Like I said earlier, it feels great to be alive and awake again.
But it seems weird just to pick up where we left off without acknowledging what went down in San Francisco during that 15-and-a-half-month coma. I know that you know what happened because you didn’t go anywhere. But SFist did!
So indulge me for a second, because there were multiple moments in 2018 where I really wished SFist could have been chiming in with some dumb headline — or at least commiserating with you all as the country around us continued losing its ever-loving mind, and San Francisco held on for dear life as the American Tilt-a-Whirl dropped one bolt after another.
Also, some downright gut-wrenching stuff happened in and around the Bay Area — and when SFist went off-line on November 2, 2017, we were all still reeling from the wildfires in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties that were in some cases still smoldering.
That’s the nature of the news: to paraphrase newspaperman Frank Ward O’Malley, it’s just one damned thing after another. On with the quick and dirty recap.
The Beginning of the End for PG&E?
On SFist’s last day online, I posted a prescient story with reporting by NBC Bay Area and the Chronicle about the ongoing finger-pointing at PG&E over the North Bay fires. Over a year and another, much deadlier wildfire later, California’s largest utility has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid $30+ billion dollars in liability, from the Sonoma and Napa fires, with likely more to be realized from the Camp Fire last fall. Shares in PG&E plummeted 50 percent the day the bankruptcy was announced and have fallen well below that on certain trading days since. What happens now is anyone’s guess. The LA Times reported last week that local governments are pushing to get PG&E out of the business of buying and selling power so that it can focus on the safety of its infrastructure. And a federal judge just set a deadline of Feb. 22 (Friday) for PG&E to respond to a series of questions, including one about the utility’s proposed timeline for complying with state regulations about clearing vegetation near power lines.
ICYMI: Wall Street Journal, Vox, Reuters
The Sudden Death of Mayor Ed Lee
There’s no anticipating an event like the shocking heart attack that Mayor Ed Lee suffered on December 11, 2017 — and off on our media hiatus we were just as sad and bewildered by the story as everyone. The event was, of course, almost immediately seen as a political opportunity for SF’s entrenched progressive wing, most of whom had long seen Lee as a frustratingly ineffectual if benign candidate who they were going to have to deal with for another two years. London Breed stepped in as acting mayor in her capacity as president of the Board of Supervisors, and Supervisor Mark Farrell was soon elected interim mayor by his peers on the Board, promising that he had no real designs on the job. (That’s exactly what Ed Lee said way back in 2011, so progressives were wary.) There was nothing much to see there, as it turned out, and Farrell did not, in fact, feel the urge to throw his hat in. This did mean that recently announced mayoral candidate Mark Leno had to step up his fundraising and conduct what he thought would be an 24-month campaign in just six months.
ICYMI: Examiner, Chronicle, Citylab
Facebook’s Annus Horribilis
Along with the rest of the local and national media, we at SFist had already been exhausted by late 2017 with Mark Zuckerberg’s various (and obvious) attempts at subterfuge and deflection during and after the 2016 election. And remember that multi-state “listening tour” he went on where people in the media were actually wondering aloud if he was thinking of running for president? Hilarious! If only the Cambridge Analytica story had broken while he was in the middle of a down-home supper with some real Idahoans, explaining how he only eats meat that he’s killed himself.
When Facebook entered several darker chapters in 2018 in its (likely ongoing) reckoning, it was harder than you know not to be able write a headline like “New York Times Whips Out Its Knife and Slashes Facebook’s Pretty Face Again.” The drubbing that the Times has given the once unslayable social media giant in the last six months is dizzying — and seriously well reported from the sound of it, even if Facebook’s well paid flacks would have you think otherwise. In the end, though, none of this especially hurt Facebook’s bottom line as much as a disappointing earnings report in July, and the company is well on its way to recovering the value it lost since last January thanks to a better than expected year-end report a few weeks back.
ICYMI: New York Times, New York Times, New York Times
Scooters, Scooters, Scooters
The tale of three electric scooter companies dumping thousands of rentable child-like conveyances across the city last March, all vying for dominance in a transportation battle that nobody saw coming, was just the kind of bread-and-butter story SFist typically lives for. It had all the things we love and love to hate: overly aggressive tech companies, tourists in helmets, cease and desist letters from the city attorney, and fun on wheels. Of course there were also many needless injuries, and did anyone seriously think these things were going to solve all our traffic problems?
San Francisco put its foot down in June, ordering all the scooters off the street. The city then penalized the first three companies that tossed their scooters willy-nilly (Bird, Lime and Spin), granting permits in August instead to competitors Scoot and Skip. (Uber and Lyft were also denied in their attempts to get in on the scootering fun, along with six other applicants.) Those scooters reappeared in much more reasonable numbers starting in October, with the companies handing out free helmets and telling people to stay off the sidewalks. And yes, there continue to be a lot of injuries.
ICYMI: Chronicle, NBC Bay Area, CBS SF
The story of a Bay Area white lady who called the cops on a black family for barbecuing at a picnic next to Lake Merritt became a meme seen 'round the globe last May. The photo of the woman, Dr. Jennifer Schulte, on her cellphone was photoshopped onto everything from Black Panther stills to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech — since obviously white people like her will call the cops on black people any chance they get. While Schulte no doubt suffered from her unwanted fame, the incident started an important national conversation about this kind of finger-wagging behavior that can have grave consequences for people of color. And BBQ Becky spawned multiple accidental imitators like the white woman at Yale who reported a black student for napping in a dorm common room, and the white woman in St. Louis who tried to block a black man whom she insisted didn't belong in her building, even though he lived there.
