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  • Peter Hartlaub - SF Chronicle

‘San Francisco is rotting’ story is wrong: City is brimming with soul

It was March 13, 1874, when San Francisco first lost its soul.

At least that’s what it said on The San Francisco Chronicle letters page, where an irate reader was protesting plans for the Palace Hotel — the new tallest building in San Francisco. At all of seven stories and 120 feet, the unnamed author said, it would block views and be a blight on the skyline for generations.

“It may be too late, but we hope not, to improve on this lamentable state of things,” the unsigned letter finished.

I think about this letter every time a new outside-the-city publication calls the time of death on San Francisco, most recently the Washington Post’s “How San Francisco broke America’s heart.”

The stories, particularly the recent ones, share similar hallmarks: A legacy business that is closing down — as if legacy businesses haven’t closed and opened for a century. A sense that the city is rotting from the inside — as if rot in San Francisco is a new symptom and not a historical near-constant.

A 1906 Earthquake photo from the San Francisco Chronicle archive. Photographer unknown. Looking down Geary Street with Palace Hotel in the center, Chronicle building on the left in the background.

Photo: Chronicle archives /

And there’s focus on two or three of the city’s current struggles — as if San Francisco is a city that will live and die by rising property values or a restaurant closing or the fate of a Navigation Center for the homeless.

The death of San Francisco is an illusion, and it always has been.

Crowds arrive early on opening day of the Golden Gate International Exposition. Feb. 18, 1939.

San Francisco is a stunningly beautiful and continuously innovative city, cursed to always be considered one or two generations past its peak, like a rowboat chasing the horizon. As seen by the vocal cynic, the soul of San Francisco is always just one tall building or comedy club closure or homemade ravioli shortage away from some arbitrary point of no return.

Displacement is a serious issue, and the wealth disparity that’s driving teachers and artists and citizens of color out of the city is a challenge that’s worth the attention it receives. But it’s ridiculous to celebrate a mythic golden era, when the city has been a coexisting constant of highs and lows throughout time.

• Did San Francisco possess a better soul in the 1950s, when authorities shut down gay bars and harassed patrons, and neighbors pressured a seller to ban Willie Mays from buying a house because of the color of his skin?

• Did the city possess a better soul in the 1960s, when city leaders and the media treated a peaceful and influential counterculture movement like a crime wave?

• Did the city possess a better soul in the 1970s, when the number of murders in San Francisco (146 in 1973) was more than triple the most recent figure, and the political elite supported a cult leader who was ultimately responsible for more than 900 deaths?

“How San Francisco broke America’s heart” isn’t the first time San Francisco has been written about in the past tense.

June 3, 1980: Commuters can only stand and watch as a traffic jam forms on the Golden Gate Bridge. This beautiful image was taken by longtime Chronicle photographer and photo editor Gary Fong, who was stuck in the same gridlock, stepped outside his car, and took one of the most memorable photos in Chronicle history.

Photo: Gary Fong / The Chronicle

Will Irwin did it on April 18, 1906, writing “The City that Was,” beginning the day an earthquake and fire destroyed much of San Francisco. Irwin’s obituary of the city, published in the New York Sun, described the death of a perfect San Francisco that hadn’t existed, “the gayest, most lighthearted, most pleasure-loving city on the western continent ... a city of romance and the gateway to adventure.”

The city rebuilt itself better than before, and Irwin spent most of the rest of his long life apologizing. (In actuality, the city before the quake was largely lawless and politically corrupt.) When Irwin caught up to Herb Caen in 1946, less than two years before the reporter’s death, Irwin coined a phrase that has since been wrongly attributed to Caen.

“San Francisco isn’t what it used to be,” Irwin told The Chronicle columnist. “And it never was.”

But “The City that Was” spawned a genre, and everything from the invention of radio to rock ’n’ roll to Sutro Tower to video game arcades to electric scooters has been blamed for the demise of San Francisco. The latest high-profile round of outside-publications-discover-San Francisco articles arrived about five years ago.

Sutro Tower stands tall in the distance as pedestrians cross Parnassus Avenue at Cole Street in the Cole Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, Calif. Thursday, September 20, 2018.

Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with steeling up for a good fight. This city has stayed extraordinary because of the population’s willingness to battle to preserve beauty, show humanity toward the oppressed and work together to rebuild through the ashes.

But there’s a real problem when the writing promotes a belief that the fight is already over.

And unlike all the previous generations who were told that San Francisco isn’t what it used to be, our current technologies amplify that point, until the illusion of defeat becomes the prevailing mind-set. Look at the social media headlines and San Francisco appears to be a hellscape. It’s all burnt-out shacks selling for a small fortune (“See what $650,000 can buy in San Francisco!”) and photos of smashed electric scooters being thrown into the sea.

What we’re missing, as this skewed picture becomes national news, is equal time for the sense of joy and wonder and creativity and allure that continue to exist in the city.

Mourn for the institutions that leave us while recognizing that new ones are being born every day. Fight the corrupt or misguided impulses of our leaders with the understanding that the city has been shaped and bettered by similar battles in the past.

A 43 Masonic Muni bus crosses Carl Street in the Cole Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

I don’t want the author of the Washington Post piece, or her editors, to feel shame. But I want them to know that a trip to The Chronicle archive would have revealed that their San Francisco-is-a-train-wreck thesis was actually part of a skipping record that goes back at least 135 years.

And a simple ride on a random Muni line that passes through multiple neighborhoods — we suggest the 5 Fulton or 43 Masonic — would allow anyone to see the illusion for what it is.

San Francisco still has most of the same sights. San Francisco has many of the same people. San Francisco is still a journey filled with moments of unexpected majesty and kindness and compassion.

And, as always, a city brimming with soul.

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