There is an insatiable appetite for what’s happening in San Francisco, the editor-in-chief of a British media outlet recently told me. I get it—we have controversy, conflict, Tammany Hall–style corruption, villains, and heroes, all playing out against a stunning, if blemished, backdrop. For the rest of the country, rooting for the city’s success (or failure) has become a kind of sport. For San Franciscans themselves, it can feel like being trapped in a never-ending cycle of high hopes and deep despair. For us, each week is another cliff-hanger in a long-running drama.
In the early 1990s, the dot-com boom blasted through San Francisco. Internet-based startups, some little more than a vague concept and a sign on a door, bought out legacy businesses and soon occupied entire buildings, if not city blocks. Angry denunciations of “gentrification” were met with hoots of merriment from speculators, arriving from across the globe. The city’s proximity to Silicon Valley made it the playground for young—and yes, often obnoxious—wealth builders. Rents and housing prices skyrocketed with the influx of venture-capital-backed newcomers.
Though the first dot-com bubble burst just a few years later, the next tech wave arrived shortly thereafter, crowding in with the financial district’s traditional banking, investing, and legal firms. Companies from Airbnb to Zynga planted flags at their new headquarters. Soon Marc Benioff erected his Salesforce Tower, dramatically altering the city’s skyline.
Then came the pandemic. Nearly all tech workers went fully remote, causing urban life to screech to a halt. In 2023, many of these firms’ office buildings remain hauntingly empty, including Benioff’s tower. The delicate ecosystem of bars and restaurants favored by workers has nearly collapsed, devastating a once-vibrant financial district. Today, the financial district’s skyscrapers sport “for lease” signs as mass layoffs and hiring freezes continue. The talent, accustomed to calling shots, now find themselves somewhat adrift. Those who loathed the arrogant newcomers finally have their moment of schadenfreude.
Augmenting the melodrama is Elon Musk, who swept into town to buy Twitter in October 2022. Almost immediately, this wild card fired nearly half the company’s 7,500 employees, and then ordered most of the rest back to the office. Musk’s unpredictable actions, both in the city and online, are theoretical wonders.
San Francisco, said architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was “the only city I can think of that can survive all the things you people are doing to it and still look beautiful.” In general, this observation remains true, but one particular area grapples with almost unimaginable abuse.
The Tenderloin, roughly 50 blocks of mayhem cradling City Hall and adjacent to the shopping district of Union Square, has long been the place to live if you can’t afford anything else. It’s home to some of the city’s most gorgeous early-twentieth-century architecture, though most buildings are dilapidated and teeming with vermin. About 70 are single-room-occupancy hotels, designated for people with low or no incomes. Many residents are Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern immigrants, poor families, the disabled, or senior citizens. Others are people with drug and mental-illness problems, placed there by the city’s homeless department and a web of contracted nonprofits.
The Tenderloin is a heartbreaking and dangerous place. Sidewalks, doorways, and alleys are packed with tents, lean-tos, sleeping bags, broken wheelchairs, and piles of garbage. Thousands of people on the streets are unconscious, dazed, or delirious. Dogs roam about, too; some are beloved pets, but often neglected. Residents must navigate around bodies and crowds of drug dealers, trying to avoid human waste, needles, and violence.
While the Tenderloin is often compared with its scripted cousin, Hamsterdam, from HBO’s The Wire, this real containment zone has porous boundaries. Outlying neighborhoods have seen an uptick in tents, as people flood the city in search of drugs and handouts, attracted by a lenient attitude toward vagrancy.
In December 2022, the Coalition on Homelessness and the ACLU brought a lawsuit against the city, preventing the police from clearing encampments. U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu issued the injunction, which City Attorney David Chiu quickly appealed. The Tenderloin remains the epicenter of civic neglect, but as similar problems reach the doorsteps of residents elsewhere, the fight for safe, clean communities is intensifying.
Perhaps no aspect of life in San Francisco is as tragic as its drug disaster. From January 2021 to November 2022, more than 1,225 people died of overdoses in the city. Opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamines are all sold in the open. Most of the dealers are part of a powerful cartel of Honduran nationals.
Fentanyl is particularly prolific and cheap. San Francisco’s toleration of the purchase and use of illegal drugs has lured addicts from around the country; all too often, they end up homeless and at death’s door.
The situation became so dire that Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in January 2022 and opened the Linkage Center in UN Plaza. The intention was to connect the city’s exploding drug-using population to addiction treatment and other critical services. Mothers who had lost children to the streets of San Francisco were hopeful. Finally, their kids would receive the support that they needed to get sober and healthy.
Almost immediately, the Linkage Center descended into a ramshackle, filthy, city-funded place to get high. Workers distributed drug-use supplies and administered naloxone when guests overdosed. Hundreds of dealers congregated outside, doing brisk business.
The Department of Public Health denied that the center was an unlawful drug-use site, until independent journalists went undercover to confirm it. I was among them, and I witnessed people shoot up and smoke fentanyl in a space created to connect them to recovery care.
In response, the mothers, who had organized into Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Deaths, staged a protest at the center. They were met by harm-reduction activists, who counterprotested. Not backing down, the women erected a billboard overlooking Union Square, bearing the message “Famous the world over for our brains, beauty and, now, dirt-cheap fentanyl,” set against the background of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Eleven months later, in December 2022, the center was shuttered. At a cost of $22 million, it had proved a humiliating failure for city officials. But the closure was a victory of sorts for the mothers who refused to accept substandard treatment for their children.
