Riding a Market Street Railway streetcar recently, I noticed some passengers boarding through the rear door and others walking right in the front, refusing to pay the fare. Moments later, when the streetcar stopped again, someone who had been eating a sandwich on the car (against the rules) opened the rear door and threw his wrapper and soda bottle onto the street. “Does anyone consider this place home?” I thought.
The world thinks of San Francisco as a dynamic, booming paradise on the left coast. Something told me many here treated it as an empire in decline.
Before I came to San Francisco, I thought if there was anyplace to be at the turn of the century, this was it. At any given time on earth there is a place that contributes a great deal more than other cities to the economic, artistic and cultural values of the day than other cities. Chicago was one such place at the turn of the last century, Paris was one such place in the 1920s, and New York in the 1930s. By the mid-1990s, it was clear to most of the nation and much of the world that San Francisco was the Golden Gate to the future.
Great numbers of immigrants arriving in California combined with the knowledge needed to make the internet the most influential medium since television to bring about a boom that sent housing prices skyrocketing and filled the streets of the city with people at all hours of the day.
For much of the last decade, San Francisco was the place to go to be part of the online revolution. Still, it was different from the revolutions of the past that brought beatniks, artists and those looking for free love to the city: this time the movement was driven by the quest for profit. The dot.com mania clashed with the off-beat character of the city to create much resentment among those already here with a different idea of what the city by the bay should be about.
The tradition of welcoming divergent forces and new ideas was what attracted many to the city over the years, from the hippies even to the dot.com entrepreneurs. Each group left its own mark and influenced San Francisco in long-lasting and profound ways. And each, having had its day, gave way to still new and different forces.
It is still not clear whether San Francisco will remain at the forefront of technological innovation. Many have already written obituaries for the thousands of small companies that rose from sketchy intentions to become sizeable companies in a matter of months, and fell off the financial indexes just as fast.
The streets of the city are still filled with people, construction projects still proliferate and the open gates still attract thousands of immigrants and visitors from around the world, even if it is only to pass through to the rest of the country. But sometimes this town now stands in great contrast to the cities of art, love and off-the-wall individualism remembered by previous swarms from other places.
Now that the dot.com movement has faded from the cultural and political landscape, thousands have stuffed their possessions in U-Haul vans and headed out of town, leaving a glut of office space and falling or stagnant housing prices. Some are even saying San Francisco, in one sense, is over. For many not so fortunate ones who came here looking for a future, it is.
For years now problems with homelessness, litter and graffiti have been all but ignored, leaving a bad impression on first-time tourists and instilling a sense of despair among residents and returning tourists who ask themselves, “What happened?”
Today a visit to many parts of San Francisco leaves the eerie impression of being a third-world metropolis. Hundreds of homeless people crowd onto United Nations Plaza in the shadow of the gold-leaf-domed imperialistic City Hall. Market Street is filled with litter. Historic streetcars are regularly vandalized with markers and knives. Needles from heroine users litter the sidewalks of many of the city’s neighborhoods and the situation in the Tenderloin district rivals the worst parts of New York or Philadelphia during those cities’ darkest moments in the late 70s and early 80s. All this in a place that continues to have some of the highest real estate values and free-spending consumers in the nation! We can do better.
Now is the time to focus on the basic problems. Remedies must be found to the situations that bring so much wealth disparity and such a deep sense of hopelessness at one end of the economic spectrum. A sense of pride must be regained among the segment of the populace that expresses a complete disregard for basic laws.
We cannot accept that it’s ok to get on a streetcar or bus without paying. We cannot accept that litter can be discarded anywhere at anytime. We cannot accept that a growing underclass live beneath our feet without hope or help.
The latest trend has come, made its millions, and left. Now it’s time for those who remain to say “This is my home. This is my San Francisco. And I care!” Let’s let the next movement be one that leaves San Francisco with a better image of itself, one that provides opportunity for all who choose to live here, and one that will hold even greater promise to all who choose to enter her Golden Gate.