For San Franciscans this past week, the collision between what our city is and what it could be has been brutal. Though the miraculous clean-up of filth, trash, and homeless encampments in some of the city’s most beleaguered areas has inspired hope, an underlying sense of fury is palpable. Clearly those running the city could have created a safe and clean environment any time they wanted. They just chose not to.

It all began on November 11 with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which drew world leaders to San Francisco, including President Joe Biden, China’s Xi Jinping, Thai prime minister Srettha Thavisin, and Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol.

There was just one problem. San Francisco, once one of the most beautiful urban places in the country, has been so mismanaged in recent years that it is now more often associated with blight, crime, and open drug scenes. For years, the city’s residents, business owners, and workers have begged local officials for help. They have received little but promises and excuses. In fact, the situation has worsened every year.

Much of the blame falls on San Francisco’s handling of the drug crisis, which has become a humanitarian disaster. This past October alone, 65 people lost their lives to drug overdoses, and 59 were poisoned by fentanyl, largely manufactured from precursor chemicals produced in China and brought by Honduran cartels to the city, where it gets sold on the streets to throngs of drug tourists. In the hardest-hit areas, such as the Tenderloin, thousands of people in the agonizing throes of addiction roam the streets and camp outside.

Meantime, crime has escalated, causing businesses large and small to give up. The end stretch of Powell Street, where the world-famous cable car turns around, now shows scores of boarded-up storefronts. It’s a depressing, ugly mess. The disaster would be on full display for all the global dignitaries at APEC to witness had local leaders not stepped in.

Just before the arrival of the conference attendees, a flurry of government action took place—not for the residents who have clamored for help for years, but for the guests. Said California governor Gavin Newsom in a November 13 press conference, “I know folks say, ‘Oh, they’re just cleaning up this place because all those fancy leaders are coming into town.’ That’s true, because it’s true.”

And so parts of the city that would be on immediate display were furiously scrubbed and polished. From Union Square to Moscone Center and City Hall, light poles were slapped with fresh coats of white paint. Filthy sidewalks were pressure-washed. Heavy-duty planters replaced homeless encampments. Police officers in formal uniforms were stationed at four-star hotels. Cop cars patrolled the streets. Metal fences rose from the sidewalks, creating a crime- and squalor-free APEC containment zone.

Clearly, San Francisco needed to shine. Irrefutable evidence of its problems would risk shattering the aspirations of many Democratic hopefuls, including Newsom, who may be gearing up for a presidential run in 2024. After all, he was a two-term mayor of San Francisco, and the city’s demise has become a political albatross.

San Francisco’s current mayor London Breed also has a lot at stake. She and her administration had no choice but to purge tents and clamp down on crime for APEC, but the resulting miraculous improvement is double-edged. To citizens, it’s proof that safety and cleanliness have been possible all along.

Though life inside the APEC zone has been largely serene, cracks have begun to emerge. Czech journalist Bohumil Vostal was robbed at gunpoint as he was capturing images of the historic City Lights bookstore located in North Beach. A bomb threat forced the evacuation of the Westfield Mall. I witnessed a mentally ill woman, stark naked, bathing in the Yerba Buena fountain, steps away from Moscone Center, where many of the APEC meetings were held. A member of the Homeless Outreach Team appeared and persuaded her to put on some clothes, but not before a bus filled with visiting Asian dignitaries had witnessed the scene.

Many San Franciscans don’t want officials to be able to pretend that all is well after an application of cleanser and fresh paint. They don’t want suffering humans to be shoved to adjoining neighborhoods. A long-term resident whom I know expressed her frustration, but also relief, even if it’s temporary. Over the past five years, she has called the city countless times about the growing and dangerous encampments, abandoned vehicles, people in distress, and antisocial behavior. Officials have always told her that there is nothing the city can do.

“But invite a bunch of world leaders and all of a sudden there is plenty they can do,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I walked on clean sidewalks. No overturned trash cans. Sidewalks are clear. They cleaned it up in two weeks. I’m sure when APEC is over, it will revert to the same conditions, but I am enjoying this little break.” 

San Franciscans want more than a week-long reprieve. Anyone with political aspirations would be wise to capitalize on this week’s proof that seemingly intractable problems can be solved, and quickly, when the will exists to do it. 

Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images


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