San Francisco scrambles for APEC

A homeless person lies against a mural of the Golden Gate Bridge near APEC Summit headquarters on November 11, 2023 in downtown San Francisco, California. – The city took steps to clean up in advance of the APEC Summit, currently taking place through November 17. (Photo by Loren Elliott / AFP)

By Huw GRIFFITH

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 13, 2023 (AFP) – Like a housework-shy couple who suddenly discover the neighbors are dropping round, San Francisco is in tidying panic mode as it readies for thousands of influential APEC visitors.

There are palpable efforts to spruce up the decaying downtown that in recent years has earned itself a reputation for open-air drug use, homelessness, litter and crime.

Major streets have been swept clean, potholes newly repaired and an army of flat-capped police officers are on patrol in the shopping and business district where diplomats, journalists and businesspeople will mingle this week for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, a summit of leaders from around the Pacific.

There’s an obvious sense of best-foot-forward as the city tries to project an image that it’s a place to do business and invest, after years in which companies have fled, giving rise to the notion that it is in a “doom loop.”

“This place has a reputation for homeless encampments and drug dealers,” a jogger who identified himself as Oliver told AFP on Saturday.

“They basically just cleared that out” for APEC.

The result feels a little akin to stuffing the junk in the spare room, shutting the door and hoping the neighbors don’t ask for a tour of the place.

Some streets are conspicuously spic and span: underpasses that appear usually to be home to tent encampments are spotless, while other roads gleam with a recent — and is that slightly perfumed? — pressure wash.

But a street or two back from the main drag the city’s underbelly is apparent; drug users still slump in doorways and mentally ill people still rage at the sky.

A homeless person rests in an alcove near APEC Summit headquarters on November 11, 2023 in downtown San Francisco, California. – The city took steps to clean up in advance of the APEC Summit, currently taking place through November 17. (Photo by Loren Elliott / AFP)

– Doom loop primer –

San Francisco’s overwhelmingly liberal bent — the city is Democrat-controlled — makes it a ready punching bag for the political right, an example of a city gone to the dogs because of its lily-livered politics.

Fox News regularly features outrage about human feces and used needles on the streets, or business owners who say they have to shut up shop because of abusive homeless people who keep urinating on the sidewalks.

And it’s not just a domestic issue.

With its huge Asian population and long history as a port city and gateway to the US, San Francisco looms large across the Pacific.

Chinese language media has taken up the cudgel, blasting the city as a “mecca of crime” and a “ghost town.”

Indeed such is the appeal of a ragging on the city that the San Francisco Chronicle this week published a tongue-in-cheek primer for visiting journalists entitled “How to write your own San Francisco doom loop story.”

A homeless person sleeps in a wheelchair near APEC Summit headquarters on November 11, 2023 in downtown San Francisco, California. The city took steps to clean up in advance of the APEC Summit, currently taking place through November 17. (Photo by Loren Elliott / AFP)

– Shift the narrative –

For city managers, APEC is a chance to shift what they say is a misunderstood narrative.

“Unfortunately the story of San Francisco (is being told by) people who may not even live here, who are taking what they see on social media,” Mayor London Breed told reporters.

“I think that some of the things that are being put out there about San Francisco are challenges that exist in other major cities.

“The fentanyl crisis in particular is impacting the entire United States, and San Francisco is… working very hard to address it.

“My hope is that people will have the opportunity to experience San Francisco for themselves and tell the whole story.”

A 30-bed nighttime shelter for homeless people has been opened a stone’s throw from the APEC convention center, and another 300-bed’s worth of capacity will be added in the city between now and next year, local media report.

Office space use, which never recovered from the pandemic, is picking up in some sectors and a “Vacant to Vibrant” scheme offers free or reduced rent on empty retail space to creative types.

The last year has seen 3,600 new businesses opened in San Francisco, the mayor’s office says.

And the city’s always thriving restaurant scene is in full swing — getting a table at any number of upscale eateries this week is probably not going to be easy.

It’s never going to be enough to calm the ire of doom-loopers like Elon Musk, who frequently takes to his (San Francisco-headquartered) Twitter-I-mean-X to take chunks out of the city.

But for Breed, it’s genuine.

“I see a lot of activation and excitement in those neighborhoods and our parks and open space,” she said.

“I see a lot of beauty all over San Francisco and my hope is that the story of San Francisco is all of that too.”

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