SAN FRANCISCO — Quickly after Karan Mathur arrived in Brooklyn for a brand new job final yr, New Yorkers couldn’t wait to congratulate him for fleeing San Francisco.
He heard time and again concerning the deserted downtown in his former metropolis. The shuttered Nordstrom retailer that after anchored the retail core, however now symbolizes its decay. The individuals who stumble alongside the town’s sidewalks in a drug-fueled haze. The rampant automotive break-ins leaving puddles of shattered glass.
However that’s solely a part of San Francisco’s story, Mathur has been fast to reply. Whereas the town faces disarray in elements of its grim core, he stated he’s tried to supply a extra full image past the crime footage that has gone viral on social media and the despair that has been highlighted in common information reviews.
“It’s like going to New York and spending your whole time in Occasions Sq., and your takeaway is, each New Yorker is dressed like Cookie Monster,” Mathur stated. He tells his neighbors that San Francisco as an entire stays beautiful and its facilities world-class.
For the reason that pandemic upended life in downtowns throughout the nation, maybe no main American metropolis has suffered as extreme a reputational hit as San Francisco has. Residents who had lengthy seen their metropolis as a wondrous jewel of the West Coast, with its culinary delights and elegant pure magnificence, at the moment are attempting to rebuild the town’s tattered status — and discovering it a frightening activity.
A number of years in the past, the outsider’s view of San Francisco targeted totally on the town’s roaring, tech-fueled success, together with a skyline dotted with cranes and Google buses whisking younger software program engineers to their posh tech campuses. That picture wasn’t solely correct, both, glossing over revenue inequality, steep housing prices and homelessness.
However as distant work has upended the thrum of every day life, the town has turn out to be a poster little one for petty crime, public drug use and tent encampments, regardless that the standard of life in most San Francisco neighborhoods hasn’t considerably modified. In a deeply polarized nation, conservatives have discovered a ripe goal within the woes of liberal San Francisco.
The narrative threatens the town’s restoration of misplaced conference and tourism visitors. And it has turn out to be sufficient of an issue that the town just lately enlisted a public relations agency to attempt to persuade the world that the town isn’t doomed. The hassle comes within the run-up to the Asia-Pacific Financial Cooperation convention in November, which is anticipated to attract President Joe Biden, about 20 different heads of state and 1,200 company CEOs from around the globe.
“The Tenderloin is a catastrophe. The Monetary District has points. However let’s have perspective right here,” stated Jason Mandell, a public relations government who has lived in San Francisco for 26 years and was employed by the convention organizers to counter the persistently detrimental narrative. (Fox Information, which broadcasts reviews on the town’s troubles virtually every day, just lately highlighted efforts to enhance the town’s picture with the headline, “San Francisco hellhole hopes for PR makeover.”)
Like several metropolis, San Francisco is a sophisticated place with many story strains. It has a property-crime epidemic, however low charges of violent crime. It has a homelessness disaster and is pleading with a federal courtroom for extra leeway to clear tent encampments, however in response to the newest homeless depend, there was a 15% drop within the homeless inhabitants residing on its sidewalks between 2019 and 2022. Its downtown restoration has been glacial, however its unemployment charge is low at 3.6%.
The town has a record-high 31% workplace emptiness charge, and a few distinguished retail departures have drawn consideration. However optimists say they hope these tendencies will open up area within the metropolis for artists, nonprofit teams and presumably schools.
There isn’t a option to positively spin the drug disaster; 84 individuals died of overdoses in August, placing the town on observe to tally 845 drug deaths this yr, essentially the most on report.
However there are hopeful indicators. A number of new parks have opened within the metropolis in recent times, together with Tunnel Tops, the place households flock on sunny weekends to picnic, stroll and absorb views of the bay. The town has closed a few scenic thoroughfares to automobiles, most notably John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, the place individuals can now bike, curler skate or play a weathered grand piano.
Whereas downtown struggles, beforehand sleepy neighborhoods are thriving. 1000’s of individuals packed Irving Avenue within the Sundown District this month for the inaugural Sundown Evening Market, consuming Asian delicacies and watching ballet dancers carry out within the street.
