A recent business trip took me to San Francisco, a picturesque U.S. city that most people love. In fact, it’s nicknamed “Everybody’s Favourite City.” Crooners sang about it and a ton of Hollywood movies were made there. This was my sixth visit but I still can’t count it as one of my most favourite cities in North America.
But let’s start with the positives: the weather is very mild all year long; the architecture and some of the sceneries are breathtakingly beautiful; most of the people are nice and friendly; and the food and wine are excellent. A restaurant worth mentioning on this trip is the two-star Michelin restaurant Quince on Pacific Avenue. The restaurant has been elevated this year from a one- to two-star status. Judging from the prix fixe tasting menu I’ve had – from the Royal Sterling Caviar to the Fantasia Di Mare (lobster with artichoke and Iberico ham from Spain) to the suckling pig tortellini with black trumpet mushroom - the food, service and ambiance were par excellence.
Chef and Owner Michael Tusk was trained in both Italy and France and demonstrated an ultra-refined and contemporary approach to his culinary performance. His personal note on the menu summed it all up: “We believe that the essence of a meal is not just what is put on the plate, but the entirety of the experience. The food, the flavours, the wine, the company, the conversations – together these elements combine to create a sensual, savory memory.” My memory of that particular dinner, so graciously hosted by my good friend who’s also my first boss, was close to perfection.
Actually, most of the restaurants in San Francisco are very good. You don’t need to eat in a renowned one, but you can probably walk into any neighbourhood restaurants without reservations and the food and wine will not disappoint you.
But there are two things that irritate me in this city. I take a lot of taxis everywhere I go because I’m just not a hiker. My overall experience with cabbies in Frisco was not good on this trip - most of them didn’t know where they were going even though they were city drivers. San Francisco’s downtown area is also geographically very small, so there’s no reason not to know your streets, directions or major landmarks, particularly when you have to drive for a living. I’ve encountered one taxi driver who gave me such a poor attitude that even though I was going to an obvious landmark in Union Square, he showed no intention to ask for directions or check his GPS or even call his dispatcher for help. But maybe this could be a problem for cabbies in North America overall – drivers in Manhattan are not much better and I recently came across a cabby in Toronto who didn’t even know where City Hall is! When we talk about a city’s reputation, cabbies should always be part of a metropolis’s front-line ambassadors and should be trained as such.
Another unpleasant surprise is the city’s significant and highly-visible homeless problem due to its mild climate and its social programs that have provided cash payments for homeless individuals. The city’s homeless population has been estimated at 7,000 – 10,000 people, of which approximately 3,000 – 5,000 refuse shelter. Ten years ago, San Francisco officially began an attempt to scale back the scope of its homelessness problem by changing its strategy from cash payments to providing care instead. In 2010, a city ordinance was passed to disallow sitting and lying down on public sidewalks for most of the day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. But around Union Square in downtown Frisco at night, the homeless people are still lying in the open in groves. It’s sad and disturbing to see that in an affluent city where so many Silicon Valley billionaires and Hollywood celebrities call their homes, there is such a disparity between the haves and have-nots and no better way to provide shelters for the homeless and the mentally-ill. San Francisco actually ranks eigth of major cities worldwide in the number of billionaires known to be living within city limits – so perhaps some of them could do more to alleviate this problem?
I’m not surprised that according to a recent study from the Brookings Institution, San Francisco has the second highest gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. Though San Francisco has the second widest income inequality gap (second to Atlanta where the poor are poorer, but the rich far less than the rich in San Francisco), it’s also tops in terms of the speed at which the wealthy are pulling away from the rest of the Americans, the study found.
On the baby boomers front, San Francisco’s baby boomers are less likely to have income below the federal property level than the city’s current seniors aged 65 or older, but they have higher poverty rates than baby boomers at the national level. According to a report prepared for the San Francisco Aging and Adult Services Commission, the poverty figures are quite troubling. High costs of living exacerbate the difficulties associated with living on a poverty-level income. The city’s boomers are also significantly less likely to own their homes than are baby boomers nationally or statewide in California. Nationwide, 70 percent of all households headed by a baby boomer own their housing units; the rates are almost half of that in San Francisco, at only 38 percent.
In spite of my complaints, there’s a lot to like about San Francisco. You just have to know that apart from the obvious tourist attractions such as The Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown district, the former prison on Alcatratz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, cable cars and steep rolling hills, there are some truths and realities to explore beneath the fog.