This past spring, activity in downtown San Francisco reached just 31 percent of its 2019 level, as measured by comparing visits to points of interests such as restaurants, retail shops, and grocery stores between the two years. No other North American city of the 62 reviewed in a University of California, Berkeley analysis fell that far. Is “the City,” as its residents like to call it, destined to hollow out and become synonymous with urban decay? Or can it reverse its decline?

Lockdowns turned urban cores into ghost towns, but not all downtowns are still hurting. The Berkeley analysis shows that Salt Lake City’s downtown activity had reached 155 percent of its pre-pandemic level. Downtown Columbus, Ohio, is busy again, too, up 112 percent. Two California downtowns, Bakersfield (117 percent) and Fresno (108 percent), have made strong recoveries. When entire cities, not just their downtowns, are considered, San Francisco fares better, but not by much. It’s second from the bottom, with a recovery value of 61 percent. Two California cities, again Bakersfield and Fresno, were first and second, with values of 139 percent and 132 percent, respectively. Sacramento (108 percent) was fifth, and San Diego (100 percent) eighth.

Remote work for the city’s elite white-collar workers makes life convenient for some, but not all. TechCrunch, headquartered in San Francisco, says that the city’s small businesses “are increasingly desperate for the economic activity that office employees would bring back.” Yet office vacancies remain high, and might grow.

A full recovery is unlikely unless the outflow of residents is reversed. Between April 2020 and July 2021, the city’s population dropped 6.7 percent, the largest decline in the country dating from the early days of the pandemic to the summer of last year. Nearly 55,000 residents had fled by July 2021, taking the population back to its lowest level since 2010. San Francisco ranked first and Los Angeles second in the nation for outbound moves.

San Francisco is hostile to businesses, unfriendly to families, has a homelessness problem like no other American city, and has some of the most unaffordable housing on the planet. The danger for the city is that it falls into what economist Thomas Sowell has called “the Detroit pattern,” a nasty brew of “increasing taxes, harassing businesses, and pandering to unions.” While “it got mayors re-elected,” says Sowell, “in the long-run, it reduced Detroit from a thriving city to an economic disaster area, whose population was cut in half, as its most productive citizens fled.” San Francisco faces different challenges than did deindustrializing Detroit in the twentieth century. But the feedback loop from outmigration to deteriorating public services remains a danger.

Flight from the Motor City was in large part a response to crime. As Sowell has written, the riot of 1967, which killed 43, injured nearly 1,200, and damaged more than 2,000 buildings, “marked the beginning of the decline of Detroit.” The effects persist. Detroit’s downtown recovery ranked 59th of 62, at 42 percent activity, in the University of California study.

As Charles Fain Lehman has observed, San Francisco’s crime problem consists less of the brutal violence that plagues Detroit and more of ubiquitous disorder that city officials tolerate. What the world sees on video—mass daylight shoplifting, attacks against Asians, a torrent of car break-ins—residents see up close. Theft has forced Walgreens to close more than a dozen of its San Francisco stores because it couldn’t sustain the losses to shoplifters. Target cut hours at several locations in the city due to “a significant and alarming rise in theft and security incidents.”

City data show overall crime is up 7.4 percent this year over the same period in 2021. A few offenses—burglary, for one—have fallen. But other crimes that also affect quality of life, such as larceny, assault, robbery, car theft, and rape, are up. Last year, criminal activity, driven by steep increases in larceny, assault, and homicide, grew 13.5 percent over 2020. Combine all that with the just-recalled district attorney’s announcement in 2019 that he would not prosecute what he considered trifling offenses, such as public camping, public urination, and blocking sidewalks, and the results are thousands voting with their feet.

Convincing them to return and crafting a fresh image that will attract new arrivals and visitors, will be a tough job for any city—even San Francisco.

Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


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