Love It or Leave It, SF Weekly

  |   I Love SF, Politics   |   32 Comments

Twin Peaks, San Francisco, photo by Ron Kurti

The carpetbaggers over at Village Voice Media, aka, the SF Weekly, have launched an anti-SF hit piece that completely misses the point of San Francisco and why people choose to live here.

Now, like my old buddy, Mat, I hate things about SF – including much of what is covered in this piece. That makes my headline pretty much meaningless – at least I admit that, which is more than the Weekly would do about the one atop the article we’re discussing here. More after the jump…

The article starts with the rather disingenuous suggestion that San Francisco sucks because it doesn’t enact its biggest progressive ideals:

Despite its good intentions, San Francisco is not leading the country in gay marriage. Despite its good intentions, it is not stopping wars. Despite its spending more money per capita on homelessness than any comparable city, its homeless problem is worse than any comparable city’s.

(Do the writers share these intentions, or are they just trying to fool the rare liberal reader into viewing more ads before they snort and put the paper back under the Muni seat where they found it? We’ll get to the writers’ conservatism later.)

First, let’s bite into the article’s central (and silly) premise, stated in the form of its headline: “The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.” So, the measure of a big city is in how it is “run,” and since SF is a big city awash in political impotence and corruption, it’s worthy of being trashed by one of its very own “newspapers.”

San Francisco is in many ways not “big,” and that’s primary to its charm. In terms of population, it barely counts as a big city (it’s the U.S.’s 12th largest, right above Jacksonville, FL), which is why it’s such a common experience to randomly encounter not only folks you know, but folks you don’t know but have just “seen around,” as if on a university campus. I love this. It counteracts the anonymity created by one attribute of a big city SF does have – high population density.

It is also chaotic and impossible to “run,” exhibiting a visceral form of libertarianism for those who can stomach it. It’s getting worn, the conservative refrain of love for the “wildness” of the market, alongside the attitude this article gives off of longing for a daddy-figure to make powerful choices for us, so long as it’s in the interest of the right instead of the left.

When it comes to mismanaging a city, San Francisco has pulled a 180 — in half a century, we’ve gone from “city fathers” (if you liked them) or “oligarchs” (if you didn’t) operating with limited input from the people to a hyperdemocracy…

From 1932 until 1996, much of city government was handled by a powerful chief administrative officer (CAO), appointed to a 10-year term and tasked with overseeing the city’s largest departments. The job was to take politics out of city management.

Curious. Would they be talking about notorious land speculator Chester MacPhee, appointed CAO in 1958 and who was forced to resign? They probably would, given that he was “in charge” during the administration of Mayor George Christopher, which itself fell in the middle of a corporatist Republican reign that stretched from 1912 to 1964 (it’s been Democratic ever since). Ahh, the good old days when there was no democracy, and thus, no corruption!

The writers would have us believe that the middle class here is dying, the population graying, the young fleeing.They quote urbanist Joel Kotkin as saying, “San Francisco is like the really good-looking coed who can get away with being a jerk, while a less good-looking one couldn’t.”

As long as San Francisco is an alluring destination where residents will tolerate lunacy as a tradeoff for living the city lifestyle, and tourists flood the downtown, the city will lumber along, inefficiently and without accountability.

Well that kind of says it all, doesn’t it? It also makes Kotkin’s metaphor petty and superfluous. I could just as easily use a different metaphor: “SF is like a really great, caring friend who can get away with having bad habits, while a less-valuable one couldn’t.”

As I’m sure was intended, this article has lit up right-wing blogs with derision and sanctimony by uptight wankers who, despite macho posturing, fear that which they cannot control.

But in the end, those blogs aren’t a big deal, and neither is the SF Weekly. In part, that’s because there is a thriving local and nano-local blogging press in SF which the Weekly certainly has an interest in ignoring, but which reflects on a daily basis the infinite ways – many completely unrelated to anything political – by which residents love and discover this little place.

UPDATE: SFBG counters The Weekly with alternate methodology about what SF spends compared to other cities. Guess what they found? Here are their results in chart form.

