The demise of an American metropolis
It’s kind of incredible to recall the most common complaints about San Francisco before the pandemic. Back then, when tech titans ruled the city, commercial neighborhoods were overrun by designer grocery stores with kombucha on tap, boutique bakeries with their own branded cookbooks, and showcase stores for online luxury products that started as Kickstarter campaigns. The foot traffic in the city’s trendiest districts was nearly as bustling as in comparable neighborhoods in Manhattan. People zipped back and forth on hoverboards on sidewalks cluttered with Limebike scooters. It was enough to make you puke.
Everyone I know complained about it. It didn’t feel like the city belonged to normal people anymore. It had become a playground for the young, the rich, and the prematurely successful. The dystopian vision of the future of San Francisco back then was one in which the reverse blight of gentrification would spare no neighborhood, until the whole city became one big Cow Hollow.
But then came Covid-19, and today, the reverse seems to be happening. Rather than the city’s grittiest neighborhoods, like the Tenderloin, becoming colonized by tech workers, the Tenderloin is colonizing the rest of the city. The open air drug market that was once contained to the district’s 30 square blocks has spilled out deep into SoMa — once something like an urban bedroom community for Silicon Valley —and southward into the Mission, and it’s creeping northward up Polk and Van Ness.
The foot traffic is still there, but now instead of young, pampered tech workers, the pedestrians are nomadic street addicts. Drive by United Nations Plaza in the middle of the night and you’ll see dozens or even hundreds of people milling about. At first, from a distance, you might think a bunch of nightclubs just closed, or that a crowd of Apple fanboys have gathered to be first in line for the early morning release of the newest iPhone. When you get a little closer though, what you’re actually looking at comes into sharper focus. Drug dealers are everywhere, with their hoodies and their backpacks on, each surrounded by a crowd of nocturnal drug addicts. Some are slumped over on the pavement, spinning off into oblivion. Some are crouched over an industrial lighter, vaporizing meth in a foil.
This is a scene from the death of a city.
The Bay Area was the first metropolis in the United States to issue stay-at-home orders, in early 2020. Throughout the pandemic, it remained one of the most locked-down regions in the country. Like much of America, once work-from-home became the norm for white collar San Francisco, the city’s downtown, devoid of workers, took on the look of an empty movie set. San Francisco’s commercial real estate market took a massive body blow as vacancies soared. Sales taxes from downtown neighborhoods plummeted. Revenue from tourism, San Francisco’s most lucrative industry, fell by more than three-quarters, as downtown hotels could keep barely a quarter of their rooms filled.
Over the last year or so, in most of the country, things have started to get back to normal. But San Francisco’s downtown has remained a basket case. One study put its recovery dead last among the 62 largest cities in North America.
Now, things are only likely to get worse, as office building leases that were signed pre-pandemic come up for renewal, Rumpelstiltskin-style, in a completely changed world, where many companies, especially in the tech sector, have decided to stick with remote working indefinitely. Some analysts anticipate downtown vacancy rates as high as 50 percent.
If the worst projections come to pass, not only will downtown remain a social and economic dead zone, it could shrink the tax base of a city that isn’t known for thrift in its public spending. This, as the addiction crisis in the city continues to expand inexorably, killing users, taking over public spaces, destroying the quality of life for everyone, and fraying the social fabric of the city.
Yesterday, I published a story in the New York Post that might give you an idea of how the city is managing that problem. (The story was first broken by Jonah Owen Lamb at the excellent San Francisco Standard.) In the midst of a colossal addiction crisis, with hundreds of cartel-backed drug dealers openly selling meth, fentanyl, heroin and cocaine on downtown San Francisco streets 24 hours a day, the city’s Public Defender is trying to make it impossible for San Francisco police officers to arrest people for drug sales. Last March, in a motion to the San Francisco Superior Court, on behalf of one of their alleged drug dealing clients, the Public Defender accused SFPD Sergeant Daniel Solorzano, who is himself of Mexican and Nicaraguan heritage and whose first language is Spanish, of racism against Latinos. Their evidence: he arrested 53 suspects over a two-year period for drug dealing, all of whom were Latino, while declining to arrest 43 other people who were otherwise implicated in drug transactions, all but two of whom were non-Latino. This discrepancy, they claim, is evidence of unlawful racial discrimination in policing.
