Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The End of America’s Cities

San Fransisco's mayor may hint at a return to law and order, but real overhaul toward a peaceful city life is a long way off.

Having established itself as the world’s flagship open air fentanyl recreation center with multiple opportunities for not so petty theft, the City of San Francisco took a sharp turn on December 14 when Mayor London Breed declared its drug-ridden Tenderloin neighborhood an “emergency zone,” pledging to step up law enforcement. A few days later, when the newest installment of the Matrix franchise premiered at San Francisco’s marquee Castro Theater, promoters parked a giant translucent red pill next to the venue. Worry not, that was a publicity stunt, not a sign of things to come.

Breed noted a staggering increase in drug use and drug poisonings that took place in recent months, observing skyrocketing demand for syringes and a 38 percent rise in calls to Street Overdose Response Team occurring between October and November. But locals pointed out that the language of Breed’s declaration called for compensation from FEMA, with the funds sure to be funneled to city’s numerous “non-profits.” Moreover, we are heading into an election year, and Democrat run municipalities, San Francisco chief among them, are a major blemish on the Democratic Party’s image.

Breed’s press conference came on the heels of proud New Yorkers Karol Markowitz and Sohrab Ahmari announcing they are leaving the Big Apple, news that feels like the nadir for American cities. If a place as spectacular as New York can no longer retain residents, what can be said of Minneapolis, or Los Angeles? With the San Francisco pivot, it is tempting to hope that the U.S. metropolis has bottomed out, that criminality and disorder will now be properly addressed. Breed’s admission that we are in a state of emergency is a huge victory for the law-and-order side, but I’m bearish on our urban future.

Safety will not enforce itself. Over the course of history, human societies developed publicly financed and managed outfits known as police forces to maintain order in large population centers. As recently as 2019, most of us took this arrangement for granted, believing that we are entitled police protection for simply being American citizens. But since the inception of Black Lives Matter during the Obama presidency, and with the former president’s carefully crafted approval, American institutions have aligned themselves against the cops. Law enforcement officers have been painted as trigger happy proxies of racist institutions, and as a result, over the last decade, police departments have been bleeding troops.

The exodus accelerated after the passing of George Floyd three months into the Covid-19 closures. During the murder trial of the police officer in whose hands Floyd met his death, a local paper published private identifying information about the jurors. The central question of the BLM era is not whether or not a rogue cop is guilty of killing a black man, but whether a man accused under these circumstances can get a fair trial.

By mid-2021, the San Francisco Police Department was short 18 percent of officers, with 72 men, or a full 4 percent of the force, reportedly exiting the Department in June 2021 alone. In that, SFPD is pretty typical of law enforcement in deep blue cities.

BLM activists further capitalized on the anti-cop hysteria, successfully pressuring politicians to redirect funds from police forces to social workers or other services. Following the predictably ill-fated year-long “reimagining” experiment, that many municipalities across the U.S. are now reversing themselves to fully finance law enforcement is a welcome development. Unfortunately, the human resources problems we face are deeper than the mere funding of police departments.

Along with the emergence of wokeness as the dominant ideology, a state like California has also contented itself with the near-legalization of many types of criminal behavior. Here, gangs “boost” one store after another, car break-ins plague upscale neighborhoods, and drug-addled individuals, many of them violent, flood the streets. Even prior to the passage of the disastrous Proposition 47, and the closely contested low-turnout election of George Soros’s District Attorney Chesa Boudin, local judges frequently dismissedcriminal cases pertaining to drug dealing. Cops have been arresting and rearresting suspects only to see them walk. Policing here is a Sisyphean labor.

Even if cities like San Francisco can quickly figure out how to keep peace on the streets, their future vitality remains uncertain. I say this from the point of view of a city girl. I was born and raised in a large Eastern European city that my grandparents returned to rebuild after it was reduced to ruin in World War II. Then I spent my youth as a dreaded agent of gentrification in Oakland and was planning on raising my own kids in a major metro. I was making these plans in the ’90s and the early aughts when things were looking up in the Bay Area. Race relations were improving; the age of riots and crime seemed to be over.

When we established ourselves in the Bay Area, a short ride to downtown San Francisco, I imagined that once our kids got a bit older, we’d take them to theaters and art museums, or just shopping and sightseeing, in the city. We were planning on free ranging them, letting them hop on public transit and explore the area on their own once they reached their teens. But because their big kid years happen to coincide with San Francisco’s sharp downward turn, we have only taken them into the city a handful of times. There is no way I am going to let them ride Bay Area Rapid Transit trains,which in recent years turned into an insane asylum on wheels. They will soon be grown up, but the childhood that we intended to give them, the one filled with experiencing high culture and the excitement of a metropolis, didn’t happen.

What in the ’90s looked like the golden age of American cities, was in a retrospect just an interlude. Rudy Giuliani was elected the mayor of New York in 1993, and in 1994, the Three Strikes Law enabling the authorities to put habitual felons in prison for life was enacted in California. But 20 years later, California voters approved Proposition 47, following by the 2016 Proposition 57 which allowed mass release of criminals, including violent offenders, on parole. Add to it the sanctuary state policies that de facto extend to the cartel drug dealers, and a Soros D.A. in charge of prosecution, and “criminal justice reform” is triumphant. In roughly 20 years, we went from tough on crime to “feeling safe is white privilege.”

The human lifespan is longer than the American urban safety cycle. Because my own years of parenting ended up on the wrong end of the law enforcement coil, I do not advise my children to establish themselves in the cities. Uninterrupted resolve is required to keep large population centers safe—welcoming to women and children. I don’t see this resolve in the United States anymore. It appears that every 20 to 30 years the nation is going to plunge head first into lawlessness in the name of some amorphous social justice principle. I simply don’t trust American society, which in the best Anglo-Saxon fashion always trended suburban, to have the stamina for continuous effective law enforcement.

Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area. You can follow her on Twitter @KatyaSedgwick. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.