On the 18th of April, 1906, a rupture on the San Andreas Fault shook the western United States from Oregon to Nevada. In San Francisco, closer to the epicenter, the earthquake set off a series of fires that would soon engulf the city in billows of acrid smoke, a malignant answer to the city’s famous, salt-scented fog. When the smoke cleared, some three days later, the City by the Bay was a city no more: 3,000 people were dead, half of its 400,000 residents were homeless, and nearly 80% of its building lay in smoldering ruins. 

Fast forward nine years.

By 1915, San Francisco was hosting the Panama-Pacific International Exposition world’s fair—a city within a city—to broadcast its recovery. A new City Hall, crowned with a magnificent dome 42 feet taller than that of the US Capitol, stood proudly over a new Civic Center laid out in Parisian grandeur. But these buildings represented only a handful of the apartment buildings, mansions, hotels, and skyscrapers built in the earthquake’s aftermath by intrepid San Franciscans. Like the phoenix emblazoned on the city’s flag, the city rose reborn from the ashes of destruction and despair.

Compare that to today, when San Francisco is regularly cited as the poster child for municipal dysfunction and misgovernance.

The city’s failures are legion. Hordes of homeless encamped on the streets. Drug addicts openly using and dropping spent needles at playgrounds. A 3-year approval process for building new housing. An app for navigating around human waste, the infamous “poop map.” And most recently, a $1.7 million toilet that has come to symbolize the collective flushing away of a once-great city’s dreams.

When people talk about the “urban doom loop,” San Francisco is usually the city on their minds. A New York Times piece on perhaps the nation’s most notorious toilet captures the feeling well:

For many residents, the episode has illustrated why San Francisco so often gets bogged down by inefficiency. If an army of more than 30,000 city employees with a $14 billion annual budget cannot build a simple bathroom in a reasonable way, what hope is there that San Francisco can solve its housing shortage and fentanyl crisis?

“Why isn’t there a toilet here? I just don’t get it. Nobody does,” Ted Weinstein, a literary agent who lives in Noe Valley and passes by the Town Square daily, said on a recent weekday. “It’s yet another example of the city that can’t.” [Emphasis added.]

The City That Can’t. That’s a helluva far cry from the city’s official motto, “Gold in Peace, Iron in War.” If the California Forever project in Solano County represents a bold vision to birth a new city from virgin soil, San Francisco is where the sheen comes off the Golden State. Perhaps no city better encapsulates the feeling of futility I wrote about in “California Whatever,” this sense of malaise “that our cities, our city leaders, possibly even ourselves lack the vision—and perhaps the ability to execute—that the task of city-building requires.”

From a city bureaucracy who lines its pockets at taxpayer expense—to the school board members who found plenty of time during the pandemic to problematize the namesakes of their public schools but took a full 18 months to get them back open—to a Board of Supervisors who proclaimed that “Black Lives Matter” while their antagonism to new housing has only helped drive out 50% of the city’s black population—the people who run San Francisco have proven themselves time and again to be unserious, feckless, sometimes corrupt.

Some San Franciscans have finally had enough. After years of sitting on the sidelines, The Wall Street Journal reports, “tech millionaires” like Y Combinator CEO Garry Tan are at last fighting for their city:  

Founders and investors who made a fortune in tech have “now been here for 10 to 15 years. They’ve put down roots here and they’re like, ‘What the hell happened to my city?’” [...] 

“They’re angry.”

Among the angry, serial entrepreneur Chris Larsen adds, “After the pandemic, ‘things got to a point where we said, “Enough is enough, we’re getting involved in the muck.”’

The fed-up tech leaders have bankrolled elections that successfully deposed the incompetent school board members and a district attorney who refused to do his job. These newly concerned citizens are also supporting a slate of more moderate, solutions-oriented candidates to challenge members of the Board of Supervisors who have presided over the mess that San Francisco has become. But they’re also founding and funding civic-minded nonprofits working on solutions to improve areas where the officials have spectacularly failed—as well as advocacy groups to elect the leaders who will implement them.

It is encouraging that San Franciscans with influence are at last getting involved in the “muck” of city governance rather than the quagmire of national politics—after all, Joe Biden can’t pave San Francisco’s potholes. But, unsurprisingly, not everyone is welcoming their efforts to clean up the city. 