Of course, it could also be evidence of something else that anyone with a passing familiarity with the Tenderloin already knows: the full-time dealers are almost entirely Latino — specifically, Honduran. The cartel, which is not committed to diversity in hiring, recruits young men from Honduras, smuggles them into the U.S. and supplies them with the dope they peddle on San Francisco’s streets. If you arrest one of these cartel-backed dealers, you’re going to be arresting a Latino. As for the 43 people Solorzano did not arrest, an obvious explanation is that they were merely drug addicts guilty of low-level offenses like drug use or holding drugs for the dealers. These are not law enforcement priorities; the police are after the dealers, not some addict who the dealers bullied or bribed into holding their stash.
The Public Defender, awkwardly, is also accusing former DA Chesa Boudin of racial discrimination in his prosecutions of the Honduran drug dealers. This is laughable and almost certainly a bad faith, cynical allegation. Boudin comes out of the Public Defender’s office himself. As District Attorney he operated as a veritable Manchurian candidate for the Public Defender, and famously refused to charge (Latino) drug dealers with any serious offenses. It defies credulity that the lawyers with the Public Defender actually believe that Boudin was a racist or ran his office in a racist manner. The allegation, like that against Solorzano, is insincere, but legally useful for obtaining what they’re really after: confidential information about the SFPD’s narcotics enforcement operations.
In order to assess whether Solorzano, the SFPD, and the DA’s office have acted in a racist manner, the Public Defender is requesting that the judge order the SFPD to turn over a staggering amount of information to the attorneys of Tenderloin drug dealers. The request includes “all records or memoranda regarding any investigation, by SFPD or San Francisco District Attorney’s office, of drug sales enforcement activity in the Tenderloin District.” That’s just one of 15 items on their wish list.
Bear in mind that the attorneys for the Public Defender represent cartel-backed drug dealers. If the SFPD turns over this information to their client, they’re effectively turning it over to the Sinaloa cartel. Another of the items on their wish list is this:
All SFPD manuals, circulars, field notes, correspondence, or any other material which discusses drug enforcement including protocols and/or directions to officers or confidential informants regarding how to conduct such operations, how to determine which persons to pursue as potential targets or ultimate defendants, and how to ensure that officers are not targeting persons for such operations on the basis of their race, color, ancestry or national origin.
Handing this information over to a drug cartel wouldn’t just incapacitate all of the SFPD’s narcotics operations. Some of this information, like directives to confidential informants, could get people killed.
The public defenders know this. So why are they doing it?
There is no ethical issue whatsoever with zealously defending individual drug dealers. This is the Public Defender’s job, and it’s a critical part of holding the state to a high standard of fairness. But there is a gargantuan difference between that and acting as a strategic legal defense for the San Francisco drug trade as a whole. And in effect, that’s what some of the attorneys with the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, as well as some state-appointed private lawyers, are doing. Their goal is not just to ensure due process for the accused and to hold the DA to the highest evidentiary standards. Their goal is to act as an impediment to the police’s ability to surveil, investigate and arrest drug dealers.
Former San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Tom Ostly told me that in court, some state-appointed defense attorneys routinely press prosecutors to reveal every minute detail about how the police were able to surveil their clients. What distance was this picture was taken from? At what angle? From what elevation? Was the picture shot through glass or curtains? Were there any obstructions from trees or power lines? What direction is the defendant facing in this picture?
The goal, according to Ostly, is to identify the buildings and the rooms detectives post up in to monitor drug transactions. That way, their clients can evade detection in the future, or they can bribe or threaten the staff and residents of the buildings the detectives work out of to alert the dealers of when they’re being surveilled.
Ostly and other prosecutors would raise objections to these questions, and typically the judge would agree. In the event that the judge sided with the defense, the prosecution would be forced to drop the charges rather than reveal this highly confidential information. In either case, the dealers win. (Ostly says that when he was a public defender, Chesa Boudin was one of the attorneys who routinely employed these tactics.)
