Perhaps you remember when two high-profile crimes in San Francisco this spring put the city’s woes in the spotlight.
Bob Lee, the tech executive who helped create Cash App, was stabbed to death on a downtown street in early April. The same week, a former city fire commissioner was attacked with a metal pipe and was left hospitalized. A homeless man was immediately arrested in the case. News of the two attacks prompted a barrage of criticism of San Francisco, particularly from tech leaders who said they were disturbed by what they saw as rampant crime and an exploding homelessness problem.
Jesse Barron, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, recently published a fascinating account of the attack on the former fire commissioner and, more broadly, the origins of San Francisco’s negative reputation.
The story of the crime turned out to be more complicated than it seemed; the victim has since been accused of regularly dousing homeless people with bear spray. And there’s more to the narrative around San Francisco than meets the eye, as well, Jesse explains. I highly recommend his full article, which you can read here.
“What everyone seems to forget is that San Francisco is so much more than the viral videos of the South of Market tent encampments,” Jesse told me. “Yes, those exist. But they’re just one facet of the city.”
I spoke to Jesse recently about what he learned in the months he spent working on the article. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited:
Why did you want to focus on the incident with the former fire commissioner?
My last piece for the magazine was a long cover story set in San Francisco, so I spent a lot of time there reporting, and I knew that the perception of the city as a high-crime hellscape was exaggerated. But I didn’t know where that perception had come from in the first place.
There was this constant stream of dark, sordid viral media, mostly about homelessness and street crime, that profoundly influenced how everyone saw the city — residents included. Who was producing it? How was it spun and manipulated? What arguments were implicitly being made by this content, and which players stood to benefit?
I made the decision to pick this one, seemingly average assault case and follow it basically to the ends of the earth, to see how many of these larger questions it would touch on. A lot, it turned out.
You write about the “doom loop” idea — that San Francisco will spiral downward because all its problems are interwoven. But downtowns across the country have struggled after pandemic lockdowns. Why do you think that narrative has persisted so strongly in San Francisco?
The most obvious answer is that things are actually going wrong. San Francisco faces multiple overlapping problems: Work-from-home policies emptied out the office buildings downtown, there’s a fentanyl crisis, and homeless services are grossly inadequate — the shelter system runs more than 4,000 beds short, for example.
But many American cities are dealing with similar challenges. In Los Angeles, where I live, the proportion of homeless people who are unsheltered is significantly higher than that of San Francisco. It gets practically no attention.
Why does San Francisco attract all this vitriol, which is so disproportionate to the conditions on the ground? I think it’s because San Francisco holds a special place in American media and politics — everything that happens there is magnified. It’s a symbol as much as a city.
What was most surprising to you in your reporting?
Two of the most surprising people I met were Ricci Wynne and JJ Smith. Smith describes himself as a street videographer, and Wynne describes himself as a “video vigilante.” They’re not professional journalists, but they shoot a lot of the images and videos that feed the doom-loop stories on Fox News and The Daily Mail and elsewhere.
Smith, in particular, is extremely conflicted about that, because he views his audience as his neighbors, not the media. He sometimes shoots videos of people who are overdosing and then has them watch it, and records them watching it. He explained that his goal was to prevent them from overdosing again.
Smith showed me one of these videos, which I describe in the article. It was the most shocking — and representative — piece of media I came across in San Francisco.
The rest of the news
Fox News will host a 90-minute debate between Gov. Gavin Newsom and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida starting at 6 p.m. Pacific time tomorrow. Here’s how to watch the unusual event.
After a boot camp in the form of two interviews with the Fox News host Sean Hannity, Newsom is unusually prepared for the high-stakes debate.
California delegates to the U.N. Climate Summit this week are pushing for subnational governments — states, provinces and cities — to have a more prominent role in future climate negotiations, The Hill reports.
The billionaire Charles Munger, the vice chairman of Warren Buffett’s powerhouse investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, died yesterday at the age of 99 in Santa Barbara.
The Los Angeles City Council approved a law that will require hosts of short-term rentals and hotels to obtain a police permit, in an effort to crack down on illicit and disruptive behavior, The Los Angeles Times reports.
San Diego home prices are rising at one of the fastest rates in the nation, having increased 6.5 percent in September, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
The father of a Fresno State student who was found dead in her apartment 27 years ago testified as the first witness in the preliminary hearing of a man who was charged with raping and murdering her, and in connection with a series of sexual assaults in Visalia from 1999 to 2002, The Fresno Bee reports.
Two Jewish organizations have sued the University of California, Berkeley, claiming that it has become a hotbed of “unchecked” antisemitism, Reuters reports.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors disbanded its committee centered on homelessness and behavioral health less than a year after it was formed, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Emily Dolton, who lives in San Diego:
In Imperial County, the perfect art day trip is to drive north from El Centro through Niland to Salvation Mountain. Originally built by Leonard Knight from adobe bricks and thousands of gallons of paint, this religious artwork is essentially a continually evolving, vibrantly painted hill.
Driving still farther north, you’ll hit the off-grid squatter community of Slab City. Essentially an artist community that is totally solar and focused on repurposing trash into art, the residents have camped out on slabs left behind from a World War II Marine base. East Jesus, established by Charlie Russell, is at the northern end.
It’s essentially a free installation of modern outdoor art made of everything from car parts to hundreds of stacked TVs, and it says a lot about waste in society. Visitors need to remember to bring cash, because above all, this is a residential community who want their art, but not their lifestyle, gawked at. They survive on donations and selling art. Use the restroom before you go.
Follow the shoreline of the Salton Sea, and you’ll find the town of Bombay Beach. Huge, outdoor art installations, often integrating the water as part of the art, are scattered around the town. Be careful not to go too close to the water’s edge, as the sludge will suck the shoes right off your feet. These installations are better photographed with longer-range lenses on traditional cameras.
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
Have you seen fall colors in California this year? Send us your best photos at [email protected]. Please include your full name and the city in which you live.
And before you go, some good news
For those tiring of the pies and pumpkin-spiced sweets that are abundant during the holiday season, the churro, a deep-fried and doughy delicacy with a formidable presence in California, may be a worthy reprieve. The San Francisco Chronicle’s latest list of the Bay Area’s most exceptional churros will keep even the pickiest of aficionados well supplied.
The list, published this month, highlights Bay Area businesses selling the best churros, including restaurants and a one-man street operation, each showcasing a different style and preparation.
In the East Bay region, try the Hayward churro stand next to the Mexico Super market, where Oscar Lopez, otherwise known as the Churro Man, has been frying the treats himself since 2009. In San Francisco, a tapas bar called Red Window has a top contender for Spanish-style churros, traditionally served with chocolate sauce, which come four to an order.
Whether you’re looking for restaurant fare or just a quick snack, as Cesar Hernandez, the associate restaurant critic at The Chronicle and the author of the list, puts it: “The baton-like fritter, with its star-shaped ridges, remains one of life’s simplest pleasures.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Maia Coleman, Briana Scalia and Halina Bennet contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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