Progressive Policies = Dying Cities
“San Francisco has only one drawback,” wrote British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling in 1891. “It’s hard to leave.”
Sadly, it no longer is. And the immediate reasons only point to a much deeper problem.
Anyone who has ever visited the city knows what Kipling meant. Set between a beautiful bay and the Pacific Ocean, a mild climate that invites visitors year-round, a legendary bridge gracing its harbor, and filled with parks, monuments, and historic neighborhoods, San Francisco has long been a place where many Americans have left their hearts.
Yet the golden glow of “Baghdad by the Bay” has dimmed dramatically in recent years. If San Francisco is now fabled for anything, it is for its self-destruction and gathering decay.
This week, one of the leading retail firms in America was the latest casualty of San Francisco’s collapse. Iconic retailer Nordstrom has announced that after 35 years, it is shutting down. Actually, the past tense is better: Fortune magazine reports that on Sunday, Nordstrom “closed the doors on its five-story, 312,000 square-foot store.” As Fortune’s Chris Morris writes, Nordstrom is “the latest retailer to capitulate to rising crime and lower foot traffic.” The company owning the mall where Nordstrom had its building said the retailer’s decision to shutter “underscores the deteriorating situation in downtown San Francisco.”
Since 2019, 96 of the city’s 203 retail stores have shut down. As of May, mobile phone use in San Francisco was only 42% of what it was in the same period in 2019. The city is not only losing business, it is losing people. Between 2020 and 2022, 65,000 people, or 7.5% of the total population, gave up and left.
Crime is a major reason for the growing demise of this one-time American urban jewel. But perhaps a larger cause is the persistent unwillingness of San Francisco’s political leaders to take action against what’s happening on the streets.
The closure of Nordstrom wasn’t the only good thing that came to end this week. A San Francisco land use commissioner has resigned after he was found to be one of the people behind a satirical “Doom Loop” tour of the downtown’s “open-air drug markets, the abandoned tech offices, the outposts of the non-profit industrial complex, and the deserted department stores.”
The tour has been cancelled, but its point is apparent to anyone walking around the city. According to the San Francisco Controller’s 2022 report, “almost half” of streets in “Key Commercial Areas” were littered with human or animal feces. Other common hazards include “broken glass … syringes, condoms, dead animals, and odors,” the latter often being the stench of urine. Incredibly, the city’s leaders are allowing as many as 4,000 people to live on the streets where these health dangers are present. In total, roughly 8,000 people without homes, about 1,100 of them 18 and younger, live on San Francisco’s streets — this, despite the fact that the city’s “Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing had a budget of $672 million in fiscal year 2023.”
Why are these crises allowed to continue? In Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, some of America’s largest cities are dying. How can this be?
Sociologists, criminologists, and psychologists all have explanations, some of them plausible, others less so. But the critical issue is one the “progressives” in charge of these historically impressive cities either don’t understand or don’t want to consider.
It’s this: Compassion divorced from truth and wisdom means cowardice and collapse. In the name of humanitarian good will, the city fathers and mothers of San Francisco and other cities are unwilling to make tough decisions, choices that would inflame “community activists” and others who believe permissiveness is synonymous with kindness.
There are affordable and effective ways of helping people without homes, solutions that would get them off the street and enable them to live safely and cleanly. However, many on the street enjoy the life it entails — substance abuse and public aid. Many homeless adults struggle with drug or alcohol abuse and/or mental illness. Yet rather than mandating treatment for them, they are allowed to languish in a torpid haze, a twilight of grime and confusion and danger to themselves and others.
Why? Because policymakers fear being called heartless or, worse, fascist. This is not the milk of human kindness. It is the venom of misguided compassion, the poison of moral cowardice.
No one wants to do violence to people so far down on the ladder of advantage. But there are constructive ways of constraining crime and ending such things as public defecation without starting a riot. Human dignity deserves no less than that wise, well-executed action be taken.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.