Friday, November 12, 2004

Liberating Baghdad-by-the-Bay

On those crisp, clear winter days, in between the weekly Pacific rain storms that cleanse the city, you can stand out on the wharf and see forever across the wind-chopped bay, from the noble Golden Gate, back over to Sausalito, the lonely Alcatraz and Angel Islands, and across to Berkeley. Green hills rim the bay and keep it from overflowing its shores, protecting this intrusion of the Pacific into the mainland.

In the boat slips sea lions compete for buoy space, barking in a cacophony of marine sounds, and gulls circle and dive for discarded snacks. Sea smells, some natural, some from the nearby restaurants, waft through your nostrils and clear your head. Behind you the sloping hills and terraced buildings watch out over the fields of water that lap against the pier. The breeze braces your face and causes you to bundle up with your wife. You like it here.

This is the “Baghdad-by-the-Bay,” as the late San Francisco columnist Herb Caen used to describe the City. He was referring to its exotic, bohemian character that has as its pedigree the Gold Rush and the roaring ‘20s. Italian immigrants in North Beach, Asians in Chinatown, adventurous mid-Westerners, African-Americans, Mexican migrants, Gays, Straights, you name it. . . come together on this Peninsula and create an urban stew that can be as energizing as the elements out on the wharf.

But the story doesn’t end here. The natural beauty of its surroundings masks the deep decay that is endemic on the streets – homeless people, most deeply ill or drug-addicted – roam aimlessly and grow coarse as they fight the elements. Hundreds die each year from overdoses and infections. Paying for its misguided romanticizing of the Vagrant, and its encouragement of all across the country to come to Zion, the City on the Bay now resembles Calcutta more than ancient Baghdad.

San Francisco continues to reel from its inability to deal with its 15,000 homeless, its political paralysis in attending to the problem, and how best to allocate the $200 million of public funds that have been earmarked for its eradication.

Mayors who have confronted the issue head-on have been defeated (Frank Jordan); Willy Brown, like a modern-day Marie Antoinette, simply ignored it (and was re-elected), and the current mayor Gavin Newsom has paid lip service to the issue and opted instead for same-sex marriages. The Supervisors who run City Hall could be political consultants in a Michael Moore movie.

For the compassion of those who are out on the streets, this issue needs to be solved.

New York and Chicago have proven that this problem is not intractable – Rudy Giuliani, for example, has shown that a humane public policy focused on 1) drug and mental health treatment, 2) providing available shelter, 3) vigorous welfare to work programs and incentives, 4) food payments instead of cash, and 5) stepping up street policing of quality-of-life offenses can make the difference and save lives.

It’s time to liberate Baghdad-by-the-Bay. A city this beautiful shouldn’t be punishing the weakest within it.