  • Pete Mortensen | Dec 18, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    San Francisco’s only enduring problem is the cost of living here, especially with kids. Everything else is just life in the city. If you can’t see that, by all means move to San Jose, Houston, or a similarly “well-run city.”

  • Michal Migurski | Dec 18, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Wait so… are you going to address the article, or aren’t you? SF Weekly says it’s poorly run, but your response just looks like unrelated, fuzzy local boosterism. “So what if it’s poorly run, people still like it!” True, but it could just as well be a place that people like *that isn’t a total civic clusterfuck*.

  • snoflingor | Dec 18, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    I love San Francisco and its small feel progressive politics but if there is in fact the waste in public funds that the SF Weekly has documented than the solution is not for me to *leave* San Francisco but to identify this waste and stop it. “The writers would have us believe that the middle class here is dying, the population graying, the young fleeing,” because this is absolutely the case–80% of the population is above 18 years old. The median price of a home is $700,000 which is unaffordable to the middle class. An essential part of being progressive is not remaining complacent with the status quo and if the situation is as dire as the SF Weekly describes than something must be done. Sure, SF is charming but it is a failure if it cannot adequately serve it needy or middle class population.

  • Mark | Dec 18, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    All that you seem to be doing is attacking the fact that the city isn’t big, and trying to sell us on the merits of that. Yeah, it’s great that it’s not huge, and you run into people you know and what not. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that the government officials running San Francisco have been doing a terrible job at it. How about the fact that money for repairing the Aqueducts out of Hetch Hetchy has been siphoned into people’s personal pockets. Why don’t you come up with a witty response to the medical facility for elderly people that is 4 years late on being completed, not to mention the fact that the budget on it has ballooned! How about the fact that no one seems to be keeping track of how many people are put into homes or where the money for Care not Cash is going. You don’t even touch on the fact that the middle class in this city is dying, you mention it, then quote someone about how terrible the city is, and then try to pass it off as the city is our friend. What kind of friend makes it impossible to own a home here if you’re not making 100k a year? The middle class is dead here, we’ll be renting for ever. And this isn’t coming from some Right-wing individual either, I’m as liberal as the next San Franciscan, but I also think it’s ridiculous that we don’t try to fix the problems with our city, that’s what made this place great, was the fact we had no problems with standing up for what we believe in, now we just have people like you, and I who sit behind the anonymity of our computer screens and bitch about something someone wrote in a newspaper that has a circulation of what, 50,000?

  • Jeff Diehl | Dec 18, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    fuzzy local boosterism? perhaps.

    what i took from the article was a wish for less democracy and more oligarchy as a path to improvement. and if that’s your wish, you really should give it up and not live here.

    as for the particular charges of corruption and malfeasance, i’m not prepared to dispute them, but neither am i convinced that any other city OF ITS VALUE is managed any better bureaucratically.

  • Jeff Diehl | Dec 18, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    the fact that there are idealists who live here and try to reform government abuse, is a big part of SF’s charm. but even if none of those progressive ideals are ever fully realized, there remain tons of things to love about living here. my sense is that the writers of the SF Weekly piece don’t feel that way at all, either about the goals/efforts of progressives, nor about living here.

  • julie | Dec 18, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    BRAVO!!! (stands applauding)

  • jason | Dec 18, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    i love the fact that the muni is running out of money and cutting service. i love that terry childs is still locked up w/o trial a year later, i love lots of things about sf.

  • Bro_d | Dec 18, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Very glad that it’s hard to live here with kids. It makes me happy that SF is a place where there’s more dogs than children. Dogs are cleaner and quieter and way cuter, and you can pet them without being arrested.

  • Maria | Dec 18, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    Sure SF has its charms. That’s why people are passionate about the city. But its insulting to be lectured on our charms as we are being raped. The charms of our city have in now way been the result of the issues discussed in the SF Weekly article. Its like an arsonist burning down a house and defending himself by admiring the architecture as it crumbles. Don’t insult our intelligence.

  • Michal Migurski | Dec 18, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    SF City government is broken.

    There are many things to like about SF.

