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San Francisco’s Downtown And Middle Earth Might Be Saved In The Same Way

Updated: Apr 06, 2023 10:47
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A hand with a ring in it.

There’s no ring to destroy, but there are beacons to be lit. (Caleb George, Ergo Zakki)

On the first day of April — and not as a gag or trick — the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board gave readers a look of what might be to come for the Paris of the West. A budget deficit of $728 million, low transit use, and red tape mummifying any chance of hope. Their warning comes hot on the heels of the paper’s write-up of what economists call a “doom loop,” a cascading set of unfortunate and maybe terminal events that spell demise for a place, business, market. But there might be a simple solution, or one solution to one or more of those events. And the tactic comes right from the fields of Pelennor, the war-torn acres in Lord of the Ring’s fictional country of Gondor.

Peregrin “Pippin” Took scaled the tall thatched tower in the last bastion against evil to light the beacon of Gondor. For context, that’d be like sending up the Bat Signal in Gotham. It took guts, and it wasn’t easy, and there were even well-intentioned people trying to stop the hobbit from rallying aid. It also didn’t really happen, of course, but the moral of the story provides an easy outlet for a city in despair. There’s no time to waste in San Francisco: each of us needs to light their own fire, send up the smoke to create a chain of positive-trending events — a “hope loop” of sorts. 

Now, the Chronicle points out that major investments and subsidies lifted other cities that suffered devastation out of their blight. Manhattan after 9/11 took a $20 billion local, state, and federal investment to turn the staggering Financial District into “a place where people actually lived as well as worked.” City economist Ted Egan says our city’s downtown was home to 70 percent of San Francisco’s pre-pandemic jobs; according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the city’s COVID recovery ranked 24th out of 25 major metropolitan areas. No need to be foolhardy. It’s not just allegories and individual action that can solve the city’s woes. But investing in San Francisco, be it in large sums of money or by merely getting organized at work, can make a real difference. Even the Chronicle points out local leaders who are doing their part.

Deland Chan, urban studies scholar and adjunct professor at Stanford, writes alongside John Stehlin in Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance about the evolving nature of metropolitan areas. “As a set of monuments, infrastructure surfaces grievances related to its initial construction and ongoing purpose,” the two write. “These grievances — born from contestations and resistance — are continual works in progress.” Their approach is a reminder that downtown, and civic corridors writ large, are meant to be vibrant, accessible places of culture and commerce. And, if the buildings and buses and beacons are no longer serving that purpose, then more work is needed to progress. And who best to do that work than the people who live in San Francisco themselves?

So no, there is no ring to destroy or silver bullet. But when it became clear that Minas Tirith was the target of Sauron’s final attack, following the dark lord’s defeat at Helm’s Deep and Isengard, even good actors like Theoden weren’t convinced doing anything on behalf of Gondor was worth the risk. Gandalf and Pippin ignored the protest and hopped on the wizard’s steed Shadowfax, setting in motion as quick as they could the positive events that would light those beacons. So don’t delay. Head downtown for that meeting, spend the $6 for a fancy coffee and a seat at a cafe you’ve meant to try, sign up to volunteer. “Run Shadowfax,” Gandalf said. “Show us the meaning of haste.”

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Paolo Bicchieri

Paolo Bicchieri

Paolo Bicchieri (he/they) is a writer living on the coast. He's a reporter for Eater SF and the author of three books of fiction and one book of poetry.