of that offer this dish are at places where tourists eat. It’s not a local dish. You won’t find clam chowder in a bread bowl at restaurants where native Californians eat. Besides, clam chowder is a New England dish, and New England is a long way from California. All of the clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf is made from concentrate or from imported canned clams. There is no commercial clam fishing in California.
Below is a section of the For Rent ads from the San Francisco Chronicle in 1970. Look at the prices. Although it may seem hard to believe, back in those days, San Francisco and Berkeley were considered cheap places to live, that is, compared to big cities back East like New York and Boston. One of the main reasons why the hippies came to San Francisco and Berkeley in the 1960s was because they could find cheap housing here. Counter-culture people in every generation move to places where they can find cheap housing. Then they move elsewhere when housing gets expensive. That is something that never changes. Tourists, mostly from foreign countries, still go to the Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco expecting to see hippies and ‘flower children’, but there aren’t any. A 1 bedroom apartment in the Haight Ashbury district now rents for $3,000 to $4,000 a month. Of course, a portion of the increase in rents in the Bay Area can be attributed to inflation, but only a portion. When I arrived in Berkeley in 1972, I rented an apartment downtown for $80 a month, and I knew people who were paying much less than that.
When it Used To Snow In San Francisco.Donald Trump and a majority of the Republicans in Congress say that global warming is a hoax. Whenever I hear politicians say that, I think about photographs like this one. Its a photo of Market Street in February, 1887. People are in the street because the snow had shut down the cable cars and street traffic. Did you know that back in the 19th Century, it used to snow in San Francisco? Not frozen dew or a light dusting, but real snow. You can see old photographs of San Francisco blanketed in snow on Google Images. For example, on New Year’s Eve in 1881, snow began falling in San Francisco. It snowed continuously for the next 5 hours. The following day, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that telegraph and telephone service was interrupted throughout the city because of downed wires and fallen tree branches. Boys and girls had the day off from school. They built snowmen and had snowball fights all over the city. Many of the palm trees and flowers in the exotic gardens in Golden Gate Park were killed by cold and the ice that covered them. Now I have lived in Berkeley for over 40 years, and I have never seen snow on the ground here. The last time it snowed in San Francisco was 1976. The city got 1 inch of snow, and the next day, it was gone. San Francisco is not alone. There are many places around the world that used to regularly get snow but don’t anymore.
The Irish Potato Famine. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Irish Potato Famine. The potato crop failed in 1845 due to a disease called potato blight. The disease spread quickly, destroying nearly all the potatoes in the country. By 1846, people in Ireland were in a bad state of affairs. Even before winter arrived, millions were weak from hunger, and to make matters worse, a lot of people had sold their winter clothing and shoes to buy food. Winter came early in 1846, and the winter that year was bitterly cold. Snow started falling early, and it kept falling. In some places in Ireland, snow drifts were 10 feet deep. People living in remote areas, already weakened by hunger and cold, were unable to get to one of the few food relief centers in Ireland because snow blocked their way. Here is a letter that was written by an English observer in Ireland at the time and that appeared in a London newspaper in 1847. “Among the thousands I meet, I have seen no one who had clothing corresponding to the bitter cold which is now experienced; on the contrary what is beheld is emaciated, pale, shivering, worn-out farming people, wrapped in the most wretched rags, standing or crawling in the snow, bare-footed and freezing.” People who live in Ireland today find it hard to believe that they ever had winters like that, but then – people who live around here are often very surprised when I show them old photographs of Market Street in San Francisco covered in snow.
The Northwest Passage.I used to know a magician named Dan X. Solo, a very nice guy. For over 20 years, Dan worked on cruise ships that went up the west coast to Alaska. Dan did table hopping magic and magic shows aboard these ships. Dan used to tell me that global warming was very obvious to him – and profitable as well! That was because every few years, the Alaska cruise ship season got a little longer, and that was because the seas in the Alaska inner passage were ice-free longer every year. Dan said that when he first started working on cruise ships, the Alaska cruise ship season was from June to August, but when he retired, the season was from May to September. The season had gone from 3 months to 5. Since Dan Solo’s death a few years ago, the Alaska cruise ship season has gotten even longer. And now, cruise ships are traveling from Alaska to New York through the Northwest Passage. In September, the cruise ship Crystal Serenity arrived in New York City from Vancouver, Canada across the Arctic, a trip that was unimaginable just 20 years ago. The voyage took 28 days. The passengers were not ‘roughing it’ through the Arctic. The Crystal Serenity has 13 decks, multiple indoor swimming pools, a casino, movie theater, a spa and health club, a golf driving range, and 6 restaurants. The ship actually has 12 restaurants if you include the specialty restaurants like Silk Road and the Sushi Bar. The ship has an herb garden and olive trees aboard the ship so diners will have fresh ingredients. Each passenger paid between $20,000 and $120,000 to take the trip. Many more Northwest Passage trips are scheduled for 2017.
