About two years ago, I moved to San Francisco from Manhattan in order to pursue a position in economic research at the Hoover Institution. I had originally been working in finance, but welcomed with a special eagerness the opportunity to enter the realm of public policy.
My only interaction with California had been limited to a week in the Piedmont-area of Oakland, California during my junior year of college. Over the course of that first visit, I experienced the “quintessential” San Francisco that characterizes most people’s expectations of the city. I bought colorful groceries at a quaint farmer’s market. I ate an In-N-Out burger with the “special sauce” and donned the silly hat as I scarfed it down. I gawked at the sheer amount of tie-dye I witnessed in Haight-Ashbury. I even braved the earthquake simulation at the California Academy of the Sciences. In short, I developed a quick affection for the city that was only to be challenged severely upon my move.
Between receiving a job offer and my first day of work, I had precisely three weeks to relocate to the Bay Area. Despite my scant knowledge of the region beyond my short stint in Oakland, I managed to secure a decent apartment within my budget and within an hour or so of my work. From my estimations, the neighborhood seemed adequately safe, though perhaps slightly less cared for than my old neighborhood on the Upper East Side. Still, it was a home, and I was appreciative. The afterglow of my moving victory, however, was short-lived.
The Sidewalks Glitter With Glass From Smashed Up Car Windows
Within a few days of moving to San Francisco, I immediately noticed something I had not been accustomed to seeing in New York — a preponderance of glittering sidewalks. Every few blocks, it would not be uncommon to see shards of glass strewn across the pavement, and I quickly learned that my new city was notorious for car break-ins. One of the first pieces of advice I received from a friend upon moving to San Francisco was that I should empty my car each night and never leave anything in my vehicle—not even a tissue box. After staring incredulously at my friend for a moment, she quickly responded by explaining that theft from vehicles was a common occurrence in the city and that to leave items in my car was simply “asking for it.”
Her reasoning, while dystopian, was depressingly pragmatic. In 2017, San Francisco experienced 31,322 thefts from vehicles alone — that is, 85 thefts from vehicles per day — while an arrest was made in only 2 percent of reported break-ins. Most of the break-ins are attributed to organized gangs and often committed by those with prior felony convictions.
In addition to dangerous patches of broken glass, the sidewalks in San Francisco are often accompanied by truly staggering amounts of trash. I didn’t understand initially from where all this trash was originating, until I witnessed someone breaking open a public trash bin in order to sift through the items. Amongst the trash that lines the many sidewalks of San Francisco, there are often used needles and more than occasionally, human feces.
Public Defecation Is A Serious Problem
In November of 2017 alone, 6,211 needles were collected while via the 311 App (the “concerned citizen” reporting app set up by recently deceased San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee), 1,498 requests were made to clean up human feces. The public defecation problem has become so intolerable in San Francisco that private citizens have built an online map to track the concentrations of poop in the city, so that pedestrians may know to avoid certain areas.
And it’s not just poop. The overwhelming smell of urine on parts of Mission Street and Market Street would make your nose bleed. I recall the first time I rode BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, San Francisco’s subway system) and was nearly knocked over by the sheer stench of the station. I was surprised to learn that exiting the station supplied little to no relief — the urine smell hangs heavy in the more populated areas of the city and is nearly inescapable. In a dark twist of humor, the city has had to replace numerous different street poles due to urine eroding the foundation.
What drives a large part of the human waste issue is San Francisco’s homeless population. The homeless epidemic in San Francisco is tragic and frightening — in a 47-square mile city, we have around 7,500 homeless people, meaning there are approximately 160 homeless people per square mile. Unsurprisingly, it’s not uncommon to see frequented streets downtown blocked by what people dismally have coined “tent cities,” large enclaves of tents that homeless people have set up with little to no pushback from local authorities. What makes the homeless problem particularly alarming is that a variety of tents are often juxtaposed next to $4,000-per-month apartments. In a region where the median income is just under $100,000 and where the economic growth — fueled by brilliantly innovative minds — has been nothing short of astounding, there is some of the country’s most abject and abysmal poverty.