    Both of these things can be true at the same time, and they’re totally orthogonal to one another. It’s frustrating that you’re taking an argument about the former and responding with the latter, the same rhetorical twist used by ever Sarah Palin “you must not love america” wannabe on the national scene. I think it’s one of the things that causes San Francisco to be so screwed up – it’s politically verboten to make the argument that something is broken without having your patriotism questioned. Bi-Rite and the creme brulee cart are not acceptable answers to a completely hosed public transit system.

    There are alternatives, though. Oakland may not be particularly well-run either, but here is one detailed report from a community process that has demonstrably worked in the East Bay:

  • bmwcafe | Dec 19, 2009 at 8:24 am

    what is this douchebag on about??? his opinion piece goes along palin’s line ‘why do you hate san francisco?’….
    the sf weekly articel pointed out all the abuses this great city has to endure, it didn’t put down the city itself.
    the thing is, san francisco has so much potential, so much more than it is possible to realize in this political landscape .
    e.g. take the waterfront, what a waste of prime ground! most pier wherehouses are used as f””””g parking lots. and, nothing is done for their upkeep. they are literally falling apart. but you cannot tear them down and replace them with something which makes more sense, think of sidney harbour!, coz they are ‘historic’! f”k that!
    street landscaping is a joke here. s.f. is one of the ungreenest cities in the u.s. nyc, yes, even l.a. has more street trees per capita, per mile, etc. ….
    actually we should have the best city services, there is one city employee per 38 s.f. residents. that means every resident should enjoy 4 hours of dedication of a city employess per month, right?!? yeah, whatever….
    sad to see that…

  • münchenbier | Dec 19, 2009 at 2:30 pm


    Look dude you didn’t need to call Jeff a douchebag or you should have at least saved it for the end of your rant.

    On trees, yes even San Jose (where I grew up) has more trees. However, the park situation in the South Bay is anemic compared to the parks in SF. When I say anemic I mean to address the actual use of the parks instead of the total square mileage. People have nice parks but they don’t utilize them like they do here. So some places may have more trees but it doesn’t mean people appreciate them. Also, I believe organizations like the Friends of the Urban forest are trying to plant more trees in San Francisco. If you want more trees you should donate to their organization.

    On the Water Front

    It would be great for San Francisco to do something about its waterfront but I think it is. I don’t know if you remember China Basin before ATT park or what the Ferry Building used to look like. I also think the work they did with Crissy field is great as well. So in a sense the city is trying to change the waterfront. I hope they look to a city like Vancouver for tips on how to make an attractive waterfront. By the way, it seems like most of the piers are used for things other than parking. If you are talking about the big parking lot between PacBell and the Ferry Building you have to remember they still park ships there. Perhaps, the parking lot could look nicer.

    On city employees

    The SF Weekly article didn’t really give much voice to the city employees and government it condemns so in that way this article was not very balanced. In fact, using Joel Kotkin’s quotes was not very productive. That guy hates San Francisco. Why do I want to hear the opinion of somebody who has already written us off. I can’t not excuse what the city government did but the Weekly did snipe at probably the worst run departments. It would have been more productive had the authors compared the poorly run departments to better run ones. (Don’t even come at me with there are no well run city departments thing. I have worked in the private sector all my life and it is full of just as much bullshit.)

    All in all the SF weekly article presented some new information but not all of it was new. It was very much a written to stir the pot like a CW Nevius piece. In many ways this is a good thing but it also enables people to spew a lot of their personal anger which actually doesn’t help the conversation. For example, calling Jeff a douche bag because he wrote a short blog post that doesn’t answer your question is pretty lame too.

    You wouldn’t do that to his face and you shouldn’t do that here.

  • suz | Dec 19, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I don’t think you can even buy a house here on 100k a year! To everything else, absolutely.

  • Sasha | Dec 19, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Sign under every word.
    Whenever someone rightly points out the mess, local “patriots” get *blind* with rage.

