The local and national news media has loved to declare San Francisco in a state of decline and/or crisis on many occasions in the last five or so decades, so this is just a primer for everyone who wasn't aware of that and bought into the "failed city" and "doom loop" narratives too hard.
Drugs. Crime. Homelessness. Offices vacant. AIDS everywhere. People being randomly shot on the street. These have all been parts of news segments and broader narratives about San Francisco going back to the 1970s at least, and back in the 60s you would have heard a lot of complaints about hippies and runaways overrunning the formerly quaint Haight-Ashbury. (California native Joan Didion, who had aged out of the hippie era, wrote a famous essay about the dark side of the Summer of Love that's titled "Slouching Toward Bethlehem.")
The 1970s were a dark enough time in San Francisco that writer David Talbot wrote a whole book about it, Season of the Witch. Talbot touches on stories like the People's Temple and Jonestown, the Zodiac Killer, and the Zebra Killings, in which four African American men were ultimately convicted in the racially motivated shooting of random white people on the streets of the city between 1973 and 1974 — 14 were killed and 8 were injured.
That was 50 years ago, and murder rates around the country were spiking. The New York Times ran a piece in August 1973 noting that the murder rate among Black people was eight times that of the rate among white residents.
Serial rapists and murders — like the Zodiac, the Hillside Strangler and the Golden State Killer — were also regular fixtures of the nightly news in the Bay Area in the 70s.
It was a time of urban chaos all over the place, which contributed to the popularity of law-and-order grandpa Ronald Reagan, and his election in 1980.
Speaking of the 80s, a 1987 video clip from CBS News has been going around to counter the "doom loop" stuff. The segment notes empty offices and a loss of 30,000 jobs in San Francisco largely due to "corporate headquarters moving elsewhere."
"San Franciscans are noted for their tolerance," says reporter John Blackstone. "But they have been intolerant to what's often called 'progress,' partly because San Francisco is now known for AIDS, as well as for cable cars."
And Blackstone talks to one elderly resident from 1987 who says, "Well I think San Francisco has gone to the dogs, in every way."
ive been reading san francisco’s obituary since i learned to read pic.twitter.com/p01x4wDCVp— Bay area nostalgia (@professorbay) July 6, 2023
Homelessness as we know it blew up in the Reagan Era, spurred in part by disinvestment in affordable housing and mental health treatment, and a Republican push against welfare programs.
The New York Times covered San Francisco's homeless problem in 1983, noting how contradictory it seemed to have a homeless shelter opening at Grace Cathedral, atop storied Nob Hill, "where imposing mansions were built from Gold Rush fortunes."
"At least you're not likely to get jumped in this neighborhood," said one of the homeless waiting to get in, Jessie Marcel, who was likely referring to the dangers of the Tenderloin a few blocks downhill.
KQED made its first documentary about what it called the "growing homeless population in the Bay Area" in 1983. You can see a clip from that below.
SFist has printed this before, but the fact is that the homeless crisis in San Francisco was at its worst over 25 years ago, in the mid-1990s, and it has basically improved since the early 2000s, with some bad and some better years. Mayor Art Agnos — who, by the way, was one of those injured in a Zebra Killers shooting — was blamed for being too soft on homelessness. He basically permitted, for a time, a huge encampment that took shape in 1989 in front of City Hall, which became derisively known as "Camp Agnos." He made an attempt to clear it in July of that year but it only reformed and became larger after the Loma Prieta earthquake in October.
Under Mayor Willie Brown, in 1997, it was estimated there were 11,000 to 14,000 homeless people in the city, and Brown was becoming frustrated. As the Washington Post reported at the time, Brown became a target of protests after his administration began citing homeless people for being on the street.
"People should... take advantage of the programs we have," Brown said at the time. "I can't talk with these people anymore... There are some people who just don't want to live inside, and there's nothing you can do with them. They are the hobos of the world. They don't want help."
Again, that was 1997. The last point-in-time homeless count in San Francisco found around 7,750 on the streets in 2022 — maybe a 50% drop in 25 years, if that earlier high estimate was correct, or more. This 1998 piece from the New York Times, headlined, "Homelessness Tests San Francisco's Ideals," cites a figure of 16,000 homeless. A 21-year-old Oakland man had just been arrested that week for stabbing homeless people and killing one — he claimed to be a vampire who was after their blood.
"We figured the slasher was the one way to get us off the sidewalks," joked one homeless man at the time, referring to Brown's crackdowns.
As for drugs, it's hard to quantify and assess what's bad or worse, but there's no question heroin, opioids, and in particular fentanyl, have led to more overdoses and death, and contributed to the crisis on the street.
As KQED reports, San Francisco was "in the midst of a heroin overdose crisis" in 1998, and this led to the city's public health department moving toward harm reduction as a priority in the drug crisis — a precursor to today's push for safe-consumption sites and free Narcan.
The 2000s and 2010s
And there was, of course, the dot-com bust of 2001, when many younger people who had flocked to the city to work in tech were suddenly out of jobs. That led to empty office building, and it took at least three years before the city felt like it had recovered from that — which would be a couple years before Web 2.0 companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube popped up.
In 2002, the Chronicle wrote about how homelessness remained the city's number-one political issue, and then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom had put his "Care Not Cash" initiative on the ballot, which was later approved by voters.
"With the homeless population more visible than ever, city residents and shocked tourists have expressed their frustration to hotel owners, the mayor and the media about aggressive panhandlers, people urinating and defecating in public and eating from trash cans," the Chronicle wrote in 2002.
There was plenty of outcry about empty storefronts and depressed retail on SF street before the pandemic, and that is, of course, worse now, though some neighborhoods are doing fine. There was also talk in 2019 about conventions leaving the city — like Oracle's OpenWorld, which announced it was decamping to Vegas before the pandemic started.
Here's a piece from 2009 about San Francisco last major economic downturn before the pandemic, when the Great Recession hit here a little later than the rest of the country.
"2009 is shaping up to be a challenging year," said Dan Goldes of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Between the economy in the U.S. being sort of rocky shoals and the economy in other countries being on rocky shoals, that has a pretty big impact on international visitation to San Francisco."
"San Francisco has survived earlier downturns, from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the dot-com crash of 2001," that 2009 piece concludes. "A century ago, the city was almost leveled by a great earthquake and fire. It bounced back fairly quickly, and people here say San Francisco today remains resilient."
And let's not forget that when we aren't in nadir-like, bust times, San Francisco is also criticized for being too clean, sanitized, and rich.
I'll leave you with this 2018 piece from Harper's, which isn't about SF, it's about New York, titled "The Death of a Once Great American City." The piece is primarily about how gentrification, unaffordability, and general affluence has slowly deprived New York of its eclectic, creative, gritty character.
"For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring," writes longtime NY resident Kevin Baker, calling the city "the world’s largest gated community."
By similar comparison, he writes, "San Francisco is overrun by tech conjurers who are rapidly annihilating its remarkable diversity; they swarm in and out of the metropolis in specially chartered buses to work in Silicon Valley, using the city itself as a gigantic bed-and-breakfast."
Lots of those same "tech conjurers" have either fled to Austin or Miami, or they've pivoted whatever they were doing into AI. So, time to write the next chapter, then?
Photo: Robert Gareth