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Cesspool City

When I was little kid in the 1940s, in the early morning on New Year’s Day, my father would drive the empty streets to North Beach to pick up certain pastries for New Year’s Day dinner as requested by my Italian grandmother. We drove through what was then called the skid row of San Francisco, the Third and Howard Streets area. A few bums could be seen here and there and, at that time, police ran a paddy wagon taking drunks off the street for a sobering-up session in jail overnight. 

Once, on one of these drives, my mother let out a yell in shock – “A woman! It’s a woman!” She couldn’t believe there would be, among those men, a woman alcoholic. Of the men she would murmur, “Just think, at one time they were somebody’s little boy.” I, in the back seat, kneeling to look out the window, holding my new Christmas doll, was entranced with the scene — nothing like it anywhere else in the City. This was a small area for people on their last legs, the dregs, the hopeless, the unmourned.

My children are fourth generation San Franciscans. We always felt – I was born here and I’ll die here. But as everyone now knows, everything changes. And our beloved San Francisco changed so drastically that if my parents could come back to life to see it, they’d drop dead again in sorrow and disbelief. I won’t belabor what most of us know – the huge problem of many urban cities, rapid (often thoughtless) expansion, homelessness, rampant petty crime, the obvious class rift between poor and rich, the decline if not death of consideration for others, and the rise of a proprietary self-aggrandizing attitude.

I remember growing up in times when the City had truant officers whose job it was to collect kids walking the streets when they should have been in school. I remember moving to Noe Valley from the Mission 50 years ago when the last of my three sons was born. NV then was a working-class neighborhood – you could walk down 24th Street and have a conversation with a friend who was on the other side of the street, so sparse was traffic. In summer my kids played outside all day, building forts in empty lots, riding bikes, playing ball – our front door wasn’t locked. Even now my sons say they grew up in the last best time in San Francisco and I think it’s true.

If I continue in this vein I’ll be weeping and you, dear reader, will be bored of my supposed sentimentality and reminiscence. 

And today? Today San Francisco is a stinking (literally) disgusting, vile, filthy pustule, a canker, an open oozing running sore. To say the homeless are mainly downtown is not completely accurate – they are everywhere – believe me I know. Because I still have friends and family there, I am a frequent visitor. I also have close friends who are cops so I glean their inside perspective on law enforcement (or not) in SF. 

My son who is a paramedic with over 18 years in the streets is writing a book about the scandalous condition of emergency medical services in San Francisco. Who do you think pays for the ambulance when he takes his fourth or fifth drug-overdosed street person of the day to the ER. Well, you do, SF taxpayer.

I can’t adequately address here the complex conditions that make my city what it is today; I have plenty to say, but even if I had all the solutions, how could they be implemented in the political, morally bereft, money-and-greed-only-matters climate in which we live? 

When I drive through the tunnel going south into SF, the Golden Gate Bridge is framed like a photo or painting as I drive onto it — that evocative icon, known around the world. But that sight stings my gut, it’s like visiting someone you love who’s dying of cancer – you want to see them one last time and not go back. But I keep going back. I left my heart there.


  1. Mark McLoughlin February 23, 2020

    MY NOTE TO FRIENDS WHEN I LEFT THE CITY & CALIFORNIA echos your experience and sentiments:
    Some have asked “why the change?”

    Stephanie was born here and I’ve been here since 1981. I’m in my fifth year of retirement, Stephanie will retire this week and we are ready for a life change.