The Underbelly Is Seemingly Everywhere
In addition to experiencing the foibles of day-to-day life for San Franciscans, I’ve also been wholly disheartened by the relative frequency of crime I’ve encountered. While my car has yet to suffer from smashed windows — I practice gratitude each morning when I find it intact — I have had no shortage of interactions with San Francisco’s underbelly. Within the first two months of living in San Francisco, I was a bystander in a drive-by shooting outside a restaurant where I was purchasing food — I was forced to hide in the kitchen of the restaurant after shots rang out.
Over the course of the last two years, I’ve reached out to the cops about hearing gun shots on my street at least five to six times. I once came home from work to spot three fire trucks outside my house, after a fight had broken out next to my front door and the situation had escalated to such a degree that the cops and the fire department were both called.
About half a year after that, my next-door neighbor’s car was stolen off of our block. It was eventually recovered by the cops, but heavily damaged, with its rims missing, its lights removed, and its sides dented. And to top it all off, we even found a crack pipe in the door of the driver’s side.
Despite the dismal nature of these events, there is an occasional Chekhovian instance of laughter through tears. Just last month, a man attempted to break into my apartment around 3 a.m. After about five minutes of banging on my door and fidgeting with the handle, he scampered off as I screamed the cops were coming. Upon peering outside, I noticed the would-be robber left his small Chihuahua-Papillion mix behind, which I happily took for the night until I could locate her owners. I remember darkly chuckling to myself that only San Francisco could produce such miserable absurdity.
Stuck In Mismanagement And Deterioration Of Human Decency
I would love to believe my experiences in San Francisco are unique in their dreadfulness, but after speaking with others, I have learned I am not alone. I live in a reasonably decent section of San Francisco, and from what I gathered in speaking to many others, everyone has had his or her version of San Franciscan traumas. San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the country and home to a booming center of intellectual capital, has suffered from the excesses of its own liberalism. Bloated and inefficient spending, combined with a gross shortage of housing only worsened by rent-control antics and a fat city bureaucracy, has left a city in utter disrepair.
As part of my attempt to gain perspective on my own experiences, I invited those on social media to share with me some of their experiences, good or bad, of living in California cities (always a questionable decision, but I don’t regret it one bit). Within an hour, my inbox was flooded with stories from those who had been living either in LA or in the Bay Area.
Some had been residents for just a few years; others, for their entire lives. What struck me about each person’s messages were the sense of hopelessness and frustration with both local and state authorities. The relative “coronation” of Democrats each election on the local and state level has led to a general erosion of performance from the reigning party, which rarely feels the pressure to perform, given the absence of a legitimately competitive rival party. Some of the messages alluded to the astronomical cost of living, particularly in San Francisco. Others bemoaned the general level of lawlessness and lack of punishment for a variety of crimes. Almost all, however, described the homelessness as simply “out of control.”
One woman, whose story was particularly disturbing, described her walk to work in the following manner:
People are yelling nonsense while wandering into the middle of the street, people are curled up sleeping on almost every block, people have their pants down and are publicly peeing, people simply have their pants down and aren’t peeing at all … The list goes on … My most harrowing encounter was walking to work at 9 a.m. on a sunny Saturday afternoon when a stranger (I don’t think he was homeless) was tailing me on the sidewalk and grabbed my butt at a red light. I stopped walking around with headphones in after that, regardless of the time of day or how busy my surroundings are, because I feel that I need to have my wits about me at all times. My mom actually chastised me for having my headphones in at all when I told her about that encounter — imagine a city where the median income is nearly six figures, yet women feel compelled to walk around on guard all the time. That city is San Francisco.
Only an hour drive south of Napa and three hours southwest of Tahoe, the Bay Area offers its residents a mixture of urban living and vacation-style escape. But when we discuss the “great cities” of the West, I don’t believe San Francisco belongs in that category. The astounding level of mismanagement and general deterioration of public decency will continue to plague the city until reasonable measures are taken to combat vagrancy, including harsher punishment of petty crime and the construction of more affordable housing. Similarly, until there is a greater deterrent for property crime, theft rates likely won’t decrease at any point soon.
Most San Franciscans love this city. But the amount of denial it might take to approach that mindset is not an activity in which I’m willing to engage. Tony Bennett sang whimsically about leaving his heart in San Francisco. When I depart from this city, I will most likely be taking mine with me.