Liberalism's 'cesspit'?: IAN BIRRELL says tech giants have turned San Francisco into a dystopian nightmare of addiction, homelessness and criminality
- Criminals "Zulu Jones", "Lefty O'Douls Boss", "Shrimpboy Chow", "Francesco "Frank" Lanza", "Roger Boas", "James "Jimmy" Bronkema", "Aladino "Jimmy the Weasel" Fratianno"...the list of political mobsters in the San Francisco Bay Area goes on and on and on...
Gilles Desaulniers moved to San Francisco 40 years ago, settling in the ‘friendly, quaint and affordable’ city after running out of cash while driving from Canada down the West Coast of America.
Today he runs a grocery store filled with fresh fruit, vegan snacks and organic wines typical of this famously liberal Californian city.
But Gilles has shut one outlet and would sell up entirely if anyone wanted this one, his remaining shop.
Each day, up to 30 people stroll in and openly steal goods, costing him hundreds of dollars.
A street cleaner showed me a box filled with used syringes that he had collected, then I met two charity workers picking up needles from the pavement. How many do you find a day, I ask? ‘Between 300 and 600, depending on the weather,’ one replies. A homeless man is pictured second left using a syringe to inject drugs in the city in June 2018
He has been bitten twice recently by people in his shop and he also found a woman turning blue in the toilet after a drugs overdose, a hypodermic needle still stuck in her leg.
He showed me a metal door that is corroding due to people urinating in his doorway, then spoke of finding a man relieving himself in full view of infants playing in a child centre next door.
‘Our society is falling apart,’ says Desaulniers.
‘If people do not play by some rules, society does not function. But it feels like there is no order, there is no shame.’
He uses two apocalyptic movies to illustrate the state of his adopted city: ‘Living here feels like A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner have both come true.’
I could grasp his despair. I had just passed dealers selling drugs beside a police car parked outside government offices, and seen their customers openly smoke fentanyl, an opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, then collapse on the street.
Yet true to form, San Francisco has just elected as district attorney a radical called Chesa Boudin, whose parents were infamous militants from a far-Left, anti-war group. They were jailed for triple murder when Chesa was a toddler, leaving him to be adopted by the founders of the organisation
All cities have their seedy sides. But this is the very centre of San Francisco, by an upmarket Westfield shopping mall thronged with people in designer clothes perusing Rolex watches, Louis Vuitton handbags and Tiffany jewellery.
The beautiful city by the bay, where Tony Bennett famously left his heart and which poses as a beacon of progressiveness, has more billionaires per capita than any other on the planet.
Not long ago, a seven-bedroom home here recently sold for $38 million (£29 million), while at the Michelin-starred Saison restaurant, the ‘kitchen menu’ starts at $298 a head and reservations require a $148 deposit.
The city authorities have a huge $12 billion budget, handing their 31,800 staff average annual pay and benefit packages of an astonishing $175,000.
Yet the tide of homeless, addicted and mentally ill people washing up here has become so severe that a global expert on slums claimed San Francisco may be more unsanitary than some of the poorest parts of Africa and Asia.
Oracle, one of the technology giants based in the nearby Silicon Valley, has switched a conference for 60,000 people to Las Vegas due to the toxic combination of ‘poor street conditions’ and costly hotels.
This followed a medical association moving its $40 million convention out of San Francisco amid safety fears because of sordid tent encampments and overt drug use. Other events are being affected.
‘Indoors, people are making deals, talking about healthcare and networking. Yet in the streets, I witnessed homeless people injecting cocaine,’ tweeted Kistein Monkhouse while attending a recent J. P. Morgan conference for 9,000 people.
As one prominent academic tells me, it seems a cruel irony that so much squalor and despair is found in the Californian base of all those billionaire technology titans seeking to reshape the world in their image.
‘San Francisco has always had hobos but we’ve never seen anything like this. It’s become a vision of some kind of strange dystopian future,’ says Joel Kotkin, a widely respected professor in urban studies.
