Publisher’s View: San Francisco

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Michael Moritz’s “Even Democrats Like Me Are Fed Up With San Francisco,” published in The New York Times, provoked the expected reactions from resident luminaries. Mission Local’s Joe Eskenazi picked at the weak spots underlying Moritz’s proposed political remedies, like a doctor, who, after completing a patient’s annual checkup, shakes his head sadly.  Tim Redmond, of 48 Hills, and Eric Jaye, in the San Francisco Examiner, similarly asserted that Moritiz had misdiagnosed the problem, with progressives largely, if not loudly, powerless in the face of a dominant, incompetent, executive branch. 

The real problem with Moritz’s perspective is that he announced it so loudly. San Franciscans, particularly the chattering class – me included – don’t like it when other people pontificate about their City. For longtime residents who refuse to relocate to the Peninsula or Sacramento, it’s a bit like one’s partner criticizing your mother. Yes, she’s annoying, talks too much about the wrong topics, and is a mooch. But she’s not your mother, so keep your mouth shut! 

Deep in our hearts, crusted over by walking past one too many inebriated soul who we desperately want to help but don’t know how, we love San Francisco.  

Still, Moritz isn’t wrong, at least at the headline level; which Eskenazi pointed out he probably didn’t write. Many, maybe most, of us are fed up with San Francisco.  The thing of it is, we’ve always been fed up. What’s different right now is we’re both fed up and more of us feel powerless –or in some cases, newly empowered – to do anything about it. 

Which is to say, the European-American, Asian-American and upper-income populations have joined other groups’ long-standing sense of frustration:  Black San Franciscans, victims of redlining, “redevelopment,” the prison pipeline, toxic mortgages, and environmental racism which halved their population over the past fifty years; Bayview, Dogpatch, and Potrero Hill residents whose neighborhoods were municipally neglected through much of the same period; generations of families who believe they had to exodus the City to find decent schools. 

The problems with which a wider swath of us are fed up about – too many unsheltered people; problematic street behavior; litter; schools that don’t, or can’t, rise to meet students’ needs; smash and grab crime, or worse; high taxes that seem poorly spent; municipal corruption – have intermittently flared or lingered for a long time. Some have worsened, others gotten better, but all now seem beyond government’s ability to solve.  This, as Moritz points out, is a political failure.  Eskenazi is right that it’s as much an institutional breakdown, with municipal bureaucracies chronically underperforming.  It’s also due to the fraying of cultural and social ties and norms that fostered productive, occasionally polite, informed civic engagement.

Traditional remedies are available to address some of our challenges.  Chicago recently demonstrated that if an incumbent mayor isn’t performing well she can be replaced. Others merit structural reform, as encouraged by Moritz, such as full or partial return to citywide supervisorial elections. We may need to accept that some problems can’t be entirely solved, but just better managed, while others – anything related to children – need persistent, coordinated, effective, efforts across institutions.  

Mostly, though, we need to stop whining, and do the work necessary to create the place we want to live in.  If we’re all “fed up” – bored, annoyed, or disappointed over a San Francisco that hasn’t been what we wanted it to be for too long – then let’s find ways to make things better.  Bayview, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill have repeatedly demonstrated that communities can flourish even in the face of government neglect or incompetence. Citizen-activists, far more than politicians and bureaucrats, closed filthy power plants, nurtured the emergence of parks and open spaces, improved elementary schools, created communal meeting spaces, and sustained local businesses that in turn sustained us.  

San Francisco has changed its personality and politics dozens of times over its history, often in the face of “intractable” conditions. What’s stopping us from doing it again?