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A Lament for San Francisco

How is an increasingly dilapidated San Francisco symbolic of the challenges facing the United States?

August 23, 2011

How is an increasingly dilapidated San Francisco symbolic of the challenges facing the United States?

I have always loved San Francisco. The city, situated felicitously on the bay, has always had a refreshing effect on me, positioned on the other end of America from Washington and New York, two powerful cities that can each become monomaniacal and oppressive at times.

But what I had noticed before, a certain slide of the cityscape — from captivating splendor and individuality in so many pockets into something distinctly more shaky, economically less confident — has now come into full force. The facades of many buildings, entire street blocks and neighborhoods are getting grayer, grimier, more tired-looking and worn out. They increasingly carry a touch of seediness.

Unlike in times past, none of this visual pollution can be laid at the feet of manufacturing or industry, not in the very heart of post-industrial California. And this slide is perplexing, not least for all the personal wealth that is collected among many of the city’s very affluent citizens — a wealth, in fact, that is pretty much required these days to even contemplate living here.

You first notice the grime and the considerable slippage when, upon arrival at San Francisco Airport, you take the BART train into the city. Thankfully, here is a major American city whose airport is nicely integrated into the public transportation system.

But as soon as you board the train, you notice an incredible degree of wear and tear. The seats and the carpets on the floors are seedy, even grimy, in most subway cars.

It’s at that moment when the notion really hits you of what a severe underinvestment in public infrastructure means in practical terms. To European sensitivities at least, it is unimaginable that a city so splendid, so rich, as San Francisco should have such a train stock for one of its major transportation arteries.

Worse, we are being told that the spending habits of the past in the public sector were far too generous and wasteful, unsustainably so. The City of San Francisco and the entire State of California are regularly held out nationally as the height of fiscal irresponsibility, given prevailing debt levels.

Is this all that money could buy? It sheds a light on far-too-lax cost management for public projects. However, that is not just a consequence of union rules and high labor costs, as is so often argued. No, most of these projects are won and executed by private-sector firms, who all made a pretty penny on the stuff they built while the going was good.

But corporate inefficiency and wastefulness, a Republican thing in political terms, is just as much to blame as the unions, which are the Democrats’ political liability. The fact is that both sides conspired to reap the maximum benefits for their respective political camps from the public trough.

Then, it hits you really hard. Since fiscally speaking there are indeed truly much, much tighter times to come for U.S. municipalities, if this degree of dilapidation is the “starting position” even of rich places like San Francisco — a city where a strong sense of civic cooperation and responsibility has had the upper hand for many decades — where will all of this end? There isn’t much of a public infrastructure left that could be run down that much more before calamity really hits.

This impression only becomes intensified when you take the Caltrain from downtown San Francisco into Silicon Valley. Running about once an hour into the heartland of American innovation, and one of the regions in the world with the highest concentrations of personal wealth, the train chugs along what is certainly a charming route.

There are always the hills on the right-hand side, showing where the “elevated class” lives, with their spectacular views of the Bay Area. And soon enough, an impressive area of stops are called one after another: Redwood City, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View. Silicon Valley is a veritable icon of American capitalism, given that venture capital firms and companies like Google, eBay, Apple and Oracle call the region home.

But long before you arrive at this marvelous stretch of land with its enticing climate, you notice something else: The Caltrain has suddenly converted itself into a cow train.

How so? The entire thing is squealing and squeaking. There is a constant cacophony of unpleasant mechanical noises from each of the cars as the train chugs along the valley. The visuals outside the window may be beatific and transcendental, while the noises inside remind you of a mild version of Hades.

And again, perhaps owing to the different value set of a transplanted European who has nevertheless spent three decades in the United States, I inevitably ask myself: Is this the best that this place, still the richest large country on earth, can do? Haven’t we just been through decades of rather extreme wealth generation, especially in this very region?