    On the positive side…
    We love the desert and found ourselves returning to Utah or Arizona year after year. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to stay here and grow old in the comfortable setting of Noe Valley, SF; I even used to say they’ll wheel me out of this house on a gurney. I fully expected that.
    However, about a year ago we found an amazing 5 acre lot in a gated community with very strict environmental building standards to protect and maintain as much as possible the native Sonoran desert landscape.
    Our backyard shares a border with Saguaro National Park and faces a large wash with the Rincon Mountains behind. We’re building an amazing house with a wall of glass with views of the mountains. We are excited about the weather – – heat, monsoons – – and we will be right up against nature with lots of wildlife – – javelinas, coyotes, deer and birdlife.
    On the negative side…
    I have loved San Francisco, but changes to SF, the Bay Area, and California in general have made it a much less attractive place to live. Too many rats in the cage. In the nearly 40 years I’ve lived here San Francisco has grown from a population of 700,000 to nearly 900,000, while the Bay Area population is nearly 40% greater at 7.2 million versus 5.2 million in 1980. Many of the cool people and places are either going or gone, and those who have moved here in the last 10 or so years do not bring the same elan that made this a great place to live. The quality of life here is just not the same as it was even a few years ago. We leave SF to the tech zombies — walking, driving, staring at their phones.

    • George Hollister February 25, 2020

      Tucson isn’t what it was either. What is interesting though, is you can take the upper middle class amenities of Marin, and plunk them down in the desert and still maintain the wilderness that was up to the edge of the concrete. Not by human design, but by the inherent ruggedness of the Sonoran Desert.

      I would be paying attention to the water from the Colorado River. Without, or with less of that, the Sonoran Desert could reclaim much of what it has lost.

  2. Erin Boylan February 23, 2020

    I’m 4th generation and I couldn’t agree with you more!!

  3. Madelyn piretti February 24, 2020

    But we can put in more bike lanes, close off Market Street and close down generational stores like Luca Ravioli. The board of supervisors is driven by the tech companies!
    Thanks for writing this. I am a native San Franciscan.

  4. Pat February 24, 2020

    I am a Fourth generation who, also, fled The City and California. It is like leaving a spouse, you truly love, but must as the spouse does not want to change and leaving is the only way you can thrive survive and thrive safely as a person. The City is nothing like the “Paris” it once was. Nothing like the center of culture, creativity and awesome sights I grew up with years back. The filth on the streets. The severe homelessness. The crime. Etc. All had taken its toll on this true jewel. So many visitors we have taken, from all parts of this Country and The World are so disappointed as the reality was so much less than the hype. California needs to wake up. Forget the plastic bags and straws. Care about the people and the streets. Trump. No this post has absolutely nothing to do with him. But I know people will jump my bones as my opinion differs from theirs. And, eventually, for some, all blame comes back to him.

    • George Hollister February 25, 2020

      It’s not Obama, either. Or GWB. Someone was quoted as saying, “San Francisco is 29 square miles surrounded by reality.” It also happens to be the current capital of the Democratic Party in America.

      • Harvey Reading February 25, 2020

        I believe the correct number was 49 square miles, or so it was commonly stated back in the day. Forty-six and a fraction square miles is the more correct answer. But then, George, you are known for making proclamations quite divorced from reality. It’s the conservative (fascist) way, after all: keep people in the dark and feed them bullsh-t…and you are one hell of a bullsh-t generator.

  5. SF Citizen March 27, 2020

    The city has reaped the harvest of its generosity to the homeless drug addicts and criminals that defile the city with their activities and detritis. Voters who support the robbery of hardworking citizens may not be the direct beneficiaries or sufferers of the policies for which they vote, so we will all sink together. San Francisco is wonderful for the homeless, criminally inclined, and severely mentally ill. I feel sorry for the EMT, police, and DPW staff for whom 90% of all calls are related to this human filth. At what point will we have had enough? When we are mandated to house a diapered drug addict in our homes? Why can’t we sponsor a trip to Burning Man for these people and leave them there?

  6. Kathleen Campanella November 8, 2021

    How can Californians just look the other way and allow this complete and unchallenged degradation? You elect these same incompetent leaders year after year after year. WHY? Voting Californians are to blame for allowing their cities to become cesspools. Good . Just keep stepping over the feces and needles and put up with the thievery and vandalism. It’s a beautiful scene, a “Hollywood movie”. And you all have a front row seat! Such a nice quality of life… the AMERICA DREAM…?

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