How San Francisco ruined itself

This city sucked before the Internet was invented.

Published November 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

It's probably true that you can never know a place until you leave it for a while and come back, to see it with new eyes. I lived in what's known as the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area back in the 1980s; after eight years in Chicago, I returned to San Francisco in 1996. That's why complaints about the Internet ruining this city make me laugh. The Internet could not have ruined San Francisco, because San Francisco ruined itself many years ago.

This may be the most unlivable city in America, but too many of its residents are lost in such a haze of self-righteous entitlement and aggrieved internecine warfare that they don't even seem to know it. And the things that are wrong with San Francisco were so many years, so many decades, in the making, that it's absurd to think the Internet had anything to do with it.

Tuesday's local election was a case in point. It featured a pernicious charlatan incumbent (Willie Brown) running against an unprincipled political operative (Clint Reilly, who has not contradicted reports that he beat his former girlfriend) and a genial Republican chucklehead (former Mayor Frank Jordan). Brown has outraged everyone: He combines old-fashioned Democratic hackdom with a complete inability to do anything about the city's problems. Note to Brown: The '70s are over, and mayors no longer award bounty to their cronies while letting the city go to hell. From New York to Chicago to Seattle, even across the bay in Jerry Brown's Oakland, big city mayors have actually learned how to make big cities livable. (Make this point in San Francisco, of course, and you'll be considered a jack-booted Rudy Giuliani lover.)

But though final election results aren't in yet, it's clear Brown's not going to be bounced out of office, despite the dysfunction and cronyism. Supervisor Tom Ammiano made the race interesting as a last-minute write-in candidate, but his late entry into the race (a representative case of S.F. leftist incompetence, but I voted for him anyway) makes it unlikely that he'll win. Brown seems destined for a run-off, however, which will give his opponents another shot at him.

There's so much wrong with the notion that the Internet is ruining San Francisco. Most of the complainers are really deriding the economic development that has made this city a more vital place in the last seven or eight years. Economic development is generally a good thing. It gives people jobs, where they make money, which they can spend on local businesses.

If you're going to have economic development, there are worse kinds to have than computer-related industries. They're eco-friendly. They pay well. Their politics are such that they're generally good corporate citizens, supporting biking to work and so forth. And it's probably worth saying that the products they produce are, in a fundamental way, democratizing and empowering. In San Francisco, it betters the lives of the people in the city in any number of ways, and produces increased tax revenues, which the city can use (one hopes) to do beneficial things with.

The problems attributed to this phenomenon, in other words, are those you'd get with any growing economy. I worked near South Park, ground zero for the South of Market cyber culture, for three years and couldn't find much to complain about. The biggest complaint you hear about the "dot-com" people is that they actually do work. This is a concept that is foreign to many San Franciscans, so it's easy to see why it's treated with such wariness.

I don't think the dot-com people are what's wrong with the city. Here's a list of actual problems:

1) Housing is too expensive and there's not enough of it. San Francisco has a rent-control law, which, despite loopholes, does limit rent increases, and makes it relatively difficult to evict people without cause. But while the city needs to protect its current residents in this way, it also needs to aggressively build new housing. There are many complicated political reasons why this has not been the case, but part of it is that neighborhood residents have effective veto power over development. In the meantime, you can see two corollary effects: A steady displacement of the poor (because each time an apartment is vacated, it is generally filled with a person of a much-higher income) and the decline in the living standards of those who do stay, as they double and triple up in apartments.

But why are the dot-com people worse than anybody else driving up housing costs? The weekly alternative San Francisco Bay Guardian is known as a crusader against gentrification, whether of the dot-com variety or not. One of the up-and-coming neighborhoods it loudly and lamely wants to protect is Bernal Heights, where its executive editor lives with his wife, dog and baby. He works at a fat, for-profit newspaper; his wife is a lawyer. Why are they not gentrifiers? In San Francisco, clearly, gentrification doesn't officially begin until the loudest yuppies are safely ensconced.