He can reel off damning statistics to back his claim that San Francisco symbolises the Golden State’s descent into ‘high-tech feudalism’ including America’s highest poverty levels, its worst rates of property crime and its biggest gap between top and middle incomes.
But one statistic stands out: almost half of homeless people in the United States are in California, according to a recent White House study.
And San Francisco, a comparatively small city that is home to tech giants such as Twitter, Uber and Airbnb, has the highest rate of ‘unsheltered’ citizens – at ten times the national level.
All cities have their seedy sides. But this is the very centre of San Francisco, by an upmarket Westfield shopping mall thronged with people in designer clothes perusing Rolex watches, Louis Vuitton handbags and Tiffany jewellery
Downtown visitors cannot fail to witness the distressing evidence. Almost instantly after I arrived, I saw three people smoking crystal meth through glass pipes, then others with the facial scabs and sores associated with this destructive drug. One man with matted hair sat slumped in a stupor wearing just grubby underpants.
Another, clearly under the influence of heroin, had ‘nodded off’ and was static on a child’s bicycle. A third urinated on the street. A woman changed her clothes from a tatty suitcase on the pavement.
Others shuffled pathetically or rolled slowly along the street in wheelchairs. Some were clearly suffering mental distress, such as a man in his 50s begging for cash who told me he was waiting for his air force pension.
A street cleaner showed me a box filled with used syringes that he had collected, then I met two charity workers picking up needles from the pavement.
How many do you find a day, I ask?
‘Between 300 and 600, depending on the weather,’ one replies.
So if you are going to San Francisco, feel free to wear flowers in your hair but local women say avoid sandals on your feet. Dog owners complain they have to wash human faeces from the legs of their pets after a walk.
One fed-up resident showed me Hondurans handing out socks filled with wraps of drugs in front of a building being turned into an upmarket Whole Foods store.
The dealers displayed little need for concealment. ‘After a while, you become desensitised – it’s like everyone here is wearing blinkers,’ says my guide, a man in his 30s.
‘All my friends with kids have moved out of the city.’
The city and state have some of the highest tax rates in the country, but his area of SoMa West voted to back a fresh charge on firms to fund a new community group to clean up its streets. It is the 17th district to pass such a measure.
‘You have to develop a thick skin,’ says Sonya Lee, 24, supervisor in a Starbucks branch surrounded by bustling boutiques, expensive hotels and smart restaurants. ‘Every day, people come in and take stuff. It’s dreadful but we don’t know what to do.’
San Francisco, a comparatively small city that is home to tech giants such as Twitter, Uber and Airbnb, has the highest rate of ‘unsheltered’ citizens – at ten times the national level
Official data, based on one night’s count last year, claimed 8,011 homeless people in this city of 884,000 people – a rise of 17 per cent on 2017.
But a record of those receiving healthcare found numbers twice as high and rising faster.
City authorities claim their key problem is the high cost of housing combined with past failures to build enough properties. But many blame something simpler to solve: the lack of law enforcement.
‘When you tell vagrants that anything goes, it leads to the anarchy you see on these streets,’ says Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute think-tank and a conservative essayist.
She believes we are witnessing a ‘real-life experiment’ into what happens if society stops enforcing bourgeois norms out of sensitivity to vulnerable people.
MacDonald argues that the city authorities are culpable, fuelling drug addiction by doling out 4.5 million needles a year when there is nothing compassionate about giving addicts and mentally ill people the freedom to ‘decompose’ on the streets.
Much of what she says is backed by Thomas Wolf, 49, who lost his job and family after becoming addicted to opioid painkillers following foot surgery, then moving on to cheaper heroin and ending up homeless in his native city.
‘It is a cycle of despair,’ he says. ‘I was heartbroken at losing my wife and kids but all I cared about was drugs. I hated being on the streets but I loved the easy access to drugs.
‘Yet there’s such denial that if you’d have asked me if I had a problem, I’d have said no.’