  • Jeff Diehl | Dec 19, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    it is interesting that two separate commenters charged me with being Palin-esque. not crazy about that, although the irony is a bit pleasing since last time i checked, SF does not exactly represent Palin’s values.

    otoh, Palin announces her pride in America and what she thinks it stands for, and defends it against what she sees as unfair criticism, so in that sense, i guess the shoe fits. i do hope my SF pride isn’t as deranged and malicious as hers is for America.

    but, check it out. i never said the article in question didn’t have valid points. what i did say is that the SF Weekly should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they publish something with such a harsh thesis because they might have a pre-baked loathing of our city that they’re trying to project.

    and for you liberals who want me to stop praising SF and get on board with the criticisms, fine, i will – if you look at what’s in the middle of the piece. they would like to break up the labor unions, eliminate the referendum process, and install czar-type chieftains to make all the important decisions for us. do you support that?

    i find a focus on the most retarded aspects of the city’s government to be honorable in general, but suspect coming from them, and i resent the cherry-picked analysis they provide to the Palins of the world who don’t live here but love to ignorantly talk trash about SF.

    and so should anyone who willingly resides here.

  • Jeff Diehl | Dec 19, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    i’m calmer than you are.

  • bmwcafe | Dec 20, 2009 at 8:20 am

    i apologize, i take back the douchebag…
    i was a bit infurious, coz jeff’s piece felt like, uh, ‘if you don’t like why are your here’.

    to muenchenbeer,
    it is about inefficiency of city agencies as well as the sheer number of city employees. indeed, there are well run and efficient city agencies indeed. but there are plenty whose right to exist is almost questionable. but just look at the number of 22000 employees! i know, we are not only a city but also a county…..
    re. waterfront, some of the piers are shuttered for years with no plans to fix them, tear them down etc. …

    anyway, what i becry, and maybe that’s what the sf weekly is doing, is that we are not just some city, where maybe those things are almost taken for granted. no, we are sf, one of the best cities, in my view, in the world. and to see all that potential for greatness lying fallow, makes me sad and angry.

  • Jeff Diehl | Dec 20, 2009 at 11:32 am

    anyway, what i becry, and maybe that’s what the sf weekly is doing, is that we are not just some city, where maybe those things are almost taken for granted. no, we are sf, one of the best cities, in my view, in the world.

    and this is exactly what i’m saying the SF Weekly is NOT doing. i think they (or a large element of the publication’s editorial hive-mind) have an interest in tearing down characteristics of this town that most of us are proud of. the article tries to get residents outraged at our failed progressivism and direct democracy, and advocates some sort of old-school oligarchy as the solution. it’s that message that i’m trying to shoot down. along with the messenger, of course.

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  • Bob | Dec 20, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    I agree completely. We need days, no, hours, no, years worth more commenting on everything from the color of the sky to the PH of our municiple water.
    I want nothing decided until every last person has given two hours of testimony pro or con. I want hearings to drag on so long that the original people are now dead and people can no longer remember what started the whole thing.

    oh wait, thats how things are now.
    If you call what exists in San Francisco democracy – then carry on with your silly love affair.
    The reality is that we have probably 10X the civic participation than any city similar in size with 10 X less results – and even with all that, things completely dont work.
    I can appreciate the fact that you love standing in line for bi rite ice cream, and think the GG bridge view vista is just swell – but there are people who have actually struggled to maintain a home here and who are a little sick of the same BS year after year.

    I read something recently that made a lot of sense to me:
    Maybe if the supervisors stopped acting like mayors, and the mayor stopped acting like a governer – things would get better.

  • patrick | Dec 21, 2009 at 9:32 am

    I completely agree with Mr. Migursky.

    Your article was vapid and had little to support you argument. Apparently all you could come up with was anecdotes.

    Example, you ask “Would they be talking about notorious land speculator Chester MacPhee”?

    The answer is obviously no, since the quote you chose explicitly states that the CAO started long before him, and survived long past his term.

    You also say “The writers would have us believe that the middle class here is dying”, but seem to ignore the concrete evidence that they supplied: that the poor and wealthy populations are growing and the middle class population is shrinking. You provided nothing to dispute this.

    The SF Weekly piece had some clear examples of the dysfunctional nature of our current government, and you have provided nothing to contradict the article, nor any of the specific examples provided by the article.

    Your whole premise seems to be that if anybody says anything bad about any part of San Francisco, somehow they are a hater of San Francisco.

    I live in SF, and I love this city, but that doesn’t mean that I have to ignore the many deficiencies of our government. Articles like yours will only serve to let the incompetence of those running this city go on without check.