Shouldn’t the train therefore be in great shape, so that the people using it could travel much faster to their destination, instead of ambling along almost forlornly between each stop? This is meant to be an artery of economic progress, not a leisurely tourist attraction.

Time, apparently, doesn’t equate money here, considering how slowly the thing moves. And note that speeding along down nearby highways in a car isn’t a much faster option either, given prevailing traffic volumes and hence road congestion.

All of that would seem to suggest a strong investment in public infrastructure, and especially, in such a densely populated area, a tight, smoothly integrated network of public transportation. Alas, these investments have not been made and, given new fiscal realities in the markets and new political realities in Washington, aren’t likely to be made any time soon.

For this country, and especially the San Francisco Bay region, to enter what will be a clear down cycle in public outlays with such a dilapidated infrastructure is truly incredible. Much of it has not been updated in any real sense since the initial investment was made in the 1950s and 1960s. It happened under President Eisenhower, a military man who served as a Republican president — and a man who, with his priorities of spending on public infrastructure, would be deemed a socialist by nearly every Republican member of the U.S. Congress today.

It all seems totally incongruous. Here we are in Silicon Valley — a true global icon and the envy of many people around the world (including government leaders, mayors and economic development planners) who are all trying to have their own mini-version of the Valley, with its intense aggregation of entrepreneurial, innovative people.

And yet, this collection of extremely smart people, given to thinking about big, practical challenges and hyper-complex systems, can’t even get their act together to establish and maintain state-of-the-art infrastructure? At this point, there clearly isn’t much more wear and tear that one can get out of those roads, bridges and trains before various components will simply collapse.

Why, I wonder, do most European countries, certainly with no more economic dynamism, at least manage to achieve that?

The best answer, most likely, is found in the rock-bottom preference of many either wealthy or smart Americans for outright libertarianism. Their rationale is simple: As long as I fend for myself, why should I worry about matters of collective action, collective rationality?

Underneath this dilapidated state of the infrastructure, there is a deliberate, almost devilish toying with the risk of societal collapse — not only of not caring about the public good, but almost of enjoying to play it this riskily, of not making investments in the future.

When you contrast that with the dynamism of all the pockets of innovation, individual and group optimism that percolate throughout the Silicon Valley region, the whole thing becomes even less explicable.

People here seem to enjoy a distinct incongruousness in their lives. The equation of “my home = my castle = my retreat from society (and my car is the same thing on wheels)” still holds. As a result, everyone who is subscribing to this formula, whether they recognize it or not, is a refugee. In other words, Americans, perversely and deliberately, are treating themselves as internally displaced people, right in the midst of their own society.

That spirit of distinctness and discordance becomes apparent at the start of a high-octane conversation at — wouldn’t you know it — a local Starbucks in the Valley. “You know,” my friend tells me, “it’s really amazing. Sense just how warm and how balmy it is around here. Permanently nice temperatures, in the high 70s, low 80s. And the warmth of the sun, the blue clarity of the sky. But last evening, I went into the city. It was so cold. I mean, a temperature difference of over 20 degrees, and we’re just 30 miles away from San Francisco.”

This was not said just to point out a meteorological curiosity, but with the satisfaction of somebody who had consented to lower himself to go into San Francisco, the poor cousin of rich Silicon Valley.

And indeed, when I think about the images I collected when I was downtown, my overriding impression is that much of San Fran’s cityscape now has the distinctly déclassé feel of a formerly splendid East European city. Remember Prague, Budapest or Dresden in their pre-1990, heavily underinvested, more-than-slightly-dilapidated state? Grimy facades, worn out streets, downtrodden people — hardly a recognizable image of their former selves.

Thankfully, after the yoke of communism was shed at long last, Eastern Europe’s many, formerly splendid cities have all been reborn visually, civically. No doubt, San Francisco will come back around. But in Eastern Europe pre-1990 and in San Francisco now, it is so amazing to see that there are show projects in both places, fully restored buildings shining with gold-leaf paint on domes. But they have the ring of a Potemkin village about them. The rest of the place is in a state of disrepair.

