Good fortune shined on me when Lisa Feldstein invited me to stay with her family my first night in San Francisco. As a former member of the San Francisco Planning Commission and candidate for Board of Selectman who placed third in a field of twenty-two, Lisa is savvy to the inner workings of the City by the Bay. She provided the perfect introduction to a place whose political, social, and economic landscapes are as steep and sharply defined as its geography.
“Everything here is about land.” San Francisco is a peninsula, and like all cities surrounded by water, boundaries are firm. Except to the south, you’re either in San Francisco, or you are on the other side of the bay. The city has always been wealthy and rich in civic pride. San Francisco was the principal port of our nation’s westward expansion and hosted the splendid 1915 Pan American Exposition less than ten years after the devastating 1906 earthquake to demonstrate its resilience. Until World War II, when Southern California mesmerized our psyche, San Francisco was the major city and power center of the West. “The land border used to be further south, but the State legislature reigned it in long ago to try and curb San Francisco’s influence.” These days, San Francisco is dense packed, desirable, and wealthy. It boasts the highest real estate values in the country; a distinction not everyone applauds.
“The concept of participatory democracy is different here. It’s like a New England town meeting with 850,000 people. Things take a long time. There are many public hearings and opportunities for the public to weigh in.” I asked Lisa whether that was good. “No. If you elect people, you should let them do what they were elected to do. People understand San Francisco by their neighborhood. How do you make informed decisions at the city scale?” To demonstrate her point, Lisa hauled out her 200-page ballot book for November’s upcoming election. “This is light. Last year’s was over 500 pages.”
San Francisco’s latest infusions of wealth are technology companies seeking urban vitality rather than Silicon Valley banality. Twitter, Uber, Autodesk, and Dropbox help drive San Francisco. One hot issue this election was Proposition F, a measure to limit Airbnb-style rentals in the city. Proponents contend it contributes to escalating real estate prices and deteriorating neighborhood cohesion. Airbnb is headquartered in San Francisco. Not many cities would stir the pot against a local business success, but San Francisco can afford to bite a hand that feeds it. (The election occurred after my visit. Airbnb spent $8 million against the proposition, which failed 55% to 45%.)
Lisa teaches in the Masters of Public Affairs program at University of California San Francisco. The curriculum includes speech writing, lobbying, policy, and research. Most of Lisa’s students have a local, rather than national focus. They know San Francisco’s political energy doesn’t reverberate through the rest of our country. There is a lot of activity here, but the bandwidth of discussion is rather narrow. As Lisa puts it, “There is only the left here.”
This semester Lisa is teaching a qualitative research course and a labor seminar. “The labor movement is in tatters, and it’s about to get a whole lot worse.” At present, if you work in an open shop, you can join the union and pay the member’s fee to cover political and lobbying work of the union, as well as the direct costs of bargaining. If you don’t join the union, you pay an agency fee that just covers the direct costs the union provides to that shop. “The Supreme Court is hearing a case out of Southern California brought by a teacher’s union that argues all union work is political, questioning the legitimacy of the agency fee. The Supreme Court has sent out messages over the past few years that it would welcome a case like this. It is likely they will get rid of agency fees.”
Although Lisa is active on national issues, she’s keen on local issues, which are often harbingers of problems still emerging beyond the Left Coast. The flip side of San Francisco’s affluence is its large and visible homeless population. “The homeless are one of our big community challenges. There are advocates who say we aren’t doing enough and need to provide more services. And there are people who just want them gone. They don’t care where the go, they just want them gone.”
My time in the city confirmed Lisa’s assessment. San Francisco is full of street people; pimply scars on San Francisco’s pristine complexion. I witnessed citizens and police officers rough them over in ways I never observed in Portland or Seattle. The city is crowded, the chasm between the haves and have-nots is immense; the friction created when they run up against each other is palpable.
How will we live tomorrow?
“As educational divides grow, we are going to see more discontent among the less educated. The world will be a more violent place. Borders will be less important but protected more.
“We have this spasm of religious fervor. It will shape global politics and be a more defining factor than race is right now.
“Climate change will be the other defining factor. Can we grow enough food to feed ourselves? I see the most interest in solving that problem coming from the least developed countries. I see power shifting to the global south.”