Wolf, who now works for the Salvation Army helping homeless people rebuild lives and has just been appointed to a specialist civic taskforce, sees untreated addiction as the root cause of the city’s problem. He says most people living on the streets are hooked on either drugs or drink.
‘If you see someone shouting at the wall, it is crystal meth, not mental illness – although meth might have destroyed their mind.’
Wolf claims that while the city distributes drug paraphernalia, he was never asked to quit or offered help. He says many users sell their monthly welfare $190 food stamps on receipt to go on a binge. And he wants to see generous welfare benefits – almost $600 a month in return for 12 hours of voluntary work – slashed.
His own time as a homeless heroin addict ended after police caught him holding six socks filled with drugs for Honduran dealers. His brother bailed him from jail on condition that he went into rehab.
He was lucky. Last year there were 234 deaths from fentanyl and heroin in the city, more than double the previous year and five times higher than in 2016.
Wolf believes that the decision by a state ballot six years ago to reclassify thefts of property below the value of $950 as misdemeanours has backfired badly, leading to a huge increase in shoplifting.
‘It is a disaster,’ he says. ‘The idea was sound – to reduce jailing that is predominantly of minorities – but the side effect was to embolden people to commit crime with impunity. Everyone knows you can go into shops and steal up to $950.’
Even shampoo, deodorant and toothpaste are now locked up in chemist shops to curb thefts.
The police declined to speak officially. But one officer sitting in his car beside blatant street-dealing said there was no point arresting people as they would simply be released, even if they were carrying drugs and cash valued at several thousand dollars.
‘I find it very frustrating and lots of my colleagues find it very frustrating,’ he says, adding that officers only intervene when there is violence. ‘We get the blame because people think we’re doing nothing. But it’s not our fault.’
Wes Tyler, manager of a family-owned hotel, told me a man high on crystal meth smashed a $5,000 window one Sunday afternoon – then repeatedly ignored court dates and probation orders despite being seen in the neighbourhood last week.
‘If City Hall does not start to take these issues more seriously, we’ll see businesses impacted,’ says Jay Cheng, spokesman for the local Chamber of Commerce.
Yet true to form, San Francisco has just elected as district attorney a radical called Chesa Boudin, whose parents were infamous militants from a far-Left, anti-war group. They were jailed for triple murder when Chesa was a toddler, leaving him to be adopted by the founders of the organisation.
The beautiful city by the bay, where Tony Bennett famously left his heart and which poses as a beacon of progressiveness, has more billionaires per capita than any other on the planet. Not long ago, a seven-bedroom home here recently sold for $38 million (£29 million), while at the Michelin-starred Saison restaurant, the ‘kitchen menu’ starts at $298 a head and reservations require a $148 deposit
The 39-year-old, who studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and later worked as a translator for Venezuela’s former leader Hugo Chavez, a Fidel Castro acolyte, campaigned on moving away from prosecuting ‘quality of life’ offences to focus on serious and corporate offences.
The San Francisco Police Officers Association spent heavily campaigning against Boudin, saying he was the choice for ‘criminals and gang members’.
But Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the charity Coalition on Homelessness, argues city residents should get angry over ‘systemic neglect’ that sparked this crisis rather than blaming people on the streets.
‘No one wants to live like this,’ she says. ‘We’ve tried locking people up before but that didn’t work.’
Friedenbach insists that the problems stem from a lack of affordable housing, a significant reduction of emergency shelters and the slashing of spending on treatment programmes.
She says, rightly, that issues of homelessness, mental health and addiction are often linked.
The city’s mayor, London Breed, whose younger sister died of a drug overdose and elder brother was jailed for robbery, declined to comment.
In her inaugural speech, Breed said the ‘twin troubles of homelessness and housing affordability’ were the big challenge.
She is boosting grants for shelters, treatment and street cleaning. Yet those desperate sights staining this one-time hippy nirvana are ultimately the sign of abject political failure.