  • ETR | Dec 21, 2009 at 9:36 am

    I’m a little late to the party with comments, but let me say that, as a 30+ year (homeowning) resident of SF, I agree strongly with the SF Weekly article. I wish it could be picked up and published in the Chronicle AND Examiner for everyone to read. Although SF has many positives (which is why I keep living here), it’s obvious that the City itself is in a horrible state. Almost everything that really works in the City, that brings visitors and tourists alike to us, is managed and paid for by the private sector (the great shopping, restaurants, cultural activities, etc.) The City government and infrastructure sucks, and has done so, for many years. Maybe if SF realised that it really is a smaller city (12th largest, as some above pointed out) and not a “world-class” city, as it likes to think, it could try to run itself more efficiently. Reform at the governance level (I mean, do we really NEED eleven [or however many it is] Supervisors, PLUS a Mayor?) would be a good start. And yes, a Chief Administrative Office who is above partisan politics would be a good start.
    Oy…so much to think about………SF is SO broken………….

  • Zig | Dec 21, 2009 at 10:45 am

    “The carpetbaggers over at Village Voice Media, aka, the SF Weekly, have launched an anti-SF hit piece that completely misses the point of San Francisco and why people choose to live here.”

    Jeff you throw that around quite easily. I assume you are from an old San Francisco family?

    This city has been living on its past, its beautiful setting and now its proximity to the Silicon Valley for decades now.

    Just my opinion but I prefer a city with a middle class, a city that grows and takes the lead in being the regional center of the Bay Area (that’s “green” not strawberries on a bus shelter), a city without rent control so blue collar locals can form families here, a city that can provide at least decent schools and services.

    What we have now: truly dysfunctional and corrupt transit planning and operations, a dysfunctional city government (the worst in the nation), an interminable anti growth (highly democratic though) planning process, anti family laws about condo conversion and rent control, absurdly high spending on inefficient social services and a total lack of leadership and vision, have really distorted the demographics of this city.

    You have no argument with me that it’s a great place to live when you are young and for those who never move on to mainstream lives. Is that all we aspire to? And what about the people who are unable to choose to live here because of these polices?

  • Jeff Diehl | Dec 21, 2009 at 10:45 am

    “Your article was vapid and had little to support you argument.”

    i think you missed my argument. as i said, i’m not prepared to challenge the veracity of the article’s factual claims. instead i am claiming that the SF Weekly should not be given the benefit of the doubt regarding intentions, AND, that the prescription of less democracy and more centralized control is ridiculous.

    Example, you ask “Would they be talking about notorious land speculator Chester MacPhee”?

    The answer is obviously no, since the quote you chose explicitly states that the CAO started long before him, and survived long past his term.

    the reason i brought up MacPhee was to show that, historically, the CAO was not free of corruption, and to suggest that the Weekly has less of a problem with corruption when it benefits corporate-leaning politicians and administrations.

    “Your whole premise seems to be that if anybody says anything bad about any part of San Francisco, somehow they are a hater of San Francisco.”

    that’s just silly.

  • Zig | Dec 21, 2009 at 11:02 am

    “The job was to take politics out of city management.”

    I don’t think this is a San Francisco only problem (see stimulus package). It’s a difficult balance between democracy and technocratic experts (real planning and efficiency). The old way, razing the Western Addition as an example, was a bad thing too clearly

    Today there very little room for visionaries or big plans. We would be unable to build BART or Hetch Hetchy today. At some point this might be a problem. There is a real chance we will fail to build HSR. This is a problem. SFO needs new runways? Well you can’t fill at all, EVER, into the bay.

    Simple Market Octavia plan takes 12 years and that turd called the Central Subway that no engineer or transit planner worth a damn would support is our generational transit infrastructure improvement.

    My fathers generation build highway 101, 280, BART. My grandfathers generation the Key System, interurban rail lines, the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges

    Mine? I am not very hopeful

    There is always going to be tension between these two extremes and there is always going to be corruption in city government but at the margins so much can be improved.