For a lifelong fan and devoté of San Francisco, it is disorienting to see that this city ever entered onto a trajectory that gives rise to this painful lament.

Of course, from my past travels to this magnificent locale — roaming through Golden Gate Park, stopping over during a 15,000-mile cross country trip to do laundry at a Haight-Ashbury coin shop, my many walks around the urban neighborhoods, often so amazingly different from each other, while right adjacent, I have certainly known about seediness and pockets of poverty. But what were a few, well-known pockets of poverty and/or economic decline have now enveloped many more parts of the city.

It’s a telltale sign of what an evaporating corporate tax base can do to a city, even a magnificent one. A few decades of corporate mergers and acquisitions being executed across much of the United States had the net effect of leaving San Francisco with nary a major corporate headquarter to support its tax base.

Where once gigantic insurance companies with many thousands of employees had their seat and paid into the city’s coffers, the new highlights of corporate headquarters are now the likes of Williams-Sonoma, a nationwide chain of specialty cooking stores: very nice, but not amounting to much.

Yes, the city has attracted a great deal of wealthy people over these intervening years. They have driven up real-estate prices significantly. But that’s not a measure of success or sustainable economic development. The key point is that these folks do not pay a lot in taxes here. Often, they have made their bundle and are living off the fruits of their wealth.

A city can’t thrive on the restaurant spending of wealthy inflows of people who aren’t working any longer and who all have tax advisors to manage their wealth in a tax-advantaged fashion. People who love being in San Francisco and would die for it — in fact, plan on dying here — but aren’t really sharing much of their wealth with the city they love so much.

Away from the splendor of these urban pockets of wealth, you see a lot of coffee shops with plenty of aging people in them. They clearly don’t seem as if they had been born poor. But they make up what is rapidly becoming the class of new urban white poor which slide into that status for the first time at a rather advanced age.

They seem pretty surprised by this turn of events, which hit them because the cost of living in this city they have called their own for so long is beginning to squeeze them out. Currently, they are still hanging on, shifting from the neighborhood restaurant which they can no longer afford to the coffee shop or diner, hopefully nearby, which they still can afford, although barely.

Did it have to come to this? Was it preordained? The cynical political game that is being played over answering these very questions shows just how frayed American society has become, how much it is at war with itself — and how much both parties act as the functional equivalent of one-armed bandits.

According to Republicans across the country, the city’s, and California’s, malaise is all due to government overspending and far too high levels of taxation. The Democrats, meanwhile, would point their fingers at ultimately destructive acts such as the effective freezing of property taxes in 1975. But on the public union issue, on the extreme self-service mentality of state employees, there can be no denying that the Democrats, too, share a large responsibility for the financial causes of decline.

The moral of the California and San Francisco stories are clear before everybody’s eyes. Once you imbalance what’s taxed, spent and/or invested, you undermine what is a finely attuned ecosystem of fiscal and societal realities, expectations and practices.

Even initially small changes in that economic climate can lead to big swings and gaps. When increasingly panicky politicians then predictably resort to using debt ever more as a tool to try and still make the investments that should have been financed by taxes, the going gets rougher and rougher, and the liabilities larger and larger.

However, a vast public enterprise such as California cannot be run on the basis of crisis-driven planning forever. But that’s shockingly what we find ourselves. Amidst this sea of incredible human potential, there floats a veritable death wish that is brought upon oneself.


A certain slide of the cityscape has now come into full force.

Unlike in times past, none of this visual pollution can be laid at the feet of manufacturing or industry, not in the very heart of post-industrial California.

I inevitably ask myself: Is this the best that this place, still the richest large country on earth, can do?

Underneath this dilapidated state of the infrastructure, there is a deliberate, almost devilish toying with the risk of societal collapse.

Corporate inefficiency and wastefulness, a Republican thing in political terms, is just as much to blame as the unions, which are the Democrats' political liability.