Her new fiefdom is, after all, so populated by millionaires in their exclusive enclaves that it is the second richest city in the world’s richest nation.
Considering the city’s wealth, it smacks of callous and uncaring hypocrisy.
As one local resident says: ‘Are they really being progressive to that poor guy in the street with a needle in his arm who is going to die tomorrow?’
Who are the typical crony insiders who make San Francisco such an arrogant shit-hole of wealth and pretension?:
Seasons come and seasons go, yet many of the names (and faces!) remain the same – well, not all of them. Welcome to the 2018 edition of an NHG tradition – a celebration if you will, of all the people mentioned in our glossy pages over the past year. This year’s list is our most dynamic yet, and we’re proud it better reflects the diversity, humanity, and entrepreneurial spirit that truly makes San Francisco truly great. Turn the page and meet the impressive A-Listers we photographed. Plus: read out tributes to A-listers we’ve lost, with moving remembrances of Mayor Ed Lee, by Ben Fong-Torres; Charlot Malin by husband Gregory; Bill Goldman by wife Serra; Richard Stephens by daughter Elisa. They are gone but not forgotten. And never forget this is the Gazette: There will be plentiful party photos.
You know a Tokyo Gamine ensemble when you see one: It is utterly original, unlike anything else on the runway or the street. It’s whimsical, painterly and saturated with rich jewel colors like red, green and fuschia, frequently offset by shimmering gold. The label’s gowns, coats and rompers are walking, wearable art. And the artist is Uehara, who founded Tokyo Gamine and has grown it into a force of nature in just a few short years. Uehara’s creations have been worn at the Oscars, SFFILM Awards Night, the Opera Ball and the SF Ballet Gala. Next stop: World domination?
The pioneering Rolling Stone rock journalist is as iconic as the city in which he made his name. And he’s a talented performer in his own right, often taking the stage for open mic night at El Rio in the Mission, where he’s modified a “Blueberry Hill” performance with lyrics inspired by this magazine: And when I am craving news about the jet set/There’s only one source to choose/The Nob Hill Gazette. Asked when he feels “most A-List,” Fong-Torres replies that attending a VIP screening of a film with his wife is a special perk of his profession. “That’s just being a journalist, it’s not exactly being an A-Lister, but you do get some things out of it.”
When Baer enters the room, she projects an appealing warmth and effortlessly elegant personal style. Case in point: that red jumpsuit! “I’m either in Levi’s and a jacket, or dressy, bright colors,” says the founder of FSG & Co., a social enterprise that connects brands, consumers and charities in a progressive way. Baer also serves on the boards of the SF General Hospital Foundation and the SF Giants Community Fund. “I feel the most A-List when I’m doing good for the city. …It’s the combination of sports and philanthropy that I love best.”
The etiquette expert, writer and mover-and-shaker recalls a screwball romantic comedy heroine from Hollywood’s golden age, radiating glamour, confidence and witty repartee. And she remains enamored of San Francisco, for which she was a director of protocol under former Mayor Willie Brown. “I’ve been riding the cable cars since I moved her 30 years ago,” she muses. “And I just think our city’s magical. Where else do you get a Coit Tower or Transamerica building? And where else can you exercise 365 days a year outside?” Spoken like a true California girl.
Dr. Carolyn Chang
Dear Carolyn: May we please have some of your energy? The esteemed plastic surgeon is perpetually on the go, and she makes it all look so easy. For example, she arrived to a morning photoshoot after doing a surgery, and she had another scheduled for the afternoon. And later that night, she had a chic event to attend in town. Did we mention Dr. Chang is the mother of two small children? “Fashion is my hobby,” she says, glowing in Monique Lhuillier. “I always make sure that I stay on trend but not too trendy. I like to push it a little bit. I like to be fashion forward.”