This fall, chef Tyler Florence will flip two cafes in Union Sq. into Miller & Lux Provisions places, one in all them providing baked items together with “essentially the most ethereal croissants you’ve ever tasted” and one providing rotisserie hen and rosé on faucet.
Florence stated he believes the cruel nationwide consideration has principally been warranted, however he sees the beginnings of a powerful restoration.
“The pandemic, and work-from-home tradition, and fentanyl on prime of that — it was this epic storm that ripped via San Francisco,” Florence stated. “Each piece of unhealthy information we’ve gotten, each detrimental headline, we type of deserved. However I feel we’re therapeutic, and therapeutic rapidly.”
Inside San Francisco, residents are battling over the picture of their beloved metropolis.
In August, a land use commissioner tried to prepare a “Downtown Doom Loop Strolling Tour,” during which contributors would have paid $30 to see close-up views of “city decay” within the Tenderloin neighborhood, the place homeless encampments and drug use are most seen.
After the concept met with harsh criticism, and was seen as an try to take advantage of the struggles of individuals residing on the road, the official, Alex Ludlum, resigned from his publish and canceled the tour.
Del Seymour, generally known as “the mayor of the Tenderloin” for his longtime presence as a social service supplier within the neighborhood, responded by giving his personal strolling tour to 117 individuals.
Seymour, 76, stated it was true that metropolis officers had not accomplished practically sufficient to clear sidewalks within the Tenderloin for neighborhood residents, a lot of them immigrants, kids and seniors. However for his tour, he confirmed contributors a extra nuanced image, declaring the Tenderloin’s nonprofit places of work, reasonably priced housing complexes and bodegas.
“And simply the enjoyment,” Seymour stated. “This can be a very loving neighborhood. Nearly all of individuals within the Tenderloin should not concerned on the street mess we’ve got.”
Through the pandemic shutdowns, San Francisco noticed an exodus not solely of downtown employees but in addition of residents. Virtually 50,000 individuals moved out, a lot of them profiting from distant work choices to maneuver to cheaper locales, decreasing the town’s inhabitants to 832,000.
However the metropolis nonetheless attracts newcomers, together with individuals working within the synthetic intelligence business, which has been rising in San Francisco and which metropolis leaders hope will probably be a saving grace.
Angela Hoover, 25, moved from Miami in July to run her AI firm, Andi. Desirous to be the place many of the motion was occurring in her budding business, she discovered a spot close to the panhandle of Golden Gate Park. She stated she liked the small-town really feel of her neighborhood, the place she’s gotten to know her native barista and grocer.
“So a lot of my associates instructed me I used to be loopy for transferring to San Francisco — it’s unsafe, it’s filthy, it’s happening the tubes,” she stated. “My expertise has been the other. The gorgeous neighborhoods, vibrancy and positivity — that message isn’t getting on the market.”
Bobby Pierce and his spouse, Leanne, are elevating their toddler, August, within the Richmond District, a San Francisco neighborhood fashionable with households for its proximity to Golden Gate Park, Ocean Seashore and eclectic retailers. Pierce, who grew up in rural Ohio, stated individuals there prefer to criticize San Francisco for its fentanyl deaths, homelessness and financial struggles, regardless that these issues exist in every single place, together with Ohio.
“After I was rising up, the meme of San Francisco was that it was this ungodly homosexual place, and earlier than that, it was hippies,” stated Pierce, 36. “It’s by no means had a nationally savory status, I suppose, which is perhaps what attracts me to it.”
James Falino, 28, a guide for environmental nonprofits, stated he moved to San Francisco from New York 5 years in the past for its relaxed vibe, proximity to nature and thriving LGBTQ+ communities. However when he visited New York over the summer season and the subject of San Francisco got here up, he instantly felt defensive.
When individuals realized the place he lives now, they responded with a facial features that he described as “aghast.”
Then got here a whispered, “Are you OK?”
“I’m,” he assured them. Repeatedly.
This text initially appeared in The New York Occasions.