The magnolias and the plum blossoms are out. And where last spring arrived shrouded in dread, this spring is tiptoeing in with hope and brightness to spare. But is it too soon to get giddy? We've been burned before.
Look, those of us who live in San Francisco continue to live in a charmed place — some of us at greater and greater expense, with a broken window or two. Yes, the city is imperfect in many ways. Yes, there has been an incredible uptick in invasive, violating burglaries, and yes, the issue of how the city handles the homeless and mentally ill will remain something it struggles with, probably for years.
Still, aren't you glad to live in a place where people have ethical arguments about these things? Where there is regular discourse about what the right and best thing to do is in these crazy times, and everyone doesn't just nod their heads in agreement that burglars should be locked up for the rest of their lives and the homeless should all be bussed to Nevada, or whatever.
Mat Honan, writer and SF bureau chief for BuzzFeed News, penned a terrific piece this week for his Substack about the complicated sense of hope he's feeling right now. Sure, his neighbor's been robbed and everyone wants to blame District Attorney Chesa Boudin for being too soft on crooks, and "housing access is still a joke,"and the city is in the midst of a horrible fentanyl crisis that actually dwarfed the COVID-19 pandemic as far as SF deaths were concerned last year. But as far as COVID has been, for us, between people mostly obeying public-health orders and our world-class hospitals, we did better than other big cities in this fucked up country of ours. We've lost 426 souls and counting, but just across the Bay, Alameda County has lost almost 1,300, and Los Angeles has lost almost 22,000 — almost half of the entire state's deaths. We've had 34,000 confirmed cases (let's assume there were at least three times that many), and a great many people were saved, even if we've done about as badly as other cities in letting this pandemic hit the poorest people first.
Honan expresses his visions for SF in the coming years in a series of questions:
Can we rebuild the city so that it’s just as free and freaky and weird as it ever has been, but also actually takes care of the people suffering in the streets? Can we make it a place where we build the things we need when we need them? Can we take advantage of its massive store of financial and human capital to help the people who have been left behind in San Francisco’s previous booms? Can we feed the hungry and house the homeless? Can we recognize that there is no dogma, and live up to the potential and ideals of this weird place at the edge of America? At the edge of the world?
Also, in words that I challenge you not to shed at least one tear over, he cheers:
Let’s end single family zoning. Let’s build a massive housing complex right next door. Let’s get people off the streets and into that housing. Let’s show that black lives matter. Let’s end anti-Asian violence. Let’s get treatment for those who need it. Let’s punish the motherfuckers who stole my neighbor’s shit and implement a strong policy of decarceration and restorative justice. Let’s get the vaccine. Right in the fucking arm. Two times. Let’s hug again. Fuck that: Let’s all make out.
So, speaking of housing and zoning, there is some hope on the horizon. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, as discussed last week, is trying to push the city toward getting more duplexes and four-plexes where in decades past we've had suburb-like streets with just rows single-family homes.
The city doesn't have nearly enough supportive housing for the homeless, but it knows it, and we still have more than a lot of cities — and we spend more, sometimes foolishly, trying to address a problem that isn't ours alone and that the federal government dropped the ball on at least thirty years ago and just keeps on dropping that ball and blaming liberal cities for somehow not being smart enough to handle it. Do you know how many homeless there are in Los Angeles? In New York? We just have water on three sides of us and increasingly few vacant lots to camp on and so the people who land here, either for the drugs or the scenery, sometimes get stuck on your sidewalks.
We still live in a world-class food city, where chefs have been dying to have people to cook for again — in person — without having to worry every time a sous chef coughs. They're getting vaccinated! Slowly but surely, and you and I will be pretty soon too, and pretty much everyone agrees that even if it won't mean a full stop to the pandemic and mask-wearing, it will still be such a relief. And going to CVS or Safeway or Bi-Rite won't feel like such a fucking minefield of potential death hazards anymore.
The restaurants are slowly reopening with about 900 times more outdoor dining space than the city has ever known. And even if our weather isn't always perfect for it, sometimes it is! And it doesn't snow and sleet here like it does in much of the rest of the country so we can be thankful to have this new thing — this new, very European thing — that we'll probably get to keep for a while. Go out when you're able, grab dinner, and make sure to buy that extra bottle of wine or that last round of digestifs, because that's how these places are going to recover — by all of us spending more and eating and drinking more than we should. They've got to pay for those parklets somehow.