Needless to say, this kind of advocacy goes miles beyond the defense bar’s legal and civic obligation to provide a zealous defense to the accused. No reasonable moral or political principle obligates the city of San Francisco, or the State of California, to act as a counterweight to its own police officers and defend drug dealers against the threat of arrest. It’s sheer insanity.
It would probably go too far to say that the defense lawyers who pursue these tactics are pro-cartel, or that they’re paid off. More likely, the motivation is purely ideological. The worldview that informs these legal strategies holds that the police are oppressors, period, so any action that impedes their work is a victory for the oppressed. The fact that doing so, in effect, assists the drug cartel doesn’t really factor into the equation. It’s ACAB as praxis. It’s radical progressive nihilism.
That nihilism goes far beyond the Public Defender’s office. It’s the unofficial philosophy of the entire social services archipelago that purports to aid the homeless in San Francisco. It’s a shockingly bleak view of humanity.
Tom Wolf, a former Tenderloin street addict, told me that he once spoke to Vitka Eisen, the CEO of HealthRight360, a homeless charity with a revenue of $150 million a year. Eisen makes at least $350,000 a year. This is what she told Wolf, who himself has given up drugs and is in recovery: “There are 17 million people who use drugs in the United States. None of them want to get clean. So we should just support them."
“Support them” means doing what HealthRight360 does: hand out clean needles, clean foil (for smoking meth and fentanyl) and Narcan, and manage sites for city-supervised drug use. As Eisen’s quote suggests, it does not mean pushing people toward abstinence and recovery. The goal of liberating yourself from the chemical enslavement that’s destroying your life and those of your loved ones is dismissed as unrealistic or even undesirable. The objective, instead, is to manage your addiction and mitigate the most acute risks of your behavior. Conveniently, this mission makes you a permanent client of HealthRight360, and helps renew HealthRight360’s funding into perpetuity. It’s a vision that aligns not only with HealthRight360’s financial interests, but also with those of the cartel.
I’ve been told from one source that San Francisco narcotics officers have been holding back on doing much of anything in the Tenderloin as they wait to see what happens with Solorzano. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes sense. From what I’ve been told, Solorzano is a very good cop. He cares about the dealers’ lives and goes to lengths to steer them toward alternative sources of income. Tom Ostly calls him the very picture of police reform.
If a cop like Solorzano can have his career threatened and his character assassinated just for doing his job, it’s not hard to see how the Public Defender’s motion would dissuade officers throughout the department from doing more than the bare minimum their job description requires. Critics can blame that on the police themselves, but police officers are people, and people respond to incentives. In this way, too, the Public Defender is providing an invaluable service to the cartel.
The big picture for San Francisco is grim. Employers have bolted the city due to a combination of factors, including the high cost of living, unfriendly politics, and Covid-19. The northeast corner of the city is a cross between a ghost town and a zombie apocalypse. Office buildings are emptier than they’ve ever been before, and getting worse. Tech workers and other white collar employees who have moved to cheaper locations, switched to remote work, or both, are unlikely to return to their commutes anytime soon. Crime, drug dealing and open drug use is everywhere. And the city seems incapable of governing itself.
People I know who have lived there for years have begun to despise it. Some of them place their hopes in the new (interim, for now) DA, Brooke Jenkins, who may prove to be the variable that reverses the spiral of destruction that San Francisco is in. Or she may not. The problem is bigger than her, just as it was bigger than Chesa Boudin. It’s the consequence of an entrenched ideology that pervades nearly every hall of power in San Francisco, from the Board of Supervisors to the Department of Public Health. It’s an ideology that dresses itself up as compassion and enlightened progressivism, but in reality it’s rooted in a dim view of human agency and a grandiose and paternalistic view of the administrative elite. It’s a narcissistic, self-serving nihilism, and it’s killing a once great city.
What's fascinating to me as a Californian (I live in LA w many friends here and in the Bay Area) is that there is simply no changing the minds or even broaching these subjects with anyone in the upscale liberal classes—which I will more or less define/generalize as relatively affluent, relatively white college grads who work in culture media tech etc.
