My introduction to San Francisco came in the late 1970s, when I spent a lot of time there as a young lawyer. For a Midwestern guy, the San Francisco of that era was a revelation: great restaurants, famous hotels on Nob Hill, fog drifting in off the Bay. But today’s San Francisco is, sadly, something else.
The San Francisco Chronicle has a long, long article about the city’s demise: “Downtown S.F. on the brink: It’s worse than it looks.” And it looks really bad. The numbers are grim:
Don’t be fooled. The downtown area, the city’s primary economic driver, is teetering on the edge, facing challenges greater than previously known, new data shows. The wounds suffered by the economic core are deep, and city officials have yet to come up with a plan to make the fundamental changes that some economists and business leaders argue could make the area thrive again.
And while other major cities face large numbers of workers not going back into offices, San Francisco’s numbers are among the highest nationwide.
The San Francisco metropolitan area has consistently lagged behind nearly all other major urban centers in worker returns, according to office-occupancy trend data from Kastle Systems, a security company that monitors access-card swipes at client buildings.
The data shows the rate of worker return, relative to pre-pandemic levels, has not broken 30% and was 26.4% the week of May 18, the most recent period the company provided.
So something like three-quarters of San Franciscans who deserted the city during covid have not returned. The same phenomenon has been observed in cities like Portland and Minneapolis, while other cities, like Salt Lake City, have rapidly bounced back. But Salt Lake City is not run by liberal goofballs.
The Chronicle quotes various consultants and government officials who have ideas about how to bring the city back from the brink. But you have to read deep, deep into this very long article before you get to the heart of the matter:
Any strategy that the city undertakes will have to account for fractious politics and two big, related concerns: homelessness and public safety.
“I hear it all the time, that people don’t feel safe walking around,” said Andy Chun, owner of Schroeder’s restaurant and multiple other businesses in the downtown area, and a board member of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which advocates for restaurants’ interests. Chun said he frequently sees “drug abuse, people using the street as a toilet,” though he said he doesn’t personally feel unsafe during the day.
When you go downtown and you don’t feel safe and you see people “using the street as a toilet,” you stop going downtown. There is nothing mysterious about this.
Nancy Oakes, chef and co-owner of Boulevard on Mission Street near the Embarcadero, said the area is a hot spot for car break-ins — it’s happened to her twice — and can feel generally threatening. She recounted an instance in February when a man wandered in off the street and got aggressive with the floor manager.
“The manager approaches him, he gets punched. It happens again. Three guests get up and help remove him from the building,” Oakes said.
Kudos to those guests, but when eating downtown entails a significant risk of having your car broken into, and a further risk of being called on to deal with a crazy person or criminal, pretty much everyone is going to stop eating downtown.
I am not sure whether the people who run cities like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis understand how close their cities are to circling the drain. The good times are gone. If you can’t reasonably guarantee the safety of your citizens and visitors, and if anyone who enters your city is exposed to people shooting up and using the street as a toilet, it is over for your city.