A Phil Hall Op-Ed: Cleaning Up San Francisco, Again

WRE News November 16, 2023


A Phil Hall Op-Ed: Cleaning Up San Francisco, Again

A Phil Hall Op-Ed: This weekend, there was a surplus amount of news reports about San Francisco’s preparations for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which will include a high-stakes meeting between President Biden and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Much of the coverage involved how the city agencies were able to temporarily remove the homeless encampments, the drug dealers and their addict customers, and other transients from the downtown area before the attendees from the global summit arrived.

And it wasn’t just a question of getting the less picturesque residents off the streets – city crews were repaving streets, cleaning up graffiti, removing piles of trash, and aggressively beautifying the city that has long been an urban eyesore. And the San Francisco Police Department, who often seem to be nowhere around when you need them, are now making their presence known and felt as thousands of people from around the world descend into the city.

Gov. Gavin Newsom freely admitted that this big clean-up was being done to impress the global visitors to APEC and not to benefit the quality of life for the city’s residents.

“I know folks are saying, ‘Oh they’re just cleaning up this place because all those fancy leaders are coming to town.’ That’s true because it’s true, but it’s also true for months and months and months prior to APEC we’ve been having conversations,” said Newsom. “I mean anytime you put on an event, I mean you have people over your house you’re going to clean up the house – you’re going to make sure the kids make their beds,” said Newsom.

Many people had problems with Newsom’s logic, although in fairness he was honest about his insincerity. However, few people realized that this strategy is not unique to the arrival of the APEC dignitaries. Nearly three decades ago, I experienced a similar initiative when San Francisco was hosting another major event.

During the mid-1990s, San Francisco welcomed the annual convention of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). For those unfamiliar with ASAE, that’s a trade organization for trade organizations. Back in the 1990s, San Francisco was among the most popular destinations for business conferences, and the city’s Moscone Center was hosting the ASAE’s biggest event with the goal of snagging more business from the trade organization leaders in attendance.

San Francisco had a conspicuous homeless problem in the 1990s – it was nowhere near as bad as today’s chaos, but it was difficult not to notice the homeless people sleeping on benches in Union Square or begging for change near the downtown attractions. Ahead of the arrival of the ASAE crowd, the streets were suddenly clean of homeless people. There was also a quickie beautification project around the Moscone Center and the downtown district, not unlike what’s happening now, and the city was quite open about announcing its efforts. I remember reading about what transpired in the local newspapers when I arrived in the city for the ASAE event.

When the ASAE show was over, the city went back to normal – or, as normal as life in San Francisco could be. It’s a shame that the ASAE show I attended in the mid-1990s wasn’t a game-changer for the San Francisco leadership. Imagine if they decided, “Hey, having a clean city is a great idea. Let’s keep it at this high level of presentability, and let’s work to address the homeless situation to ensure that people don’t need to live on the streets.”

Over time, unfortunately, San Francisco’s normal devolved into abnormal, to the point where retail businesses have shut down and residents have moved out due to rising crime and a frayed quality of life. That will certainly happen again once the APEC summit is completed – the homeless encampments and the open-air drug deals will return when Biden, Xi, and company have left, and no effort will be made to ensure the beautification and increased safety surrounding the APEC event can remain in place. And neither Newsom nor San Francisco’s leaders will care.

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