She’s the energetic and charismatic owner and general managing partner of Big Night Restaurant Group, which runs the hotspots Park Tavern, Marlowe, The Cavalier and Leo’s Oyster Bar. Weinberg, who hails from New Zealand, oozes joie de vivre, including in her role as mom to equally stylish son Leo. He joined the dynamic restaurateur for her Gazette portrait, and it did not take long for photographer Spencer Brown to snap the perfect shot. Weinberg not only knows what we want to eat and drink—try the poulet rouge at Park Tavern and the Bubble Bath cocktail at Leo’s—she strikes a cool pose, too.
“What I love most about San Franciso is its energy and its real spirit of giving back, and really being engaged with the full heart and the community,” says McNeely, the longest-serving president of AT&T California—not to mention a famously snazzy dresser. The devoted family man resides in SF with his husband, Dr. Inder Dhillion, and their two children, Kabir and Meera. The best part of being a dad? “When you can see that light go on, and where they really get something,” he says. “And you realize that you really are making a difference in a human’s life and creating values.”
The affable, Emmy-winning emcee and host of CBS San Francisco’s “Foodie Chap” was horrified by October’s Northern California wildfires, and immediately pulled together a team of all-stars for a fundraiser he dubbed “Chefsgiving,” with the likes of Dominique Crenn participating. “Everyone said, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’” The hyper-scheduled Mayclem only works with causes for which he feels a personal, “heart connection”: “If I’m gonna ask people for money, I have to be able to stand up there and say, ‘I’m here tonight, not just as your auctioneer but because I was a foster kid,’” he says.
“When do I feel most A-List? I think when I can get a great seat at a performance,” reveals the elegant society swan, sporting a Balmain suede coat, Erdem dress and Chanel shoes. Shansby is famous for having impeccable taste, especially when it comes to fashion. “I know what I like and I know what I don’t like—whether it’s clothing, whether it’s in household furnishings, whether it’s in how I live, what I do,” she remarks. “I need direction when it comes to putting things together, but I think I’ve always had a sense of style. I like beautiful things. I like very pretty things.” And who can blame her?
She’s the life of the gala, owner of the haut monde’s most infectious laugh, one of its most sophisticated style mavens … and a red advanced belt in Taekwondo? “I grew up [watching] Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and playing soccer,” she says. “We were obsessed with Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee. I’ve seen that movie 100 times. I love the idea that you can use your body as a weapon.” Quoth Armstrong of her passion for the martial arts: “I just always was attracted to it, and I always had a tomboy side that almost no one knows about.” The secret’s out!
The executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association brings a wealth of experience in public service and the private sector, with an impressive resume that includes a tenure leading government relations for the SF Chamber of Commerce. Two years ago, she successfully introduced the Saucy Awards to pay tribute to Bay Area culinary stars. “It’s kind of our local Academy Awards,” she says. “What I love most is we honor Employee of the Year, Manager of the Year, Sous Chef of the Year—people who don’t necessarily get the recognition.”
“I got to San Francisco after living in three amazing cities before this: Los Angeles, New York and London. And San Francisco is the most amazing city in the world,” declares Lynn, a top agent at Sotheby’s International Reality and ranked No. 28 in America by the Wall Street Journal in its 2017 roster of high-performing individual agents. “Our city is Technicolor. And we’re bounded by water almost every side and it just doesn’t get any more beautiful than this. Unless of course you go to Rio. And you can’t live in Rio full-time, so we might as well live in San Francisco.”
Emily P. Wheeler
Since lauching her fine jewelry collection more than a year ago, the designer’s standout pieces—pavé and diamond earrings, rings, necklaces and more—have been snapped up by luxury retailers such as Moda Operandi and Fivestory, and spotted on celebrities like Katy Perry, Gabrielle Union and Kate McKinnon. “You can feel the weight and the quality of it,” she says of her pieces.
The proprietor of Hero Shop, the expertly curated Post Street boutique, recently celebrated her store’s first birthday. Under Holt’s stewardship, it’s become a bright spot on the sartorial scene, stocking pieces from Rosie Assoulin, Gabriela Hearst and Adam Lippes, plus Bergen Bags, Ancient Greek Sandals and Jonathan Adler. “I would not have a business were it not for the great relationships with people who help me and who I want to work with and to help in turn,” she says.
