Visiting San Francisco was a long-time goal of mine. And when I finally got the chance to see the City by the Bay, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I loved the city. On the other, I loathed it. Walking away from the city left me pondering my place in the world and the role of travel in the social ills that ail us. But San Francisco gentrification, homelessness, and classism are real issues on display in what is arguably one of the great American cities. And my little Social Worker heart bled for the local residents struggling to stand their ground in a sea of change.
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Seeing the City of San Francisco
Blame it on my hippy parents and my classic rock obsession, but seeing San Francisco had long been a goal of mine. I remember daydreaming as a young girl about retracing the steps of rock-and-roll legends and free love demonstrators in Haight Ashbury. My parent's life and times intrigued me, fostering a life-long interest in San Francisco.
Recently, I've seen the city through the black-and-white filter of Film Noir, watching the city play an integral role in many iconic films including one of my personal favorites, The Lady from Shanghai. The city seems to have a life of its own in the classic movies, many focused on the underbelly of society. I expected to find some grit and grime in San Francisco, but exactly I'd find, I wasn't sure.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear that The Professor had a conference to attend in San Francisco. To save money on travel, I usually go along for his work trips. Finally, I was going to see San Francisco through my own eyes, not the eyes of documentaries or murder mystery flicks!
A Love:Hate Relationship
Even arriving in the city was exciting! There was so much to see and do. Like a good traveler, I'd studied the city, mapping the best San Francisco attractions and planning my daily itinerary. Every day I set out with a mission in mind, a pre-planned agenda. I learned to use the public transportation system with ease. Every day I took photos, ate great food, and shopped for timeless souvenirs.
I'll admit it: I sort of fell in love. San Francisco is a terrific little big city. I loved the East-coast feel, the great public transit, and the foodie-focused atmosphere. And visiting San Francisco fulfilled my life-long goals of walking the streets of Haight Ashbury and of stepping foot onto the Golden Gate bridge. But no matter how much I loved visiting San Francisco, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was part of the problems pervading the streets of San Francisco: homelessness, income inequality, and encroaching gentrification. In fact, my thoughts on San Francisco were getting darker and darker as the days passed.
The Problem: San Francisco Gentrification
For the record, I live/work as a Social Worker in Los Angeles and have traveled to many of America's larger cities. I'm aware that gentrification is an issue all over the U.S., even in less dense areas. According to NPR, Los Angeles now has more homeless residents per capita than any other US city. Not a day goes by when I don’t pass a make-shift tent alongside an LA street on my way to work. But what I saw in San Francisco was different.
Even though I'm witness to these issues in Los Angeles, nothing prepared me for the streets of San Francisco and the guilt I felt both during (and after) my visit. I was shocked and appalled by the sheer number of homeless males, females, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, young, old. Everywhere I went, on every street, down every alley. I couldn’t help but feel ashamed when walking through the Tenderloin on the way to our posh hotel in Union Square. And later, when I found this series of articles from the SF Chronicle, I couldn’t help but feel a little worse.
The fact of the matter is housing is unaffordable in most of the city. And many of the low-income areas are being gentrified, turned into more desirable housing markets to attract young, affluent buyers. Income inequality seems to be pervasive in San Francisco, unlike other cities where it remains mostly isolated to pockets of wealth.
What's Wrong with the Mission District
Overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt welled up while scouting The Mission District in search of street art. The messages on the walls and the faces in the Mission were clear: The Mission is becoming "too white." I stood curbside staring at a pretentious coffee shop next door to a coin-op laundromat, face to face with San Francisco gentrification. How out of touch can you be?
The people I saw walking through The Mission weren’t all in search of the perfect place to power up their MacBook. They were real people with real struggles, people trying to make it through the day, the week, or this lifetime. And their art spoke volumes.
As conscious of the issues as I was, I couldn't help feeling as though I was part of it all. Sure, I enjoyed my craft beer, my house-made bratwurst, my artisanal ice cream, and my vintage shopping. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in exploring the street art in San Francisco's Mission, probably more than any other San Francisco attraction.
Why the Mission is Being Gentrified
The website, Mission Mission, touts the neighborhood as “San Francisco's most vibrant.” And they’re right. I was drawn to the Mission District, sucked in by the promise of an authentic burrito and mesmerized by the authentic street life. As I strolled the streets of the Mission I thought to myself "I could here stay…forever." Does that make me a hypocrite? Probably. It was bothering me, even that day. So much so that I took to Tumblr:
Lasting Thoughts on San Francisco
Several days later my guilty conscience came home with me, sat beside me on my hour-long flight on a boutique airline. Am I part of the problem? I found myself wondering about the people I saw on the streets of San Francisco. How do they benefit from my visit? How do they feel about tourists like me? How can I be of service to them?
even the McDonald's is hipsterfied
I started writing about my trip, and this post was born. As much as I loved my time there, the San Francisco gentrification marred my memory of our trip. Then I found this photo while researching the issue, and it saddened me even more. But what can you do?
The City's Response to the Issue
The truth is I probably can’t help much. I can only hope that some of our travel dollars are allocated (via sales tax) to social services, like Project Homeless Connect, and non-profits, like Episcopal Community Services. Both are working hard to provide ground-breaking shelter options, like the Navigation Center. This 24-hour dormitory is open to all homeless persons, as well as their partners and pets.
Believe it or not, most shelters restrict admission to persons with pets and fail to provide co-ed shelter to couples, same or opposite sex. The open-door policy of the Navigation Center is being recognized as “innovative” by American Public Media’sand .
The Mission's Response to the Issue
And maybe, just maybe, a few of those dollars I spent will trickle down to public art projects like Precita Eyes, a program fighting to preserve access to public art in the Mission District through education, tours, and advocacy. I may not have left feeling helpful, but learning more about the efforts of programs like The Navigation Center and Precita Eyes have buoyed my hopes. And while my thoughts on San Francisco gentrification remain conflicted, I can feel a little better knowing that programs like these may help permanently house some of San Francisco’s most vulnerable residents or preserve some of the authenticity of the Mission.
Final Thoughts on San Francisco
I know this isn’t your typical travel post, but I’m not your typical traveler. No matter where I go, I will always be a Social Worker. While I really enjoyed my visit and have written about the amazing things I ate, saw, and experienced, I had to be honest about my feelings on San Francisco gentrification.
Despite the issues faced by the city, I hope others visit San Francisco. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll have read this post. And maybe they'll be more aware of and sensitive to the struggles of vulnerable San Francisco residents. Who knows? Maybe others will be inspired to consider volunteer opportunities available through SF Travel. Goodness knows I will on my future visits.
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