Of course there's always been rebels of all kinds, heretics, antinomians, "let the world burn" types, but for me the source of the great strength of Team Social Justice is they simply have a total stranglehold on modern Left morality (hey, it's even in the name!): my friends (and I assume others like them) could walk past a mound of corpses and a mountain of feces, could have their own houses robbed and cars stolen, could be shown the money schemes of the Homeless Industrial Complex etc—and yet like well-trained lab rats they'll still all sing in unison: "Hey, what can we do? Who are we to judge, blame the cops, "Society," capitalism, those darn evil Republicans...and all those social orgs and volunteers are "just trying to make the world a better place." etc etc
There is just a shocking level of learned helplessness here, bc maybe 50yrs after the Counterculture Revolution liberals no longer have the vocabulary to say one word against anyone or anything that comes coded as "Oppressed".
It is one thing to see trained lab rats obey, it's one thing to see poor uneducated masses obey, but this is supposed to be the highest educated, most enlightened sector of the richest modern country. Modern Cali liberals have locked themselves into a moral and epistemic prison and would rather perish than escape.
One of the major factors of the demise of San Francisco that has been happening for decades: the decline and finally absence of productive working class. What now constitutes a working class in San Francisco are service workers, low paid fast food workers, but no actual working class.
My father was the co-head of a national AFL-CIO craft union, upholsterers, that had gradations of working rank from apprenticeship through master that took six years to accomplish. Most of the shops in his large local in New York City created and manufactured furniture for the so-called carriage trade. They were highly skilled workers and the backbone not only of the union movement, which peaked in the fifties, but of the city itself.
Their work culture suffused the city. The no-nonsense New York tabloids were aimed at them. The New York Post, where I was a reporter before being drafted, appeared at four pm when the working class of the city ended their working day. These were responsible family men, most of whom lived in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Their children learned their father’s trade and joined the unions. They were good workers and had a skill that gave them stable lives. The furniture industry moved to low-wage High Point, North Carolina, and finally, like all labor intensive industry, to China. The true working class disappeared in New York and all over the country. .
I am a member of the so-called entertainment industry and in order to earn a living I had to move to Los Angeles.
But LA is the world's biggest outdoor mausoleum. As a New Yorker I was out every night. NY is a PM town, LA an AM town. A collection of suburbs, it is deadly boring. I had a number of friends who lived in San Francisco, mostly writers, screen or newspaper writers. My wife and I, before we were married (in San Francisco) who is also a New Yorker and black, used to visit the city at least once a month. They had great restaurants and great bars. Our social circle widened to include a number of San Franciscans. We loved San Francisco so much we considered buying a weekend pied a terre there.
But I began to notice something odd about San Francisco: nobody actually worked. There were no productive workers, people who made things. San Franciscans apparently lived on air, or inheritances, or the universities, or occasional "art projects." They were the "creative class". It is no accident that the hippie movement started there.
The working class, now misnamed "the middle class" set the moral tone for New York and San Francisco . Work was good in itself and, as I learned during a fallow period, after I had achieved considerable success in the industry at an early age, I went broke. I lived on unemployment benefits for a period in Vermont and New York. Of course, I had a lot of pending “projects.”
Entitlements are soul destroying. During the recession “industry” work was scarce. My life was eating away whatever moral fiber I possessed (not a lot) and it dawned on me that any work is better than no work and I went to work at the Post Office. It was, by any standard, awful.
Getting a pay check at the end of an exhausting week, however, is being bestowed with a kind of grace. Work is its own reward. It is part of the Protestant ethic that built American cities.
And was not only the export of work to China that destroyed the work ethic. The importation of millions of people who barely survived — I have travelled extensively in Mexico and Central America —- whom would work for survival pay, destroyed the local wage base.
New York and San Francisco were great cities to be out of work. If you are at all clever you can party every night and sleep late the next day and you can get laid and meet all kinds of interesting people. But living on entitlements is infantilizing. It's like still being in college. When you’re young you can live on air. Work is associated with growing up, with adulthood.
San Francisco, a place like New York only with better living conditions and much better weather, was in a moral collapse long before the horror of today, the fruit of which is now evident.
As Adam Smith noted, the aristocrat can tolerate dissolution because he can sleep it off. The dissolute working man loses his job, then his family, then his home, then his dignity.