My thoughts on San Francisco are conflicted. 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. Let me explain.
I’ve wanted to visit San Francisco for as long as I can remember. Blame it on my hippy parents and my fascination (more like obsession) with classic rock. I can remember daydreaming at an early age about retracing the steps of rock-and-roll legends and free love demonstrators in what had to be an amazing city.
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And more recently I've seen 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. So, it's with shame that I admit it was 4 long years before I made the 300+ mile trek to NoCal to see San Francisco.
I was so thrilled when I heard that The Professor’s annual conference would be in San Francisco this year. I was finally going to see San Francisco through my own eyes, not the eyes of documentaries or murder mystery flicks! I usually go along for his work trips: the room is mostly covered, my days are free and my nights are spent roaming a city with my beau. But, it was certain that I would attend San Francisco. No questions asked.
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So, I started studying the city, mapping and planning my attack. I knew there were certain things I MUST see: Haight Ashbury (hey, I told you I like hippy culture), Golden Gate Park/Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Castro. As a humanist, I’m a big supporter of LGBTQ rights, so seeing where the movement all began was important to me.
Even arriving in the city was exciting! There was so much to see and do. Every day I set out with a mission in mind, a pre-planned agenda. I learned to use the public transportation system with ease (well, except that one time). I took photos, ate great food, and bought some great souvenirs. (Check out my post on San Francisco Attractions complete with suggestions and tips.)
I'll admit it: I sort of fell in love. I found San Francisco to be a terrific little-big city. I loved the East-coast feel, the great public transit and the foodie-focused atmosphere. I fulfilled a life-long goal of walking the streets of Haight Ashbury and of stepping foot onto the Golden Gate bridge. But no matter how much fun I had or how much I loved my visit, 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. My thoughts on San Francisco were getting darker and darker by the minute.
For the record, I live/work as a Social Worker in Los Angeles and have traveled to many of America's larger cities. We face the same problems in Los Angeles, albeit in a less dense area. I recently heard on NPR that 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.
Housing is unaffordable in most of the city. And many of the low-income areas of LA are slowly being gentrified, turned into more desirable housing markets to attract young, affluent buyers. Income inequality is pervasive but segregated into pockets throughout the Los Angeles metro area. So, it's easier to shield one's self from the reality on the streets, I suppose.
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 my way to the Hilton 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.
Those same feelings of shame and guilt welled up again 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 in danger of becoming "too white." It was obvious to me as I stood on a curb in front of a pretentious coffee shop next door to a laundromat. Sure, coffee while waiting for your whites sounds amazing…if you can afford both.
But the people I saw walking through The Mission weren’t all in search of the perfect place to power up their MacBook. I saw people with real struggles, people trying to make it through the day, the week or this life. 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 San Francisco's Mission, probably more than any other.
The website, Mission Mission, touts the neighborhood as “San Francisco's most vibrant”. And they’re right, in my opinion. I was drawn there, sucked in by the promise of an authentic burrito and mesmerized by the authentic street life. I can remember thinking "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:
Several days later my guilty conscience came home with me, sat beside me on my hour long flight on the most boutique of airlines. 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?
I started writing about my trip, and this is what came out. As much as I loved my time in San Francisco (and I DID), this is what I took away. That made me wonder what other people think after they leave? I wondered if the city of San Francisco worries about what tourists think or feel after visiting? I found this photo on the Web while researching for this post. It saddened me even more.
The truth is I probably can’t help...much. I can only hope that some of the cash I spent is allocated (via sales tax) to social services like Project Homeless Connect. I can hope that some of those dollars make their way to the coffers of other non-profits like Episocoal Community Services, who are providing 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’s MarketPlace.org and Governing.com.
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 I’m now feeling hopeful about the efforts of programs like The Navigation Center and Precita Eyes. And while my thoughts on San Francisco 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. I really enjoyed my visit and can't wait to write about all the amazing things I saw, ate and did. But, I had to be honest about my visit and my initial thoughts.
I hope others visit these same streets. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll have read something like this before going. 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 volunteerism opportunities available through SF Travel. Goodness knows I am.
Have you been to San Francisco? What were your thoughts? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below or on social media.
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