What is San Francisco for?

‘We are about our neighborhood politics’

By Lincoln Mitchell

Special to The Examiner

For Fox News and the rest of the right-wing ecosystem, San Francisco exists to be ridiculed and held up as an example of what happens when progressives take power.

Some believe that San Francisco is a place for a small number of people to get very rich and then treat The City as an expensive urban playground.

Others see it more benignly as a place of commerce, trade and business that can generate high tax revenue and benefit more people.

But maybe San Francisco’s purpose is more interesting than that.

The purpose of The City might be for people to find themselves or their tribe and experience a kind of freedom and belonging that cannot be found elsewhere — and to create neighborhood groups where people can thrive and build movements and communities.

This is what District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan was getting at when she described San Francisco as a place for neighborhood and localized concerns.

“For every idea that exists, San Francisco has a group representing that idea,” she told me. “We are about our neighborhood politics. San Franciscans always joke about the microclimate. That is actually how we see ourselves.”

Neighborhoods, as Chan suggests, have been at the core of San Francisco’s purpose for decades, but neighborhood activism and advocacy is imperiled as housing continues to be prohibitively expensive for many.

Arnold Townsend, a longtime activist in the Western Addition who has been in San Francisco for over half a century, made this point too, and was quick to tell me Black neighborhoods and businesses are not part of The City’s purpose.

“I’m not sure what San Francisco is for,” he said. “I’m 100 percent sure what it’s not for — and that’s Black people. What I would like is a return to people having some control of their own communities, a viable Black community with black-owned businesses.”

Rodney Fong, president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, stressed that the high cost of living makes it hard “for families to reside and root in San Francisco and businesses to be able to root multi-generationally.” Both, he said, are central to The City’s purpose.

Chan, Townsend and Fong’s thoughts about neighborhoods are more than just different answers to an admittedly strange query. Because the question of what San Francisco is for, in one way or another, is at the center of every policy debate facing The City today and will remain so as it forges its post-pandemic way.

None of this is particularly new.

In the 1950s and 1960s, state highway planners proposed a network of highways to crisscross The City, making it easier for commuters to get to, and through, San Francisco. These highways were supported by much of the business and political leadership who saw an opportunity for San Francisco to become a more efficient center of commercial activity.

However, thousands of San Franciscans of all races, ethnicities and political views did not want their neighborhoods destroyed by a noisy and polluting freeway. For them, The City was about livable neighborhoods, not just economic growth. Residents organized and led what came to be called the Freeway Revolts. The movement lasted over a decade, and managed to preserve much of San Francisco from the threat of destructive freeways.

The Freeway Revolts were the quintessential neighborhood movement and led to further battles in the 1970s and 1980s to wrest power away from downtown business interests and give it back to local communities. George Moscone rode that theme all the way to City Hall in his 1975 mayoral campaign.

At the core of the neighborhood versus business interests debate, which still rages today, is this question of what The City is for, with the lines drawn between downtown and economic growth on the one hand and collections of residents on the other.

The Freeway Revolts were followed by enormous growth in The City’s diversity, which led to another vision, and set of debates, around what San Francisco might be for.

Beginning in the 1960s, many San Franciscans sought to create a city where asserting and exploring identities was more important than economic growth or smoothing the path for downtown business interests. Those efforts were at the core of the LGBTQ and other civil rights movements.

In the 1970s, when the LGBT movement began to gather strength, it was not obvious that it would place San Francisco at the forefront of a civil rights movement that would affect much of the world in subsequent decades. But those activists believed the experiment was worth it, and they centered much of their activity in the Castro, drawing a new community of LGBTQ people to the neighborhood. From that neighborhood, LGBTQ San Franciscans were able to build community institutions and support networks that strengthened the movement throughout the city and beyond. It was also neighborhood activism that led to the election of Harvey Milk, The City’s first gay elected offical, in 1977.

Fast forward to the 2020s. San Franciscans are still debating business versus neighborhood interests. Neighborhoods are also divided over questions of how much and what kind of new developments to allow. While the issue is no longer highway construction, the question of balancing existing neighborhoods with the need for The City to grow are similar. The political cleavages may be different than they were 50 years or more ago, but the central question of what The City is for lies at the heart of today’s debates about the character of neighborhoods.

Chan and Fong both argue San Francisco must be seen as an ongoing “experiment” in identity, diversity and the ethos of San Francisco. Chan noted The City bears the name of St. Francis.

“It’s a refuge for a lot of people who come here,” she said. “That becomes fundamentally the reason why The City thrives. This is a place that people look to for ideas, for innovation, for creativity.”

However, Chan also warned that the experiment may be compromised.

“We are so deep into our ideology and identity politics that at times we can’t free ourselves for collaboration or to mingle ideas.”

As the COVID pandemic simultaneously winds down and lingers, Fong says, “The feeling on the street right now is that The City is naturally organically resetting itself.”

This means that we have an opportunity to rethink what San Francisco is for, what experiments have worked or failed and which ones we want to try in the future. Just as new ideas about equality gained momentum in the Castro — while drawing ire from other parts of The City — and then changed the world in subsequent decades, it is possible that new ideas about criminal justice spearheaded by a district attorney who makes his home in the Outer Sunset and that resonate in communities throughout The City, while being rejected in others, could have a similar impact in the coming years.

​​Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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