San Francisco’s police ranks are at an all-time low, with the force short by at least 500 sworn officers. As in cities across the nation, a number of San Francisco leaders chanted the “defund the police” mantra during the summer of 2020. Mayor Breed was among them. That year, she held a press conference announcing $120 million in cuts from the city’s police and sheriff’s department budgets.
The city, already reeling with escalating crime, was hit hard. Car break-ins, sawed-off catalytic converters, shoplifting, open-air drug markets, smash-and-grab robberies, home invasions, and mail theft soared; people were robbed of their bikes, electronics, and even dogs. Criminals gained the upper hand. Footage of thieves emptying out a Louis Vuitton store in 2021 went viral.
In July 2022, the San Francisco Chronicle asked residents to name the city’s most urgent problem. Crime and public safety ran a close second to homelessness (which is intertwined with drug-related offenses, since many addicts steal to support their habits).
San Francisco’s controversial, ultra-progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin, who took office in January 2020, routinely let arrested drug dealers walk free, eliminated cash bail, and took steps to empty jails of dangerous suspected and convicted criminals. Prominent cases included that of Troy McAlister, a man with an extensive criminal history who was arrested for robbing two women with a fake gun. While McAlister was awaiting trial on a third strike that would have sent him to prison for 25 years to life, Boudin’s office instead negotiated a plea deal, reducing the charges and putting him back on the street. On New Year’s Day 2021, an inebriated McAlister stole a car and drove into 27-year-old Hanako Abe and 60-year-old Elizabeth Platt, killing them both.
City voters recalled Boudin in a special election on June 7, 2022, but criminal-justice-reform activists continue to make it tough for police to do their jobs. The public defender’s office accused sergeant Daniel Solorzano of racial discrimination because he arrested 53 Latino drug dealers in the Tenderloin neighborhood. Solorzano, of Mexican and Nicaraguan heritage, now faces possible disciplinary action and termination. The police commission voted to limit officers’ ability to make pretextual traffic stops, ostensibly to reduce racial profiling. Officers can no longer pull over drivers for actions such as failing to display registration tags or for not having fully functioning rear taillights.
Morale within the police department has plummeted. Experienced officers are resigning, and not nearly enough cadets are replenishing the shrinking ranks. The latest police academy class graduated just 13 new officers.
Sensing a crisis, Breed reversed her police-defunding decision, making an emergency request to the board of supervisors for more funds to support a crackdown on crime. Newly elected supervisor Matt Dorsey, a former police spokesperson, is advocating for big sign-on bonuses. Law and order is suddenly back in vogue.
Adding to the city’s salacious nature is a series of bizarre bureaucratic decisions and embarrassing political scandals.
In 2022, Matt Haney, then a city supervisor (now a state assembly member), approved $1.7 million for the construction of a single public toilet, which was to take two years to build, until he retreated in the face of a backlash. Last year, Haney and other supervisors also promoted spending $427,500 to manufacture and test five prototypes of trash cans. The price tag for each can was between $12,000 and $20,000.
Mohammed Nuru, director of San Francisco Public Works, was arrested for fraud after trying to bribe an airport commissioner and granting a trash-hauling company special treatment in exchange for payments. Facing accusations of corruption, bribery, kickbacks, and side deals dating back to 2008, Nuru pled guilty in 2022 and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
In 2021, the school board denied a gay father of a biracial child a spot on the volunteer-parent committee because he is white. During the pandemic, the board debated the destruction of a mural of George Washington at the high school named after the nation’s first president, tried to rename 44 schools after claiming that their namesakes were linked to slavery or racism, and revoked the merit-based admissions process at the city’s renowned magnet Lowell High School. In March 2022, infuriated parents led a recall effort, ending in a landslide vote to remove a trio of board members. In a spectacular display of hubris, ousted board member Alison Collins filed an $87 million lawsuit against the school district and five of her fellow board members. A federal judge tossed the suit for lack of merit.
The city’s massive $14 billion annual budget is itself a disgrace. San Francisco gifted over $1 billion to more than 600 nonprofits in 2022 to fix the quality-of-life issues bedeviling citizens. No substantial improvements resulted. In January 2023, news that $25 million had been awarded to revoked, suspended, and delinquent nonprofits shocked even jaded observers. Eighteen city agencies somehow failed to notice that they were paying millions in taxpayer dollars to defunct organizations.
Gorgeous, wild San Francisco has been dragged through the mud by the very officials who have been tasked to keep it clean. Years of grift and extremism have done tremendous damage. Yet serious efforts to revive the city are ramping up. Brooke Jenkins, the current district attorney, has been busy reversing Boudin’s soft approach on crime. She is revoking misdemeanor plea offers for fentanyl dealers and pursuing second-degree murder charges against dealers linked to overdose deaths. Voters have elected some moderate supervisors, and more are expected to run in the 2024 election.
To know what’s really happening in San Francisco, you need to listen to the city’s passionate residents and business owners. They’re mobilizing, getting louder and stronger, demanding positive outcomes. While it’s highly unlikely that the city will ever lean to the political right (nor, for most, is that the intention), there is an undeniable shift away from the hard left. This much is guaranteed: the cast of characters will change again, with hirings and firings and elections, as the next set of opportunists sails into the City by the Bay. San Francisco’s drama will be renewed for many more seasons.
Top Photo: An all-too-common sight in the City by the Bay (BEN MARGOT/AP PHOTO)