San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?

San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?


Spent the day yesterday with my family in San Francisco (only three BART stops from my house). We started with something that’s now become a bit of a tradition: dollar oysters with drinks at Waterbar at noon. I had mine with a glass of “J” brut, such a good drink with oysters.

Waterbar is an absolute joy to go to, with its expansive views of the Bay, the Bridge and the East Bay, which the Spanish Californios called “Contra Costa”: the opposite coast.

San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?

Normally, on a day as cloudless and sunny as yesterday, you’d be able to see Mount Diablo, the second-tallest peak in the Bay Area (3,849 feet). But the mountain was totally obscured by smoke hazing up the sky, drifted down from the wildfires up north that continue to ravage the state. My heart goes out to the people around Redding, who have suffered relentlessly from this scourge.

As a kid I wouldn’t have eaten an oyster if you’d paid me, but now, you can’t hold me back. They whet rather than satiate the appetite, even with bread and butter. Hemingway praised oysters “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away.” Afterwards, we sought lunch. Maxine wanted to check out the rooftop garden in the just-opened Salesforce Transit Center. I hadn’t been there yet, so we walked the few blocks and took the longest escalator I’ve ever seen up to the gardens. (They’re also going to open an aerial tram.) All I can say is, visit this place if you haven’t already. It’s an instant classic. The terminal itself is an architectural marvel (it’s probably the most earthquake-proofed structure in the world), but most marvelous is the rooftop garden. It must be a quarter-mile long, with twisting trails and little nooks where you can rest and eat. The entire site is surrounded by a wall of skyscrapers, including Salesforce Tower, the tallest building west of Chicago.

San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?

This is really a spectacular achievement for San Francisco, a futuristic marvel; I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the center of a big city. It’s part of a chain of stunning development that stretches from the Embarcadero, on the Bay, west to Moscone Center. Absolutely stunning.

This elicited lots of political talk between us about gentrification and people losing their places to live. It’s stunning to see the brilliance of imperial San Francisco at this, its greatest, richest moment. But it’s sobering to think of all the people forced out of their apartments, many of whom, presumably, are now living on the streets, in BART corridors and God knows where else. I actually wondered how long it would be before there are tent encampments in the Transit Center garden, which is free to access. I doubt that the authorities would permit that, but still…things are tough in the Bay Area if you don’t have money.

The same thing is happening in Oakland albeit at a lesser pace. In my neighborhood alone an entire city-within-a-city is going up, all in the space of the last year or so. I’m glad I got rid of my car (I’m now carless) because traffic here is going to be horrible once all the new residents move in. Being carless (it’s been a month now) has been hassle-free. In fact, I’m enjoying it. I gather that carlessness is more or less a trend among Millennials, what with all the options (Uber, Lyft and so on), which makes me think that all of my life I’ve done things I thought were the products of my rational choices but which, as it turned out, tens of millions of others were simultaneously doing, which made them trends. What does this say about free will?

Anyhow, I personally welcome this new development but I know lots of people adamantly oppose it, for all the reasons I cited above. I think you can’t stop progress. You can manage it intelligently, but you can’t build a wall around a city like San Francisco or Oakland and say, “No more people allowed” when so many people want to live here. And yet the homelessness is extremely troubling. With it comes an increase in filth, litter, crime, human excrement in the streets, and vandalism, and at night, when I’m out and about downtown, the streets are scary, something out of Night of the Living Dead: zombies roaming around, muttering to themselves, gesticulating crazily. I’m an old man now: it’s discomfiting.

And yet I have no more answers than anyone else. The extreme liberals in Oakland insist that the city pay for housing, food and healthcare for the estimated 4,000 homeless people who live here. They even go so far as to say that the Police Department should be defunded, with the money going to homeless services. That’s insane, and is not going to happen. But it is, I fear, the sort of talk that Trump and his followers use as wedge issues to appeal to their white followers, who want simplistic solutions to enormously complicated problems.

San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?
San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?

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