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The New York Times Is Trolling SF and California Again and it’s Garbage

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Photo by Joseph Barrientos

The New York Times positively lives to troll San Francisco.

Sometimes, it’s a prurient examination of the lives of people who rummage through trash for a living, as if that yields valuable insights about us. Other times, it’s about how dirty streets are apparently unique to this city. Still other times, it’s forecasting disasters that don’t actually turn out quite that way. We’re simply too inviting a target to leave be. 

But yesterday, the Times delivered a sort of omnibus smackdown of concern-trolling, taking on the whole state as a sort of San Francisco writ large. “California Is Booming. Why Are So Many Californians Unhappy?” is the kind of thing that makes you want to issue one of those annoying, line-by-line rebuttals — “fisking,” as it was sorta known back in the early 2000s. But that response comes off as exceptionally tedious and a bit defensive. So, like when dealing with a Trump tweet that clown-cars nine all-caps lies into three sentence fragments — and hey, he’s bashing us again, too! — it’s usually best to focus on the big stuff.

Except it’s almost all big stuff, a warmed-over compendium of things that every literate American has already read, tying sidewalk poop to sidewalk robots in one great big tsk-tsk. Yeah, we get it. How about a mention of what our elected officials are doing about it?

That would ruin the fun. Yet they never seem to realize that, if there’s one thing San Francisco excels at, it’s perfecting capitalism under the guise of progressivism. Skewed by Silicon Valley’s tech billions, we have way too many ultra-rich people, and the social distortions they cause are merely hitting us the hardest for now — but like circa-2012 Uber, they’ll be launching everywhere else soon, so please check your schadenfreude.

This latest Times piece feels like an act of writing on end-of-year autopilot after amassing only a cursory familiarity with California. Homelessness? Check. Unaffordability? Check. Disgruntled white-collar former resident with a predictable ax to grind? Check!

That ex-resident happens to be Christine Johnson, a former Planning Commission member and 2018 candidate for supervisor. If her name doesn’t ring a bell, she was the commissioner who once changed her vote on legislation pertaining to Airbnb once Mayor Ed Lee’s office told her to, and later missed so many meetings on key votes that then-Mayor Mark Farrell replaced her. When she ran for supervisor, none other than the radioactive Police Officers’ Association boosted her campaign with independent expenditures.

So Johnson had the support of people who actively make San Francisco harsher to live in. Yet the Times frames its story around her, now living in Denver with her family, like some misunderstood would-be hero. In retrospect, isn’t it good that District 6 didn’t elect this former Mission Bay financier its supervisor? Candidates should possess at least some baseline love of San Francisco, right? A certain facet of their character that keeps them from ensconcing themselves in some perfectly nice city, wringing their hands over us mere months after losing an election to a progressive.

Christine Johnson was featured in the NYT article. Photo from the SF Examiner.

Maybe. What grates on the nerves even more is the near-total non-newsworthiness of this kind of story. No doubt, California and San Francisco’s homelessness crisis is our enduring shame. In that sense, it’s an evergreen topic, and journalists holding the powerful to account over it is always welcome. But the narrative that the Golden State is “ungovernable,” or always about to self-destruct, never really goes away. For every acknowledgement that unregulated tech giants can be damaging, there has to be some mention that we called the NRA a domestic terrorist organization or banned Happy Meals, symbolic gestures that are always presented as equal counterweights to late capitalism’s worst excesses. They are not.

In that light, these California-is-doomed-by-success stories feel increasingly contrived — particularly because virtually everything the Times dings us with also applies to New York. Finger-wagging about expensive real estate? OK, well, that record-shattering $238 million penthouse wasn’t in Pac Heights, but on Central Park South, a few blocks from that depopulated dead zone of empty luxury high-rises. So no.

Housing insecurity? Many of our neighbors live in tents or shelters, it is true, but New York also has some 80,000 people experiencing homelessness.

How about super-commuters? Well, if you’ve ever ridden the L train to the 4-5-6 to get from Bushwick to Midtown, it can feel as draining as driving to downtown from Tracy. (Also: Pity these poor schmucks.) 

Losing residents to other states? That one is outright bizarre, because this city and region are growing while Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx are actually hemorrhaging people. Meanwhile, since 2000, New York State has gained 150,000 people, while California has gained 6 million, Texas has gained 8 million, and even Idaho gained half a million. So what? Has New York lost its mojo to freaking Idaho? No. As some kind of moral cudgel, those numbers are almost meaningless.

It’s just their shtick, though. The Times loves trolling other places with tropes so well-worn they sometimes hail from the wrong century. Other times they settle for mystifying non-comprehension and call it a day. It’s so pervasive a habit that Times writers like the awesome Tejal Rao sometimes earn legit praise just for having original thoughts. Granted, they do it in a slightly smarter way than this vacuous, unimaginative suburbanite who admits they never especially wanted to live here, but phoned-in hypocrisy remains highly annoying. 

In the meantime, it’s about to be a new decade, and even though San Francisco’s problems feel intractable and everything seems like it’s closing, I’d sure rather live here than New York or Chicago, let alone some antiseptic boomtown like Charlotte or Columbus. People who choose to stick it out here have to deal with all the usual stressors: guilt over all the poverty — if not the poverty itself! — plus friends getting displaced, bars disappearing, and a general sense that you’re not in control of your life.

Add to this pile one more thing, glib journalism that enumerates our sins while stopping just short of treating any one subject deeply enough to touch on our solutions. So let’s put this in words the most harried, unpleasant Upper East Side cynic can grasp: San Francisco is awesome, so would it kill you to stop doing that?

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Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane (they/them) is the Communications Manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.