The June 2018 Special Election
Things weren’t looking like a slam dunk for Mayor London Breed nine months ago. Breed faced harsh criticism for being in the back pocket of moneyed tech interests — and arguably being next in the orchestrated line of succession of mayors whom those moneyed interests had ushered into power with their blessings and funding, from Brown to Newsom to Lee. Progressive voters were split between former Supervisor Jane Kim and State Senator Mark Leno, with Leno capturing a good segment of the all-important LGBT vote as a potential first gay mayor for this historically gay city.
Despite a few days of tense ranked-choice tabulation in which Leno looked like he might eke out a win, Breed prevailed, becoming the city's first black female mayor. She now has just eight months and change left make some headway on the hot-button issues of homelessness and affordable housing before she’ll be up for reelection again, as she’s now just completing what would have been Lee’s final term.
ICYMI: SF Elections, SF Weekly, CNN
Twitter Cleans Up Its Act (Sort Of)
While Facebook had an overall terrible year in the press, Twitter flew somewhat under the radar, despite the fact that it remained our president’s favorite mode of communication — even if half or more of his base likely have zero idea how to use it. Twitter conducted a major purge of fake accounts last July, banned Alex Jones (despite some initial signals it wouldn’t), and doubled down on its harassment policy by banning “dehumanizing speech” of all kinds — which drew much ire from the conservative and “First Amendment” sector. Whether or not Twitter is doing a demonstrably better job at enforcing its policies is still up for debate (and this recent Amnesty International report argues that it remains a highly toxic place for women). But the company reported some leveling off in its active user numbers by Q4, and CEO Jack Dorsey has lately been on a conversation tour of sorts, trying to explain how the company is succeeding in addressing user concerns, even if the results aren’t always obvious.
ICYMI: Rolling Stone, HuffPo, Investor's Business Daily
The ‘Ghost Ship’ Fire Trial
It’s been over two years since a fire tore through a rambling communal warehouse in Oakland, cutting short the lives of 36 people. It was just one of an onslaught of local and national tragedies I had to write about in my last year on the job as Editor-in-Chief of SFist — which included the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the wine country fires of October 2017. While the fire itself and the profiles of the dead were unthinkably sad to cover, there’s an entirely new and dramatic chapter that is set to unfold in the coming months as the two men charged with manslaughter in the case, Derek Almena and Max Harris, head to trial. Already their lawyers filed a motion to try to arrest and charge 14 more individuals in the case, including the owners of the building, fire department officials, and Oakland police officers, but a judge in Alameda County has already denied that motion. (The county DA already decided to lay the blame on leaseholder Almena and his sometime assistant Harris back in 2017 when the charges came down, apparently because that was the case they thought they could win.) The New York Times published this overtly sympathetic profile of Harris back in December, pointing to a likely effort by his attorney to win over potential jurors and shift the blame entirely onto Almena.
ICYMI: East Bay Times, New York Times, New York Times
Food Critic Michael Bauer Retires from the Chronicle
We figured it had to happen someday, but after longtime Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer rang in his 30th year at the paper with some fanfare in 2016, it was starting to look like he might just stay on another decade or two. But then — surprise! — last July he announced he was finally retiring, much to the delight of Bay Area chefs who despised and/or resented him (Preeti Mistry was the first to post "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz). Chef Daniel Patterson immediately threw down the gauntlet suggesting that the Chronicle had the chance to be the first major paper in the country to hire a woman of color to be its restaurant critic. And lo and behold, the Chronicle hired Soleil Ho in December, an Asian woman from Minneapolis and host of the podcast Racist Sandwich. (And technically, the LA Times beat them to the punch in hiring a woman of color to the job: In November, Patricia Escárcega was named one of two new critics to replace recently deceased Jonathan Gold.)
The Giants and the 49ers Flounder
While individual Giants players, particularly some of the team's young pitchers, had great seasons with solid stats, the Giants finished out their 2018 season with none of the swagger that they showed earlier in the decade — especially in an even-numbered year! The team finished 29th out of 30 teams for home runs last year, and its batters had the fifth highest strikeout rate in the league, 24%. There was no October excitement for Los Gigantes, and the football season sucked too. The 49ers tied the equally dismal Raiders with 4 wins and 12 losses for the year, and the Niners would have finished in last place in the NFC West if it weren't for the Cardinals getting beat 13 times — and, btw, the Cardinals beat the Niners in October for one of their three season wins.
In November's mid-term election, San Francisco voters approved local measure Prop C by an overwhelming 60%, much to the disappointment of the city's Chamber of Commerce, and Twitter / Square CEO Jack Dorsey. The proposition taxes large companies (with revenue over $50 million) within the city limits 0.5 percent on their gross receipts, with that money going toward homeless services and housing. It's a testament to San Francisco's intensifying fatigue with the visibility of homelessness that the typically pro-tech electorate decided to enact an ordinance that could discourage big business from wanting to locate here — but billionaire Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was one of the proposition's most vocal supporters.
The Camp Fire
The biggest and most horrifying story of the year was the Camp Fire that struck the town of Paradise on November 8, 2018, and continued burning through November 25. The fast-moving fire, despite striking in the morning (unlike the also devastating and hugely destructive Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa a year earlier, which struck late on a Sunday night), claimed the lives of 86 people — many of whom were unable to escape the flames because of traffic leading out of town. Only a year after the Santa Rosa blaze had been named the most destructive in state history, the Camp Fire claimed that title and set a new record, destroying nearly 19,000 buildings. The week of choking smoke that hovered over the Bay Area was depressing, but it seems trivial now. There's little to say about this wrenching and unthinkable tragedy that hasn't already been said, but the wound of it — along with that of fires that have raged all over the state in the last several years, some of which seemed hard to top at the time — isn't likely to heal in our collective unconscious anytime soon. Anyway, here's a story about a Paradise family being reunited with their dog named Kingston after three months, and after assuming he was lost forever.