2) The local transportation system is a scandal. In Chicago one zooms around by car, "el" and cab. In San Francisco, one never zooms, anywhere, by any means. The city's bus and subway network, called Muni, is the thalidomide baby of transportation systems. As far as I can determine from the reporting on it, it's been run by incompetents for more than 20 years. The system suffered a near-complete meltdown last summer. Thousands were left to walk to work. A full generation of mayors has given away the store to the Muni drivers union; until recently, drivers could basically not show up for work for no reason with impunity. (I'm not making this up.) The fares are about the cheapest of any major city -- only a dollar. But any politician who suggested raising fares to help the system would get laughed out of town.

If you talk about curbing peoples' antisocial behavior in San Francisco, you get tagged as a Giuliani. But it's actually a fundamental quality-of-life issue for the city's weakest and most defenseless people. Bus drivers are too busy snarling to attempt to enforce decent behavior on the buses. Those who try get threatened and attacked. And when thugs are threatening other passengers, it drives all but the most desperate away. Bus ridership, of course, skews to the low-income demographic, so the chances are good that the people affected are poor. I'm a single white male who makes a decent living. San Francisco's actually tolerable for me. But it must be murder if you're a couple, or have kids, or have a job where you have to be to work on time in the morning.

One of the charms of San Francisco is watching Muni drivers taunt the crowds of tiny Chinese women who shuttle between Chinatown and the modern-day sweatshops South of Market each morning. They're treated like cattle in the stifling, overcrowded buses that lurch down the street, brake and start with wrenching jerks and sometimes don't bother to stop for riders.

Cabs aren't the answer because there hardly are any. In most of the city you can't depend on getting one before 9 p.m. on non-weekend nights. I'm always struck by the crowds of tourists lined up outside pricey hotels and restaurants, wanly waiting for a cab. They're probably so caught up in the romance of the city that they don't think about how pathetic it is that they have to spend an hour waiting for a ride back to their overpriced hotel.

3) The homeless. It is considered a mark of pride here that the city does not harass the homeless. The trouble with this is that the city does nothing to help them, either. The result is an ongoing human tragedy of epic proportions. On Haight Street, on a given Saturday, you can see dozens of teenagers and those in their 20s, fried out of their skulls, systematically killing themselves and each other. A large portion of the other homeless you see on the street are obviously victims of substance abuse of one form or another. San Franciscans view this as a laudable example of their tolerance. But for the addicted, this sort of tolerance is not so much freedom as a trap. Most San Franciscans like political positions that remove from them the responsibility to actually do something about a particular issue. The city's homeless policies coincide nicely with this tendency.

4) The cultural scene. When people bemoan gentrification, whether thanks to the Internet or other rich people, they generally point to the artists the trend is pricing out of the city. This might not be a bad thing. I could never quite figure out why San Francisco is considered a cultural center. The theater scene here, particularly the mainstream commercial fare, is undistinguished. (The one superior theater company is the Berkeley Repertory, across the bay.) The music scene, save for a few underground turntablists, is unnotable. The symphony and opera are considered decent, the museums less so. The architecture is the visual equivalent of fingernails scraping across the blackboard of the horizon, a panorama of boxy columns and clumsy attempts at attention-getting. This, too, is an effect that took decades to accomplish. The journalism may be said to be undistinguished at best, an ongoing joke at worst.

The artists who do live here are a pain. The idea that the city is a mecca for artists mostly means that the person making your latte considers him or herself too cool to actually do it. In Chicago, there is a reigning civic culture: You do your job. It goes for the mayor, night-club doormen, cops and people who work in coffee shops. In San Francisco, most artists are insecure, which manifests itself in an aggrieved contentiousness that's extremely tiresome to be around.

Salon's recent article about Internet gentrification featured a tale about an artist who wanted to get into a local art group's live-work space. "Getting in was about as difficult as getting into one of those co-ops on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (no Jews, entertainers or new money, please). He's a local hero, and he no longer belongs." It doesn't occur to him that decisions about who occupied the live-work space might be made on the basis of considerations that aren't quite comparable to anti-Semitism.

The biggest problem with those who think the Internet is ruining San Francisco is their naive view of humanity. There will always be jerks with cell phones and car alarms. The real test of a city is whether it makes life better for its citizens, particularly its most defenseless ones. That's a complex task, one that requires a lot of thinking and hard work as well. But those are two trenchant reasons it's not going to be done any time soon in San Francisco.

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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