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2008: The Year S.F. Grew Up 

Wednesday, Dec 31 2008

Nine years ago, San Franciscans went to bed with dread and giddy anticipation. Either the Y2K bug would spawn a man-against-machine dystopia, or San Francisco would get to be a kid again.

Thanks to the dot-com boom, 2000 promised to become the starting point of a thrilling, decisive civil war between crass commercialism and the emancipating social values that made San Francisco a haven for America's youth a generation earlier.

At first, this delusional midlife crisis was filled with the leftist political equivalent of sports cars and 22-year-old girlfriends. In 2000, voters elected a liberal majority to the Board of Supervisors. Then, in 2004, a handsome young mayor named Gavin Newsom unilaterally declared gay marriage to be legal, and 4,000 same-sex couples flocked to San Francisco City Hall to wed in an extravaganza called the Winter of Love.

Set against the vaudevillian wickedness of the George W. Bush administration, all this local pageantry allowed San Francisco to again imagine itself as the conscience of young America.

By the end of 2008, however, San Francisco was forced to grow up again. What the dot-com bust didn't deflate, the 2008 economic collapse eviscerated. Even the victory of Barack Obama ended with a whimper for San Franciscans. Once newscasters called the national election, we tearfully hugged strangers in the street, celebrating the historic triumph over America's racist past. And after California's voting results for Proposition 8 came in two hours later, we tearfully hugged more strangers and rued our heterosexist present.

Gavin Newsom's Winter of Love, and the years of legal wrangling and civic celebrating that followed, offered the seductive equivalent of an escapist childhood fantasy. What's not to like about Rosie O'Donnell flying to San Francisco to get hitched? But this feel-good story had a dark side. The Winter of Love was the self-aggrandizing project of one man who seemed to have little strategic insight into advancing the cause of gay rights.

The essence of this dichotomy can be seen in Pursuit of Equality: An Unfinished Work of American Freedom, a documentary released on DVD in September.

Judging from the film's Web site and interviews with the directors, Pursuit of Equality depicts Newsom as a stylish, Jack Kennedy or Martin Luther King–esque love revolutionary. The DVD cover features a flag-backed black-and-white photo of Newsom, evoking iconic images of 1960s civil-rights heroes.

The doc is apparently a work of autofellatio: It's produced by a company called Pursuit of Equality LLC, whose mailing address is the same as Newsom's PlumpJack wine store.

Ironically, it was released just as gays' civil rights were ambushed by Prop. 8 commercials that quoted the mayor saying that Americans had to accept gay marriage "whether you like it or not."

By the fall of 2008, many had forgotten that the Winter of Love was not a carefully planned tactic for advancing gay rights. Rather, it was originally conceived as a political consultant's trick designed to rescue Newsom from a well-financed recall effort that was building force in spring 2004.

By the end of 2008, San Franciscans were forced to realize that there was nothing to be gained by believing in gift-bearing fairy-tale princes, even one with a PR apparatus as aggressive as Gavin Newsom's.

Another favorite venue for childish San Francisco playacting concerns the city's Toyland conception of how to care for planet Earth. By December, an Associated Press piece declared the ecological crisis a "ticking time bomb" that has eliminated as much Arctic ice as would cover Alaska, Texas, and California.

San Francisco had spent the previous eight years treating climate change the way a child might. The mayor offered pretend solutions such as cutting back on bottled water. In 2008, it was electric cars. Newsom made press hoopla by associating himself with Project Better Place, an electric car rental company, saying its three Bay Area cars would help make San Francisco America's "greenest" city.

The Board of Supervisors jumped into the enviro-phony game with a measure banning grocery stores from using plastic bags — unless they were thicker "reusable" ones. The result was that many stores started using the more pernicious thick bags to get around the law.

"This year coming up is the most important opportunity the world has ever had to make progress in solving the climate crisis," the AP story quoted Al Gore as saying.

Translation: Grow up, San Francisco.

These examples demonstrate that San Francisco's liberal white community has the imagination of a precocious toddler when it comes to self-delusion. But the city's black leadership is no slouch in this category. It's been traditional to celebrate professional achievements of black men and women as intrinsically extraordinary because of the historical roadblocks of institutional racism.

In this spirit, the local black newspaper The Sun Reporter to this day treats mundane evidence of professional success by African-Americans as front-page news. A recent cover feature, for example, chronicled the exploits of a local midlevel corporate flack under the headline "Jimi Harris polishes PG&E's image as corporate citizen."

But there's an unfortunate corollary to overcelebrating prosaic achievements — the "If one of ours is doing it, it must be marvelous" syndrome — and that's an overly high tolerance for mischief or incompetence.

This was famously manifest during the Willie Brown pay-to-play-era, when investigative stories by the San Francisco Chronicle's Chuck Finnie and Lance Williams were treated as if they were examples of racism, rather than what they were: plausible evidence of systematic cronyism.

At the end of 2008, however, that way of thinking should be put to rest. In a country with an African-American president, it should no longer be considered stop-the-presses noteworthy when a black person makes the grade. And it isn't necessarily forgivable when black public officials appear to have screwed up.

This brings to mind San Francisco's black-dominated Housing Authority Commission. Along with activist groups, the commission has allowed for the delay in reconstruction of abysmal, dangerous housing projects such as Hunters View in the Central Waterfront area. There are plans to turn that decrepit, barracks-style facility into a comfortable, safe, mixed-income neighborhood through the use of public and private funds.

As residents await the project launch, workers board up units as they become uninhabitable. "Why fix them up if they're scheduled to be torn down?" this logic says. At the beginning of the month, reconstruction plans still appeared to be stalled.

One cause for the delay is the suspicion some community activists have concerning private involvement in the project, despite the fact that there aren't sufficient public funds to get it done.

Under reasonable circumstances, this kind of failure would be treated as malfeasance, with Housing Authority Commission members and the mayor who appointed them hounded out of office. White San Francisco, however, seems to treat the degrading conditions at Hunters View as a black problem and thus as safe to ignore. And black San Francisco seems to tolerate the commission members, although they're responsible for allowing the situation to persist.

As of 2008, there's no excuse for any of this. We're grown-ups now.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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