Jeff and Tray Schlarb
The fun-loving married duo founded Green Couch, their interior design and home staging company, in San Francisco 16 years ago after moving here from London. Cut to 2018: The Schlarbs are now the doting parents of two daughters, and own homes in SF and Healdsburg. Asked what makes him feel most A-List, Jeff replies: “When we’re entertaining and when we’ve got our friends and our family and a client or two, and it just feels really fabulous—the best life we can live, with the giant harvest table overlooking the vineyards and our oak trees and the breeze of Sonoma County. It may not be the Met or some ball in San Francisco, but that’s when I feel the most special.” Tray, the sunny and self-professed introvert to Jeff’s kinetic extrovert, answers: “When I’m with my family. When we’re all together. When we’re giving back to our community. It feels very important and I feel powerful in that way.” Like their personalities, Jeff and Tray’s styles complement each other—but they swear they never coordinate outfits.
Two days after a successful awards ceremony honoring Kate Winslet, Kathryn Bigelow and Kumail Nanjiani, SFFILM executive director was beaming with pride. “We’re at our best when we put on amazing productions,” he says. “And whether that’s the film festival or our recent Awards Night, we feel as though our ability to actually bring issues to light and expose people to amazing personalities in film and beyond is kind of our specialty. So, when we pull if off perfectly, as we have been doing in our 60th anniversary year, I’m just so proud of the people I work with.”
“I feel most ‘A-List’ whenever I have the chance to bring together smart, diverse people around the dinner table,” says the co-founder of the Future Justice Fund, a grantmaking organization focusing on criminal justice reform and income security. “I love what happens when you mix artists, philosophers, entrepreneurs and social justice activists—with plenty of wine, of course.” Known for her exquisite taste—she favors bold, never-boring eveningwear—Krieger shines in a Balenciaga shirtdress, her NHG portrait bordered by an avant-garde black vest she procured from the Japanese textile company Nuno. (Not pictured: her made-to-slay black Burberry boots with a futuristic, sculpted heel.)
Victor and Farah Makras
“You know, every time he picks out a dress, an outfit for me, I look at it, I’m like ‘No way,’ but then the minute I put it on, I get the most compliments,” says Farah of husband Victor, owner of Makras Real Estate. “He’s very hands-on when it comes to having opinion on my fashion. I like to think out of the box a little bit. I like to stay classy, but at the same time have a little edge to it.” For their A-List photograph, Victor wore a Kiton suit and Farah a cream Dior sheath; they exude positive energy, an authenticity. (Perhaps that’s why the social duo get invited to so many parties.) “My husband is the nicest person you’ll ever meet,” gushes Farah. “He’s the most honest, and he makes me a better person every day. I think I’m pretty good, but then he takes it one step higher, always.” Victor returns the admiration: “She enjoys life more than anybody I know. She sees the best in people. Always responds.” Their romance began at a restaurant opening years ago, Farah recalls. “Somebody sent him a drink and he was looking around to see who sent him the drink—and I thought, ‘I could get in trouble, he thinks I’m somebody who sent him the drink.’ I think that’s how it all started. What struck me about Victor when I first met him? Generosity, he was a gentleman. A true gentleman.” The rest, as they say, is history.
“I’m not going after any trends,” explains a Roberto Cavalli-clad Shayevich of her refined aesthetic. “It’s all classic elegance. Less is more.” Another style mantra: “Just be yourself and be comfortable within yourself, no matter what you’re wearing.” A muse to California designer Vasily Vein, Shayevich is a therapist by day and high society dame by night. Vein is “creating a gown for me and it’s something sparkly, something beautiful, something exciting, something new,” she confided of her look for the San Francisco Ballet’s Opening Night Gala, where she brought the drama in a black showstopper with a ruffled neckline that threw back to Old Hollywood—but with a Modern San Francisco twist.