Theaters are reopening. There's a circus show coming to North Beach, to the theater that was home to Beach Blanket Babylon for four and a half decades — and even if you loved that show and were charmed by its fantastic hats, things change! And this new new show could be fantastic!
Harry Potter and Cursed Child, if you haven't seen it, is fantastic. And how could you have seen it? It's in two parts, and if you were lucky enough to snag a ticket, it was only open for a few months when the world changed last March — but it hasn't gone anywhere! It's still all installed at the Curran, and once the actors get their groove back with magic, it looks like performances may even resume this summer (the theater, at the moment, just says that May 31 is the date through which things are postponed).
Eventually, there will also be the straight-from-Broadway productions of Moulin Rouge and Oklahoma!, and ACT has their new season all ready to rock when it's allowed, and so does Berkeley Rep. And sweet baby Jesus the museums are reopening, probably for good this time, and we can back to feeling like we live in the cultural epicenter of this corner of the country.
Nightlife is going to take some time to come back, but it's out there, ahead of us, to look forward to. Everyone who had grown tired of going out before this pandemic, or who felt too old for such nonsense, will probably dip their toes back in and patronize their local bars and venues with great pleasure. (As Honan writes, "I want to go inside a stranger’s house during open studios and buy some fucking art. I want to tip my bartender. I want to dance all night long to familiar music with my closest friends.") And the young ones who just had a year of their prime party days stolen from them? They're going to lose their fucking minds.
Watch the Oasis Telethon this weekend! Give them some money! Give all the bars and clubs and venues some money whenever they ask, because they fucking need it and we need them to be there. Buy all the overpriced cocktails! Throw 20s at the kid in coatcheck! They took the hardest gut-punches this year, and dealt with the gnawing anxiety of not knowing where next week's dinners and next month's rent will come from, and we need them to still be there as soon as we can party again.
And let's just try, if we can, not to revert back to shitting on "tech" and "techies" at every turn. "BrokeAss" Stuart Shuffman wrote a piece for the Examiner last week discussing his own sense of hope that San Francisco can go back to being something like he remembers over a decade ago, now that everyone who moved here just for a tech job and didn't plan on staying has likely fled — but have they?
We spent the last decade in a culture war where one side didn’t care enough about this place to even participate in the culture war. We saw our loved ones evicted, our rents skyrocket, and our favorite places shut down (well, I guess some things don’t change). And all this was to accommodate tens of thousands of people who only planned on being here for a short time anyway.
Rents were pretty high in 2000s, too, and depending on which neighborhood, it wasn't so cheap in the 90s either. Yeah things got kind of out whack there, and we need a city that values more than wealth and apps and venture capital. But let's be grateful for a second that we had some of those apps this past year. As Honan points out, "It made our lives better and this last year bearable in any way at all," in being able to keep us pretty connected, and, he says, "Tech’s a vital and humanistic part of the world, and a vital and humanistic part of the city. Being against it is like being against money. Which... fine. I feel you. But it’s not going anywhere."
We can hope that rents stay somewhat lower than they were. We can hope that assholes stop breaking in to houses, or at least just go back to breaking into tourists' cars. We can hope that some of our friends who left decide to move back, realizing you can't have it a whole lot better in a whole lot of places. (And, as discussed before, Miami's a swamp, Austin gets hot as hell when it's not surprise-snowing, LA is still too superficial and car-dependent and spread out, Chicago has way too much fucking winter, and New York is just... not sustainable.) And we can hope that the country, as a whole, comes up with new and successful ways at dealing with addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, income inequality, education, and all the other reasons that people become homeless and lose hope and stay homeless.
Until those things happen, we can be thankful for San Francisco re-becoming who she is. Whatever is left in her DNA that has always made her a magnet for weirdos and magical thinking will hopefully sprout new shoots. It's spring again, after all. If you've hung on this long you must love the relentless beauty and oddity of the place like the rest of us. You'll be glad you did when the sun is out and everybody's got a vaccine and some rag-tag parade comes around the corner blaring horns and amplified beats like New Orleans on acid, half- or fully naked, telling you to follow them to a party in the park.
These things could happen again. It won't be long now.
Photo: Getty Images