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Myth and reality of the City by the Bay

On a visit up north last week, cornily, before going out to dinner, I put Tony Bennett on the Bluetooth speaker as I got dressed: “The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay/The glory that was Rome is of another day/I’ve been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan/I’m going home to my city by the Bay.”

While I’ve lived in Northern California, it was not in San Francisco, so it was never my home. But, just as my colleague Steven Greenhut did the other week and wrote about in these pages, I was curious for a visit, after years of reading in the national press about what a horrific cesspool it had become.

In a word: Not.

It remains one of the most beautiful, civilized cities on the planet. Are there unhoused people? There are — far, far fewer, though, from what I saw in four days of roaming it, than in Los Angeles. I saw precisely one tent encampment. One person sleeping in a doorway. We took a cable car down to the Financial District. There we found the only truth in the truisms being circulated — sidewalks almost empty. Not because people are scared of the homeless. Rather, businesses emptied out during the pandemic, and few office workers have returned. You can consequently get a seat and a martini at the counter at the Tadich Grill, oldest restaurant in California, rather too easily.

Strolling over to Market Street in search of the supposed hellhole, we had our one uncomfortable encounter with a street person causing a ruckus inside a See’s store. Tall, headphoned, clearly unwell, he picked a fight with the apparently Filipina clerks, claiming they wouldn’t give him free candy samples, and told them to go back to where they came from. One yelled, “Hey, I was born here, and I’m calling the cops. She called. In what I swear was under 10 seconds, an officer — who must have been standing outside — came in and escorted the man out. First and last live people trouble we saw in the supposedly troubled town.

You  can find trouble when you look for it. Disgusted former progressive Michael Shellenberger’s famous book “San Fransicko: How Progressives Ruin Cities” is all about that. The former gubernatorial candidate and nuclear power advocate cites the problem of human waste on the sidewalks in Baghdad by the Bay and how the city spends $100 million a year just to clean them. I consequently expected to see, well, crap everywhere. In miles of walking those sidewalks last week, ever looking down for … trouble, I finally found it. Once. Gross. But the small armies of city workers with pickup sticks also left the cleanest, most litter-free big city I’ve seen around the world, ever.

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We had lunch with our friend Laurie, who lives in quiet Bernal Heights. I asked her about the national myth of SF as a sewer. “I take BART downtown once a week,” she says. “Lots of people in the station fencing stolen toiletries.” Sketchy guys aside, “I’ve been here 37 years, and it’s not any worse now. The police have been hanging around a lot lately, and it cleans up nice.”

San Francisco does that. I think its problem among Americans who rag on Nancy Pelosi but have never been to the City is that, like only New York and New Orleans among our great urban places, it’s kinda not America. Some Americans are scared of its urbanity. It’s the sort of place where you walk into a corner store, like at Mason and Taylor, late at night and neighbors are in just to kibitz and watch the Warriors game. One customer took us out to show us his building next door on wildly steep Mason, with weird carved seals guarding the stairs. “Used to be a men’s club — of a special kind,” he winked.

I don’t know what kind that was. But for Californians, San Francisco still feels like home.

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. lwilson@scng.com.

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