By Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC
I cry tsunamis for you.
Please accept my thoughts and prayers.
The Washington Post declared you dead (headline: “San Francisco Broke America’s Heart”), and even the Chronicle says you’re a “mess.” The summer’s best movie laments the departure of your “last black man.”
How does your small and lonely city even manage to get up in the morning and keep going on?
Maybe that question seems insincere. But for Californians not from San Francisco, the most troubling part of your crisis is that when we look at you—and your beauty and success—we can’t understand what’s wrong.
You live in a hell so new that we outsiders can’t contemplate how hot the fires must burn.
Take your wealth. You are among the richest cities on the planet, which residents of Compton or Coalinga might see as a good thing. But they don’t understand how that costs you.
You can never build enough houses for all the wealthy people who want to live there. And then you can’t build enough housing for those who clean up after the wealthy people.
As your poorer residents leave, you must look with great envy upon Bakersfield and Fresno, and wish you could be as real as they are. I don’t mean to diminish those poor cities’ struggles,
but San Franciscans must endure the far greater difficulty of living among 42 billionaires, who use you as a petri dish for their save-the-world plans— artificial intelligence, eternal life, digital currencies,
and—God help us—Yelp, which allows everyone to have an opinion about everything.
These are hardly the only maladies afflicting you. Your status as one of this country’s healthiest cities—with all those vegetables, exercise opportunities, and universal healthcare—
creates expectations for impossible perfection. I can’t imagine the pressure of knowing that you have no excuse for turning into a fat slob.
And when you travel to other parts of this bloated country in your stringy, kombucha-fueled bodies, you must feel so desperately out-of-touch.
Yet that feeling is nothing compared to the head-pounding suffering you experience when choosing from the myriad options for recreation, spiritual sustenance, and culture. I mean, say you want to go to the park, and your choices are Golden Gate, Dolores, and Presidio—who wouldn’t suffer a mental breakdown if forced pick just one of those glorious public spaces?
It’s only natural that, confronting choices and pressures incomprehensible to other Americans, you seek solace in nostalgic celebration. You’re positively obsessed with remembrances of your good old days—you know, when City Hall hosted dramatic assassinations, when you birthed strange serial killers and terrible cults and the AIDS plague, and when Dirty Harry represented a San Francisco of 100-plus homicides a year. These days, a mere 50 people are murdered each year—leaving you more people to house while contributing to your perceived deficit of urban authenticity.
Despite all the strains of your current crises, you keep taking on more responsibility. Your ever-growing tech companies now hold sway over billions of lives that bear little resemblance to your own. And when it comes to political power, you are doing far too much—providing us with the House speaker, governor, and soon, judging by Kamala Harris’ performance in the Democratic debates, the next president. Under the weight of all that influence, you may have to confront your inconsistencies, not in the privacy of your 49-square-mile peninsula but in front of the whole world.
And you bear that weight alone. When you have problems, you should be able to share your pain with others. But that’s hard for you, since your critics on the left and the right are always ready to pounce. If you complain, you just sound like those movie stars who tell glossy magazines how hard it is to be a movie star.
I’m not sure people really appreciate how unsettling it is to be you these days. Just as you stand atop the world, you’ve developed a case of vertigo worse than the one Jimmy Stewart had in that Hitchcock movie!
Sometimes when I ponder your predicament, I remember that old song, “Poor Little Rich Girl,” as recorded by Tony Bennett, whose heart keeps a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco.
The craze for pleasure
Cocktails and laughter,
But what comes after?
And nothing is more frightening than uncertainty, especially when you’re wealthy. Poor little rich city! It must be torture to think that this might be the best things will ever get.
With all the pity in my heart,