Evidence of global warming is not hard to find. It is everywhere. It is not surprising to me that all of the politicians who say that global warming is a hoax get big bucks from oil and coal companies. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair, 1935.
Parker Berkeley is the newest apartment house in town. This place is huge! Parker Berkeley covers a whole block plus part of the block across the street. It is not on a spiffy section of Shattuck Avenue, and it is a long way from campus, but it is walking distance to the Ashby BART station. My guess is that the owners of this building are planning to rent to commuters who work in San Francisco. The rental office is now open and here are the rents:
One bedroom $3,400
Two bedroom $4,500
Three bedroom $6,300
Parking is extra, plus the rent is higher if you have a cat or a dog.
If these rents seem high to you, remember that rents for similar apartments in downtown San Francisco are much higher than this. Like all new apartment houses in Berkeley and San Francisco, Parker Berkeley has inclusionary apartments for the poor, but all the other apartments are rented at market rate. So here is my question. If all the new apartment houses in town only have apartments in them for the rich and the poor, then where will the middle class live? I have been asking that question for 30 years. Consider a schoolteacher who makes $70,000 a year. This teacher doesn’t make enough money to rent a market rate apartment at Parker Berkeley but makes far too much money to qualify for an inclusionary apartment. So where will this schoolteacher live? Certainly not at Parker Berkeley or any of the new apartment houses going up in Berkeley or San Francisco. America has long been a middle class society, but we are building no housing here for the middle class. None at all. Zero. Zip. What kind of society are we going to live in if we only build housing for the rich and the poor? I never, never hear local politicians talking about this issue, the complete lack of new housing for the working middle class. It never comes up. I wonder why.
I have been a landlord for over 40 years, but I have never owned an apartment house. Realtors have often tried selling them to me, but I have always said No. I have always believed that single family houses make the best rentals. Houses are the easiest rentals to manage. Plus, single family houses and condos are exempt from rent control by California state law, and that supersedes all local rent control laws. If you ever decide to become a landlord, my advice is that it is much better to own and rent several single family houses than one big apartment house. When I read about a landlord who is involved in some sort of horrible mess with his tenants or the government, that mess is almost always in a big building, not a single family house. Here is a dilly of a mess in a big building….
The Millennium Tower is the tallest and most luxurious residential building in San Francisco. The 58 story Millennium Tower opened for business in 2008. It is located in the financial district and is home to many high tech multimillionaires and San Francisco celebrities, including Joe Montana and Giants star Hunter Pence. It is understandable why people like that live here. The Millennium Tower has a long list of incredibly luxurious amenities. Predictably, if you want to live in the Millennium Tower, you need to have very deep pockets. These condos are very expensive. Some units have sold for $10 million. Hunter Pence paid $4 million for his condo.
That Sinking Feeling. Unfortunately, the Millennium Tower is sinking. The tower was built on land that was, at one time, under San Francisco Bay, and bedrock is very far down. Beneath the Millennium Tower is almost 200 feet of mud and sand. Because of this, most of the high-rise buildings in this area have steel pilings under them that go down to bedrock. However, in order to save money on construction costs, the builders of the Millennium Tower did not drive pilings down to bedrock. Instead, they only drove pilings down 80 feet. As the result, the Millennium Tower is built on dense sand, not bedrock. That is why the building is sinking. Since its opening 8 years ago, the Millennium Tower has sunk 16 inches, and it is still sinking. To make matters worse, the building is not sinking evenly. The Millennium Tower is sinking faster on the north side than the south side. As a result, the building now leans 2 inches towards the north. The Millennium Tower is in no imminent danger of collapse, but if the sinking and tilting continue, the building may have to be torn down. Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it?! What can be done? Well, engineers are trying to figure out a way to stop or at least slow down the rate of sinking and tilting, but it isn’t certain that anything can be done. One thing is certain. There will be a lot of lawsuits over this mess, and some lawsuits have already begun. Some of the condos in this building belong to San Francisco’s best lawyers, and needless to say, anyone can afford to live in the Millennium Tower can also afford to hire a lawyer, and a very good one too.
