Politics as Usual

Around the world with San Franciscans

Comparative touring

The Port of San Francisco expects to host 100 cruise ship visits by the end of 2023, bringing more than 400,000 passengers to the city (and millions of dollars to the local economy). What do those tourists think of San Francisco before they get here? What do they experience while they’re on shore? What do they say about us after they depart?

In late September, I explored the reverse of that situation when I spent a week cruising the Great Lakes with a group of Californians, mostly from the Bay Area. During the course of the trip, we had many opportunities to talk about the cities we were visiting, other cities we’ve visited in the past, and San Francisco. In a trip that stretched from Milwaukee to Toronto, covering an area that even millions of people who grew up in this country know little about, what would we learn about the state of American cities? How does “flyover country” fare with Left Coast residents?
There were pleasant surprises, sad observations, and impressive developments.


The trip began in Milwaukee, home to about 570,000 souls. It surprised a lot of people. Known variously as the home to Harley-Davidson or the location of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, Milwaukee is probably most thought about — if it’s thought about at all by Californians — as a beer-producing blue-collar town. But Milwaukee has reinvented itself over the years, diversifying its economy and adding a burgeoning high-tech sector. One tour guide told visitors it was the result of a broad, long-term commitment to revitalizing the city by leaders from across the political spectrum. (Milwaukee might be a famously liberal city, but it is surrounded by some very conservative suburbs.)

Even I was surprised. A Wisconsin native, I had lived in Milwaukee for a summer internship three decades ago, and I found it a pleasant if unexciting town. During this visit, I discovered they had completely redone the waterfront with beautiful parks, harbors, and museums, including the architecturally stunning Milwaukee Art Museum. The waterfront blended nicely into the adjacent downtown region, where new skyscrapers coexisted with grand old buildings like the Pfister Hotel, a favorite stay for U.S. presidents for more than a century, and home to the largest collection of Victorian art of any hotel on the planet.

Detroit was another story. When the motor city was at its zenith in the middle of the last century, it had almost 2 million residents. It’s now down to about 630,000. When the auto industry decamped to suburban locations, the city cratered, and its political leadership failed to adapt the way other industrial cities adapted to deindustrialization. A big city losing two-thirds of its population resulted in lots of empty buildings, some blocks inhabited by maybe one resident. Our local tour guide noted that there are some neighborhoods where a home’s value might be only $800. (Yes, $800.) It’s so low, and the residents so impoverished, they literally can’t get a loan to fix a roof, because the loan value is larger than the home’s value.

The guide was not enthused about the form of the city’s revitalization. The driving force is lots of money flowing into the downtown core, where old buildings are being revamped and revitalized, and new residents are moving in. She was displeased that the money wasn’t getting out to the neighborhoods that were hurting (and have hurt for so long). Touring the city is a lot like going through Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s; a couple blocks might be brand new apartments, condos, or a sports complex, and the next two or three blocks look abandoned, filled either with boarded up buildings or empty lots. But revitalization of a big city is both expensive and uneven, and the more money that flows there and the more people who live there, the more momentum will gather behind the new Detroit.

After some trips to smaller towns and tourist sites, we ended in the Canadian city of Toronto. After nearly 190 years of unbroken population growth, the city is fast approaching the 3 million mark, and it’s a boomtown. Construction cranes were visible across the skyline; housing prices are zooming upward; and about 100,000 immigrants arrive every year. From the admittedly limited amount of the town we saw, it was bustling, clean, and thriving.


What does all this mean for San Francisco and for San Franciscans?

As we talked about these other cities, the theme of San Francisco’s strengths and challenges naturally kept bubbling up. When we met people on our ship who lived elsewhere in the country, there was an immediate need to either defend San Francisco or extoll its overlooked virtues. Because those people had pre-formed opinions of San Francisco, and they weren’t good ones.

San Francisco is not Detroit circa 1980. There is a lot of energy among residents and leaders (political, business, and cultural) to fix the city they love. Time — and voters — will tell if Mayor London Breed’s unveiling of proposals on policing and drug testing get implemented. They’re already drawing squawks from the far left, so she must be doing something right.

But in the bubble of a city, the local propaganda and political marketing can obscure the progress or lack thereof. To get a sense of what others think, head to the cruise ships at Piers 27 and 35.

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