I wrote this after my return from NYC in August 2009 and for some reason never got around to posting it… I think most everything still holds true – though SF is making some progress with the City’s bike plan.
At any rate, I must say, NYC and SF seem to have exchanged identities in the ten plus years since I last visited Manhattan. NYC used to be the scary, dirty, smelly city with peril on every block, while SF was a charming jewel of loveliness, an intimate metropolis of hills, fine restaurants and friendly people.
I was truly bowled over by the changes in Manhattan – despite it’s size and density, it feels absolutely people-focused. They’ve got bike lanes that are physically separated from auto traffic; they’re closing streets to autos to make them more pedestrian friendly; the streets are clean; the subway runs frequently and without incident.
Coming back to SF made me realize how little seems to be done right here: the City’s bike plan held up in the courts for years; streets are filthy; infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes; and the population of homeless and beggars on the streets is higher than ever.
Of course, I have mixed feelings about the two transformations. NYC’s “new look” is largely the result of over a decade of being run by autocratic Republican mayors who don’t really give a shit about opposing viewpoints. Giuliani is a horrible and corrupt individual – and he didn’t do anything to solve the problem of homelessness; he just made sure that the homeless were sufficiently harassed so as to get them to go elsewhere. But while I may disagree with these tactics, it’s hard not to find the results a vast improvement over the daily obstacle course of reeling drunks and crack-heads I encounter every day here in SF.
Frankly, SF could use a little autocracy. Every good thing the City proposes doing (more bike lanes; closing Market St. to cars; Healthy San Francisco*) gets shot down because everybody has to get their two-cents in (which generally results in nothing getting done). We could learn a lesson from NYC: they shut down a section of Broadway to auto traffic, essentially on the mayor’s say-so. Here in SF, a tiny little dot of a pedestrian mall at the corner of Market and Castro raised howls among the local merchants – and remains populated with cardboard planters and other temporary fixtures to ensure it can be quickly swept away.
Despite the huge and vocal biking community (and near impossibility of finding parking), the car is still king in San Francisco. The Market/Octavia entrance to the freeway remains the city’s most dangerous for bikers – but it took months and months for even minor (and still not completely effective) changes to be made to inhibit illegal right turns. NYC has large bike lanes that are physically separated from cars, making it safer for both.
In SF, there was a huge hue-and-cry from Union St. merchants when Muni proposed making a bigger bus stop at Fillmore – which would’ve meant eliminating five metered parking spots. And Muni caved! Has anyone seen walked down Union St. lately? Whatever it is those merchants are doing appears to be wrong – so why are they setting public transit policy? Meanwhile, NYC manages to close down seven blocks to automobile traffic in the middle of Manhattan – but SF can’t build a bus stop?
SF is densely packed, for the most part – though not nearly so much as NYC. And I suppose this is part of what leads to the rampant NIMBY-ism in SF. All the rich hippies and limousine liberals are happy to vote “yes” on building homeless shelters or drug treatment facilities – but God forbid one gets built in their neighborhood. In NYC, there seems to be some recognition that everyone is living cheek-by-jowl anyhow – so what’s the big deal if there’s a methadone clinic a block away?
Of course, I still love SF. I think it beats NYC food-wise (both food shopping and restaurants) especially in terms of price-to-value ratio. And the housing market in NYC remains more insane than here… I may need to live in a rent-controlled, ghetto-adjacent apartment here – but the apartment is spacious and well-maintained. Such a combination is much harder to find in Manhattan – especially for monthly rental amount that doesn’t elicit the response “are you shitting me?”
Nonetheless, if I get the chance (i.e. win the lottery or Chris starts charging Sally-Hershberger-esque prices** I re-marry well), I’d give very serious thought to heading back to Manhattan permanently…
* This is a particular pet-peeve of mine. I think restaurants should be proscribed from adding a surcharge for the city-mandated health program. Just like with increased fuel prices or more expensive ingredients, merchants must build changes in their costs into their prices. Why is health care different? Between tax, tip and surcharges, a diner in SF can be paying upwards of 30% over and above the prices listed on the menu. Grrrr…
** Well, this is awkward… As I mentioned, the post was originally written in August 2009…