Prices. The sinking and tilting seem to have had little effect – thus far – on the prices of condos in the Millennium Tower. The real estate market in downtown San Francisco is so hot that buyers are willing to overlook ‘minor defects’ (as one realtor put it) such as the sinking and tilting. To give you an example, unit #502 in the Millennium Tower is currently for sale. It is the most expensive one-bedroom condo currently for sale in San Francisco. In 2012, it sold for $1.8 million. It is now priced at $3.8 million. It is a spacious unit, but still, that’s an awful lotta money for a 1 bedroom apartment! The HOA (Home Owner Association) fees are also pretty stiff here and can run several thousand dollars a month, depending on the size of your unit.
Rents. I can’t tell if the sinking and tilting has affected rents. There are quite a number of units in the Millennium Tower listed for rent on Craigslist, but prices seem to be all over the place. Some 1 bedroom units are listed at $5,000 a month while others are listed for $10,000 a month. Although these rents seem high, they are not out of line for luxury buildings in that part of San Francisco. On the other hand, most luxury apartment houses in San Francisco aren’t sinking or tilting.
P.S. – Does something about this story sounds familiar? Well, if you went to a Christian Sunday School when you were a kid, you are probably thinking about a line in the book of Matthew that says that a wise man builds his house on a rock but a fool builds his house on sand. Oh well. I guess the people who built the Millennium Tower didn’t go to Sunday School.
Micro apartments and condominiums in San Francisco keep getting smaller, and so do their kitchens. Below are photos taken from San Francisco Craigslist rental ads. These are examples of what is politely known in the City as ‘efficiency kitchens.’ Each kitchen measures less than 5 square feet. In that tiny space, they somehow squeeze in a stainless steel sink, a stove, a refrigerator, a microwave oven, and some shelves or a storage cabinet. Just because these kitchens are tiny, doesn’t necessarily mean these apartments are cheap. They are in San Francisco, where the average 1 bedroom apartment now rents for $3,600 a month. Whenever I see ads for newly-built micro apartments and condominiums in San Francisco, I think: ‘Well they can’t get any smaller than that’, but they always do. I wonder how they will make kitchens smaller than this.
I have been wondering for a long time when internet companies were going to discover how much cheaper it is to do business in Oakland than San Francisco. Commercial office space in downtown Oakland is half the price of comparable space in San Francisco, just 10 miles away. It seems like that day has finally come. When Capwell’s department store in downtown Oakland opened for business 85 years ago, it was the biggest and most beautiful store in the East Bay. The Beaux Arts building featured an 85 foot high atrium with a domed stained glass roof. After Capwell’s went bankrupt more than 20 years ago, it became a Sears store, but the building was so large that Sears never used all of the space, and they covered up most of the building finer architectural features. After Sears moved out, the building was vacant for many years. The Capwell’s building is now undergoing an expensive renovation. It is being converted into office space for internet companies. Part of the building has already been leased to Uber, which will move 600 employees there from San Francisco. Ultimately the building, renamed Uptown Station, will house about 3,000 high tech workers. The ground floor will be filled with stores and a food court. The roof will become a garden and picnic area. The 19th Street BART station is right next to the building, and there is a direct entrance into the building from the subway station. That is probably the building’s single most valuable asset.
For many years I worked for a real estate broker who got listings fairly often on what are known in the business as ‘problem properties’, but nothing as strange as the Mummy House! Even though the sale of houses in San Francisco generate jaw-dropping commissions, I don’t envy the real estate agent who had the listing on this house. The Mummy House looked good on the outside, but inside it was another story. The house was occupied for decades by an eccentric old woman. The realtor who got the listing knew that he had a job on his hands as soon as he saw the place. The house was full of rats, mold, black widow spiders, and hundreds of bottles of the owner’s urine, which she chose to save for some reason. In addition, the mummified body of the owner herself was in the living room lying on a couch. The coroner estimated that she had been dead for at least 5 years. Even stranger – it appears that the woman’s daughter continued to live in the house for years after her mother’s death, making no effort to remove the corpse from the living room. Clearly, this was a ‘problem property.’
The Mummy House was listed for $928,000. There were multiple offers. It sold for $1,560,000; more than $500,000 over the list price. The mummy was removed from the property before the sale, but otherwise the house was delivered to the buyer AS-IS. The ad for this property said that the house was ‘unique’. I think that was a well-chosen word. ‘Unique’ means one-of-a-kind, and that does describe this listing. What are the odds of finding another house just like this one in San Francisco – or anywhere else for that matter? Mummy House.