Dean Preston, a sitting supervisor who has blocked thousands of housing projects but blames capitalism for San Francisco’s homelessness problem, derides these efforts as a “cynical effort to control the city.” He sees—presumably from the single-family home he owns in Alamo Square—a “blatant attempt to ‘buy political power and reshape the rules for their own economic benefit.’”

While Preston was only elected in December 2019, his particular brand of classist cynicism has been a recurrent theme in San Francisco politics for years. So, while it is encouraging that tech leaders and other San Franciscans are finally putting themselves back in the civic driver’s seat, one wonders why they were asleep at the wheel for so long. 

If San Francisco became The City That Can’t, it’s because San Franciscans were The People That Didn’t—that didn’t vote, didn’t engage, didn’t pay attention, didn’t think it was their problem until it was impossible to pretend otherwise. San Franciscans, broadly, didn’t take local politics seriously. They were “infected” by what Daniel Golliher of Maximum New York calls the “anti-politics meme,” which, he argues, “has two broad consequences:”

(1) good and superlative people tend to stay away from politics and never look into its proper form, and (2) the public doesn’t actually know how to tell a good politician from a bad one, and they certainly don’t know what an ideal one looks like.

Hint: it doesn’t look like Dean Preston.

Having determined to ignore “dirty” politics, San Franciscans should not have been surprised to eventually find their city and government covered in the proverbial (but often literal) muck. They have been learning the hard way what happens when citizens wash their hands of civic engagement. 

But fixing San Francisco will be way harder than winning a few elections. 

If San Franciscans wish to live in a City That Can, they’ll have to learn that taking politics and government seriously is a prerequisite to taking effective action. With good governance, San Francisco could and should be a flourishing city again, but that will require electing candidates running on more than good vibes; San Franciscans must elect leaders who, once in power, know what to do with it. 

Indeed, if the city cannot build a public toilet with a $14 billion budget and an army of 30,000 public employees, it’s not because nobody tried. As The New York Times reports, “Mayor London Breed has repeatedly vowed to slash the city’s red tape” but has struggled to realize meaningful change. Reform candidates—and the tech leaders backing them—ought to try to understand why. Sure, a recalcitrant Board of Supervisors obsessed with voting on national issues over which it has no power while defaulting on the stuff over which it does doesn’t help. But the string of scandals plaguing San Francisco’s bureaucracy suggests that there are power centers beyond the scope of electoral politics. 

How do you reform that?

Well, it takes more than having the “right” policy prescriptions. It requires not only an understanding of the law and the institutions it creates, but of how these things work in practice, and who is doing the work. 

For instance, if you wanted to improve San Francisco’s homelessness problem, you would need to work with more than just the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, and their staff. There’s an entire Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (DHSH) responsible for dispensing a $700 million budget, nearly 300 employees who process paperwork and select beneficiaries and implement policies, plus a seven-member Homelessness Oversight Commission that oversees it all.

But there are other players who exercise power and influence, too: the Service Employees International Union that represents the public sector workers; the various nonprofits and other groups that build the city’s supportive housing and provide homeless services; even the homeless people themselves. I’m probably missing a bunch, but the point is that there are some people with the power to vote on reform, but many more with the power to veto it.

Reform isn’t easy, which is why well-meaning but wide-eyed reformers often fail to achieve it. The good news is that much of the opaqueness of how municipal government works in practice can be punctured through education. This is something that can be learned: a good place for San Franciscans to start is by taking a civics class from The Civilization Lab.

Good governance requires good citizens, and good citizenship requires good preparation. Without overcoming their anti-politics bias, without learning how their government and city works, San Franciscans will find that, even if they are the ones they’ve been waiting for, they will still be waiting for the change to come.

San Francisco’s history is one of reinvention and rebirth. The city leaders of 120 years ago had the temerity to look at the smoldering ruins of their city and see something greater in the ashes, and got to work rebuilding. If the city leaders of today seem content to preside over the proverbial ashes of a once-great city, it is because San Franciscans unwittingly put their city in the hands of pyromaniacs. 

It’s time for the people of San Francisco to once again pick up the torch.


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