“Twenty years? I’d say more like in your lifetime,” the longtime transit advocate replied matter of factly. The topic was an extension of the as-yet-unfinished Central Subway that would take the rail line west of Van Ness and out to the Marina. After an MTA employee had casually laughed off my suggestion that the extension would take 20 years as ‘ambitious,’ the new timeline of ‘your lifetime’ — I’m 29 — also felt like a pipe dream. It was just then that it struck me: the City that knows how has lost its moxie and at the municipal level, we’ve grown shambolic.
Thankfully, there’s a solution to this problem: San Francisco needs to embrace classic progressivism.
San Francisco has long held a special role in America as the proving ground of progressive government, providing a template for what works for the rest of the country. Some would argue we already have embraced progressivism — that we are the most progressive city in America – but can today’s San Francisco really call itself progressive?
By the standards of modern progressivism — yes. The City continues to be welcome immigrants and people from the LGBT community, offers free City College to all residents (for now), and near-universal childcare on the horizon. San Francisco ranks fifth in the United States when it comes to intergenerational upward mobility, meaning children born poor in the bottom quintile of the income distribution have a better chance to make it to the top quintile than in almost any other metro area in America. We’re regularly ranked amongst the greenest cities in America.
And, of course, we are second to none when it comes to symbolic legislation and rebukes.
But the progenitors of progressivism — what I call classic progressivism — might not think so.
After all, many of the problems that gave rise to the Progressive movement, like woefully insufficient public services, inequality, poverty, graft, and obvious mismanagement in municipal government, are similar to what we’re seeing in our city today.
The Progressives of early 20th-century vintage understood that these issues affected the poorest amongst them the most acutely and pursued an agenda of political reform that emphasized government efficiency, democratic accountability, and quality public goods. By that standard, how does the San Francisco of today measure up?
Not so well. The income gap in San Francisco is the sixth largest in the nation, making it one of the most unequal cities in America. While the poverty rate in San Francisco is lower than the national average, our unsheltered homelessness rate is the third highest in the nation and the conditions on our streets are deteriorating — leading one United Nations envoy to compare San
Francisco to Mumbai – even as the number of homeless individuals remains static.
Then there’s Muni, our beloved transit system, which is slow, inconsistent, and in constant disarray — oscillating between a ‘death spiral’ and a ‘meltdown’ for decades now. The aforementioned Central Subway is already at least a year behind schedule and over budget thanks to incompetence and mismanagement, some of which may stem from the decision to go with a contractor accused of defrauding the City in the past. And none of that is to mention the tragedy as farce that is the Transbay Terminal.
Or what about San Francisco’s public schools? They are increasingly segregated and, per the
New York Times, of “uneven quality” which, combined with the school lottery system, scares families into preparatory schools — 30% of children in San Francisco attend private schools, the highest of any city in the nation — or out of the City entirely.
And that’s barely scratching the surface. Barrels of ink have been spilled about our Kafkaesque permitting process that benefits those with time or money to burn and has given rise to a coterie of grifters that call themselves ‘consultants’ or ‘fixers’ or ‘expediters’ who will help push through permits for a hefty fee. Then there are appeals and environmental impact litigation and the legalized extortion that is Memorandums of Understanding. It goes on and on.
We don’t have to accept this as our fate, we can embrace the sort of reforms that our
Progressive forefathers did. It won’t be easy — fighting the status quo never is — but it is necessary. We must prove that government can deliver for everyone again, not just for our city but for our nation. It’s time for San Francisco to embrace classic progressivism — it’s time for our progressive moment.
Eric Kingsbury is a longtime San Francisco resident who lives in the Marina.