If you have driven over the Bay Bridge anytime in the past 3 years going to San Francisco, you probably noticed the Jasper building which is under construction on the right side of the off-ramp on top of Rincon Hill. The building is thin and 40 stories high. The Jasper will be finished soon. They has just announced their rent schedule:
Studios $4,250 a month
One Bedroom $5,300
Two Bedroom $7,000
Why would anybody pay $7,000 a month rent for a 2 bedroom apartment? I know several people who bought houses in San Francisco within the past couple of years, and all of them are spending a lot less than $7,000 a month for housing, and they all have mortgages. To be fair, the Jasper really is a luxury building. The apartments are large, and the building has a lot of amenities. Most of the apartments have balconies; however, I don’t know how much time I would spend on a balcony next to the Bay Bridge on-ramp at rush hour, especially on a hot, dry day. Breathing air like that can’t be healthy.
The minimum wage in San Francisco is now $12.25 an hour, which I think is too low. I ask you – how can anyone live in San Francisco who works at minimum wage? According to Zillow, the average apartment in San Francisco rents for $3,950 a month. That means that a worker would need to make $79 an hour, or $153,000 a year, to rent the average apartment in San Francisco without spending more than 30% of his pre-tax income on rent. I don’t know how much McDonalds pays their hamburger flippers in San Francisco, but I’m pretty sure that it is considerably less than $153,000 a year. There are a lot of people working for minimum wage in San Francisco, but where do they live? I really can’t figure that out. The people who work at McDonalds and Walgreens in the City must live someplace – but where?
Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is often called a tourist trap, but I don’t think that’s fair or true. The term ‘tourist trap’ implies that a place was created to attract tourists and rip them off, selling them tacky souvenirs and terrible, overpriced food. Well Yes, there are a lot of silly attractions and tacky souvenirs for sale at Fisherman’s Wharf, but there are also a lot of really great things to see and do there, and many of the best things are either cheap or free.
Sea lions. On some days, especially in summer, there can be 500 to 1,000 sea lions at Pier 39. Even though I’ve seen the sea lions at Pier 39 a hundred times, I can still spend an hour watching them without getting bored. I think they are fascinating. From the size of the crowds at Pier 39, it seems like a lot of other people think so too. They are not trained sea lions. They don’t do tricks. They spend their time sleeping, barking at each other, quarreling for control of choice real estate, scratching their heads with their flippers, and yawning. They yawn a lot. I think that watching sea lions is the best thing to do at Fisherman’s Wharf, and it’s free.
‘F’ streetcars. The ‘F’ line antique streetcars run along the Embarcadero from downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf. It is one of 3 great ways to get there. Some tourists wonder if these streetcars are really be as old as the city says they are. They are. These are not reproductions of old streetcars. They are just very well maintained. Riding an ‘F’ streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf costs only $2.
Oakland ferry. The second great way to get to Fisherman’s Wharf is on the Oakland ferry. On the ride to Pier 41 from Oakland, you get to see wonderful views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and you get to pass under the Bay Bridge. The ferry costs around $5.
Cable car. The third great way to get to Fisherman’s Wharf is by cable car. Although 2 cable car lines go to Fisherman’s Wharf, the Hyde Street line is the most interesting. It goes up and down the steepest hills and ends at Ghirardelli Square.
Boudin’s Bakery. Boudin makes the best sourdough bread in San Francisco, and they make a lot of it. You can watch the bakers making sourdough bread shaped like alligators, crabs, turtles, etc. It’s one of many good places to have lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf. Not all the restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf are lousy and overpriced, although the number of bad restaurants there admittedly exceeds the number of good ones. But – isn’t that true everywhere?
Ghirardelli Square ice cream parlor. If there is a better ice cream parlor in San Francisco, I don’t know where it is. They serve ice cream they way it should be served, with generous portions of high quality ice cream in old-fashioned glass ice cream dishes, not styrofoam cups, and covered with whipped cream, not ‘whipped topping.’
Interesting stores. Some of the stores on Pier 39 are really quite interesting. They are not all tourist junk shops. Among the stores I like are the Houdini magic shop, Chocolate Heaven, Puppets on the Pier, and the NFL / College Shop, which has an astonishingly large selection of sports team clothing. In addition, some of the places on the pier that sell food products make them in their windows, which can be very interesting to watch. Frankly, I have picked up some of my best chocolate-making ideas by watching people making candy in the windows of chocolate stores around Fisherman’s Wharf.