To what end

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Few things we experience feel the way a profound change in setting does. Coming into a town you visit irregularly and only have basic familiarity with unveils its own borders from neighborhood to neighborhood, and the astutely observant will see and mark those changes in their minds eye.

I am spending the first few days of this week in San Francisco at at work conference that happens to deal with the very subject both local and national media can’t seem to get enough of whenever the City is introduced into a conversation – homelessness. To get to my hotel I had to get off of at 6th off of the 280, which essentially lays you down gently in the middle of the Theater District and then ushers you into the Tenderloin, which if you took the media at it’s word you would think represents the entire city of San Francisco instead of a neighborhood defined by a loose, informal boundary some gentleman in the late 19th Century decided upon based on something 3,000 miles away in New York City. Nonetheless, it is Ground Zero for all of the perceived problems in California at the moment; homelessness, mental health, drug use, etc.

As I rolled through the Tenderloin on Sunday night, windows down, lip syncing to some late 90s San Francisco-adjacent punk rock on the way to my hotel, I was struck by an immediate feeling of existential dread. Not fear, though frankly I would have not blamed anyone for that, but sensations of change, vulnerability, and hopelessness. Many of the media outlets have it spot-on – the Tenderloin looked like an apocalyptic hell-scape. Scantly clad people, just a touch more than skin and bones, walking around in a zombie-like trance. Unregulated drug and sex commerce happening, caustic and explosive arguments leading to inevitable violence. And this was over just a few blocks. In a City I spent plenty of time in in my early years, and have always held as a paragon of balance between what’s creative, interesting, exotic and some typical city grittiness, to see the Tenderloin (which frankly has always had its issues) in this condition was shocking.

The next morning during a damp run in the opposite direction of the Tenderloin, down to the Embarcadero with my friend and colleague Kevin, we discussed the conditions of the Tenderloin and how it devolved into it’s current state, harboring so much pain and despair. The truth is, we have allowed ourselves to become a place hyper focused on a bevvy things that are not necessarily for the benefit of society as a whole. It’s easy to cast stones at “tech bros” but they’re a small subset of a larger issue of laissez faire, let-the-eat-cake paradigm that permeates through to people who are simply exhausted by it all. By their own effort to stay alive and ahead, by society’s conditions, but the general stresses and anxiety of it all, the vast majority of people now fall into the category of being more or less satisfied, provided the problem is contained to a loose and informally bound neighborhood, and doesnt spill over into their own, perched high on one of San Francisco’s hills. It’s easy to look down on it all and say “it is a problem, but it isnt my problem.” The contention I have with this of course, is if you wait long enough to assist in solutions, it will become your problem. A young country, America still is (and perhaps too large for its own good) fully unprepared to come to grips with how to balance freedom with obligation to community. People at the top of Nob Hill, or in the Richmond, or in Pacific Heights would do well to understand that a little sacrifice now, will head off broadly unwanted situations later. Instituting the mininum threshold that the most basic of needs – healthcare, housing, and food – would be guaranteed for all people, would go a long way in starting the process of shifting the narrative to one where the media is instead reminding people that San Francisco is and will continue to be a beautiful place where art, critical thinking, and general joy proliferate.

I went for a coffee in the Tenderloin this morning. A light overnight rain had done a mediocre job of scraping the sidewalks clear of recent transgressions. I ambled about, my eyes quickly shifting in all directions, to take in the ongoing activity of the morning, assess the results of last night’s scene, and to look at the collection of SRO hotels and turn to the voyerustic side of me and ask myself what kind of activity could have gone on in there last night. Is everyone ok? I hope everyone is ok.

I think I know the answer to that question. More importantly I think I know how to make it so we don’t have to so intently ponder that question. Does anyone care enough to help us get there?