    Start by maintaining the streets near my house and giving me a decent school to send my kid too. Let builders build middle class housing. Increase regional cooperation on regional transit improvements. Maybe a little less bum hugging would help

  • ESR | Dec 21, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    As a 20 year SF resident who has lived part-time in NYC for the past few years, I am continually reminded of how poorly SF is run and led every time I come home. As large as NYC is, it is incredibly forward-thinking, with a Mayor who is at the forefront of thinking about climate change, growth, alternative transportation, and efficient city government, just to name a few. The parks are clean and plentiful, the homeless are given services that work, the 311 system is responsive, there are farmers markets throughout the city (and they take food stamps), and the city is fast becoming a remarkably bike-friendly metropolis.

    SF talks a good game, but where are the results? NYC recognized that it has to grow (it’s the sustainable thing to do for the region) and will grow by 1.5 million people by 2030 so the City developed a comprehensive green plan for sustainable growth, PlaNYC, that guides development, brownfield remediation, city parks, affordable housing, etc. This plan is being implemented–everywhere, from how city agencies are organized to how land use and transportation decisions are made.

    What is continually frustrating about SF is that the government talks about all these issues too, but rarely implements policies. NYC adopted really progressive pedestrian, transit and bike policies, has been closing streets for bikes and pedestrians all over the city and even decided to close Broadway in Times Square–SF has been talking about closing Market Street for 10 years now and the Bike Plan is tied up in the courts.

    A sustainable city does not merely recycle it’s trash, it must also continually grow and change, a fact that SF seems to have great difficulty accepting. Affordable housing is a problem in SF, yet the city fights development left and right. The unfortunate truth of the market is that scarcity drives up prices for everyone. The most sustainable thing SF could do would be to densify in areas that makes sense–transit corridors, downtown, south of Market. Doing so would also make MUNI work better–density equals more transit patrons (studies repeatedly show this).

    The challenge of the SF Weekly article is not whether the writers are carpet baggers or whether they set up a false argument. The issues are real. The City does spend an obscene amount of money with really poor results. Honestly, 100s of millions of dollars (and at least 2x overbudget) for Laguna Honda for 700 or so patients? Why? Perhaps, a rational (not interested-based politics) response might have realized that it would be cheaper and more efficient for the city to pay to have those patients in private facilities?

    And, I’m sure I’ll be attacked for this, but the transients situation in SF is out of control. I worked for years at 6th/Market and every day witnessed things that were beyond the pale. The hardcore transients are not “there but for the grace of God go I” homeless folks–they are people with serious social pathologies that are obviously not being addressed. NYC has programs that work, why can’t SF?

    The city needs leaders who are not afraid to ask such questions. If money spent is not measurably working, then stop spending the money. Accountability is critical. Again, NYC has citywide accountability measures, why not SF?

    SF is an amazing place, but I wonder if people are so in love with their own micro visions of the city and their own politics, that the forget about the collectivity. SF needs leadership, but it also needs a touch down in reality. The constant micropolitics of the city are killing it because there is no plurality in such a system, so there is no incentive to look at, and solve, problems citywide.

  • patrick | Dec 21, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    “instead i am claiming that the SF Weekly should not be given the benefit of the doubt regarding intentions, AND, that the prescription of less democracy and more centralized control is ridiculous”

    You have failed to provide any real support for either of your claims.

    “the reason i brought up MacPhee was to show that, historically, the CAO was not free of corruption”

    The article does not claim that the CAO was corruption free, just that it was better than the system we have today. That’s also one small part of the article (they only discuss the CAO in 3 paragraphs of a 6 page article), and they made no suggestion that a return to the CAO is the only means of correcting the current problems.

    The SF Weekly’s political leanings have no relevance to the validity of their article.

  • Jeff Diehl | Dec 21, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    i appreciate this perspective and the comparisons to NYC. as difficult as it may be for some of the commenters above to imagine, i often grumble about the ways in which SF is not a “real” city, wishing that it were.

  • 808247 | Jan 9, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Carpetbaggers? Where did you move from? I demand full disclosure. Why is it every pissed off trustafarian from Palo Alto or midwest refugee gets all self richeous about “their turf” before living in SF long enough to do one load of laundry?

  • Jeff Diehl | Jan 9, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    you “demand”? zip it and finish my laundry.

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