A Trick of San Franciscan Perspective

San Francisco looks different depending on the quality of the light or the kindness of the eyes observing its fogs and fears. Some say homeless. I say hobo. They see mess, I see desperation. The air was cold when I went out this morning, and the day had a definite chill to it. The marine layer had built up fog in the sky and no sun was there to burn through it. The streets were deserted and silent. Bodies hid under blankets, getting out of their heads, out of their flesh and tired bones and the misery of their situation. Some people are unhoused and free. Most would rather be inside.

They say itinerant family, I say on the road living life without shackles. They say the children should be in school, I say they are learning life on the fly and free-learning. They see two children putting together a dangerous campfire and I see responsibility and self-reliance. They see a cool day with refreshing fog and no chance of wild fire. I see cold to the bone, damp to the last hair, miserable freezing weather that is an ordeal to withstand and get through if living outside. They see tents and mental illness that mess up their neighborhood, I see a need for shelter and am grateful those who need it have the bare minimum. They see scattered bags and cardboard, I see belongings, even if they are not valuable to anyone else, they are to the person they surround. Treasure takes many forms, and most of them that are worth anything at the essential core of it are living people.

A homeless man held up a sign saying ‘Kindness Matters’. The cold had silenced San Francisco for the day. The streets were deserted except for a few people parking cars, some silent walkers wrapped up against the fog and cold, and the shapes of bodies in doorways huddled under blankets and sleeping bags, cardboard and tarps. The City gets busy when the sun comes out. The fog sends us into collective quiet and motionlessness.

I read the news and the weather reports every day. It seems like everyone has a bad word to say about San Francisco, and yes, we are going through a tough period, but it depends on how that grittiness is observed. The techies are leaving for Texas, Florida and Nevada. Shops are fleeing downtown – no more Nordstrom, no more Old Navy, no more H&M, no more Gap, no more Anthropologie, Ikea delaying opening their new exciting and highly anticipated store on Market Street….and more are closing their doors every day, and I do not see anyone new coming to town to keep downtown Union Square alive and selling. The rising numbers of unhoused on the streets while rent remains extortionate and rising, and houses in the City are vastly overpriced makes no sense. Crime is on the rise to the extent that we have had 12 shootings in two days, and I am wondering when Batman will show up and get control of the whole mess. Just reading the crime alerts on Citizen escalating makes me somewhat nervous about leaving my apartment some days. Knife wielding men 300ft away, man with an axe a block down from here. Naked men on Polk. A person threatening people with a fork on Van Ness. I have had men regularly try and kick my apartment’s metal security gate in. We have unhoused people breaking into our basement and refusing to leave, smoking drugs down there and making it unsafe. I have been harassed in the street for no reason more times than I can count. The sounds outside in this not-good part of town can get disturbing and frightening with the noise of violent crime playing out outside my window It just gets worse and worse. Fires caused by meth smokers, fires in the street, but no fire up the ass of those who can do something about this supposed ‘doom loop’ San Francisco is locked into and make things better.

Instead the powers that be close down harm reduction centers, want to reduce shelter beds by 80 spaces, and then wonder why we have rising overdose deaths in the wake of that decision, and why our streets are full of shit and the detritus of homelessness. They can’t even get some bathrooms set up!

I have sat here in near despair for this beautiful City on the Bay, my beloved home nestled by the Pacific ocean. I might even have been a little sad that there will be no more sock buying in Old Navy, or pant-hunting with the Boy in H&M. I loved wandering the fragrant halls of Nordstrom and hitting up the sale for some discounted tees, but no one in their right mind would pay Nordstrom prices when Amazon sells it cheaper. It is partly the fact that stores are being ‘boosted’ (robbed in local parlance) every few minutes, and no one can do anything about it. Theft under $1000 is ignored. It is more that our habits are changing. We do not need office spaces or physical shops when we have internet ordering and work-from-home.

The Financial District and the shopping district of Union Square is so empty it is eerie. Shuttered shops, and deserted offices. I have started to hope that we are in a cycle of rebirth. The City had got too expensive. There was no room for innovation, we had been taken over by tech and Big Money. Hopefully rents will plummet, housing prices will tumble, and there will be room for innovation once again. We are not a staid City of privileged people. We are progressive, liberal, artistic and free-thinking. This is a City of kindness and equality, not of Capitalist piggery and right wing misery. San Francisco lost its way for a while, with the remnants of the prosperity brought about by ’60s artistry and creativity making this THE place people wanted to live. Creativity is stifled by high prices, polish and stuck-up normies who want to bask in their light but if they were here in the hey day of SF glory, summer of love 1967 marvellousness would have been bitching about tripping hippies and shoeless freaks eating shrooms in Golden Gate Park! They want the beauty without tolerating the habits and idiosyncrasies of those who made this City what it is.

The Beat Generation were rebels, drinkers and drug takers. Neal Cassidy managed to bridge the gap between the Beats and the Hippies by becoming the driver of Furthur, the Merry Prankster’s bus, and an Acid Test graduate. If we go back in time from the Beats, San Francisco was a rather gritty boom and bust town with an active ‘Sin and Sex’ district called The Barbary Coast, whose ghost can still be seen in the strip clubs of North Beach. Indeed by 1870, the City had already gone through two huge boom eras. Between 1848 and 1853 the Gold Rush transformed San Francisco from a habitation of only 800 people into a vibrant city of 35,000! When the influx of gold from the Sierras slowed in the mid-1850s, San Francisco went through its very first bust period. Perhaps we are doomed to always get too prosperous and then adjust through brutal busts which act like a wild fire making way for new growth and more creativity and progress.

There is suffering out there beyond my window and it is being mismanaged to a sickening degree. We need more rehab centers, harm reduction places, shelters and kindness. We need to take the problem of our empty downtown and financial district and think about it creatively. There is no need for hugely expensive projects, commandeer these empty buildings, put in bathrooms and showers, and use them to house our homeless communally in a way that will help them. Use a combination of empathy, kindness and gentle assistance to get people back on their feet. Expand our mental health provisions so those who are suffering do not need to impact others with their illness and are protected from themselves.

We could set up a safe supply program, a really progressive harm reduction network and work towards making the deadly fentanyl not an attractive option. The National Guard made a small positive impact for a short while, but now things are exactly back to where they were, if not worse. This situation with rising crime cannot be strong armed into remission, it has to be fixed at the suffering source and fixed with compassion, kindness and pragmatism.

Perhaps once this City has had a bit of a dying away, once we shrink a little, remember our roots now the overgrowth is dying away, we might regain some of that which makes us so special: our artistry and creativity, our progressiveness and compassion. Perhaps once again we can sing about putting flowers in our hair and how help is on the way. Perhaps we need to be grateful that the Financial district is dead and dying, and that downtown is shrinking rapidly. Maybe this is just what the City needs, to chase away the capitalists and re-embrace what makes us really special. It is all just a trick of the light, a matter of perspective and the eyes you use to see the City through.

Meanwhile, I am carrying pepper spray, planning a quick trip downtown before Old Navy closes its doors, and hoping that the price of rent tumbles soon. I guess I always have been a bit of a dreamer…

Leave a Reply