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October 5 - October 9, 1998

Wednesday, October 7, 1998

An open letter

To the members of the Progressive Left Slate: Carlos Petroni, Lucrecia Bermúdez, María Dolores Rinaldi, Chris Finn and Tom Lacey.

In the middle of the road to reform lies a deep pit, into which generations of progressives have fallen. It's called the insidious tendency to preach to the converted. Recently, this hole in the ground claimed yet another contingent from the left.

For several weeks, the August issue of Frontlines lay unopened on my desk, begging for attention. When at last I extracted the newspaper from the waiting pile, I discovered the "Draft Platform of the Progressive Left," a carefully constructed injection of real substance into this fall's city election free-for-all. The document outlines an ambitious program laced with proposals that range from redesigning the corporate tax structure to renovating the toilets in public parks. It attempts to create a systematic approach to the government of San Francisco, placing transportation, education and health measures alongside police and electoral reforms.

An admirable beginning. But then, before my very eyes, the program disappeared. It vanished, swept into the oblivion of the giant pit, because it failed to answer a simple question: Why? Why should we elect people who espouse these actions? More important, why should they espouse them? In the absence of an answer, the platform becomes nothing but an intelligent conversation among friends. It will not stir the city's citizens to vote for a new slate of candidates. It certainly will not "motivate other candidates to come up with comprehensive proposals of their own."

Allow me, if you will, to add a prequel to the estimable document compiled by the Progressive Left. Allow me to offer, in the spirit of comradeship --- progressive dissension is always self-defeating --- a prelude to debate.


* * *

Beneath the glitter of new buildings and public events, San Francisco is a city in crisis. Throughout the postwar period, it has sacrificed the well-being of all its residents for the economic prosperity of a few, leading to increasing instability and inequalities that are manifest in every aspect of urban life. Today, on the eve of the new millennium, the city has reached a turning point. The actions that its citizens take now will determine its character for decades to come.

The Crisis in Employment. More than 30,000 adult San Franciscans are out of work. In the booming economy of today, jobs are scarce in a city with a 3.2 percent unemployment rate; in the economy of the future, shaken by global turbulence, jobs will be even harder to find. Hardest hit are the 7,000 former welfare parents and 13,000 other men and women on county general assistance whose continuing financial aid is linked to work. But in an era of part-time temporary jobs, mere employment does not ensure a decent livelihood for either blue- or white-collar workers. And even a full-time job at the minimum wage will not raise a worker's income above the poverty level.

The Crisis in Education. San Francisco does not provide its children with the education they deserve. Its students are ethnically diverse: 26 percent are Chinese; 21 percent, Latinos; 18 percent, African Americans; 13 percent, whites; 8 percent, Filipinos; 15 percent, other people of color. About one-fourth receive AFDC assistance; one-third have a limited proficiency in English. This population poses challenges that require innovation and flexibility, yet they are met with retrogressive rigidity. Small wonder that many children test below the national average, or that 16--18 percent of all students drop out before the end of high school.
The Crisis in Health. San Francisco is a health disaster waiting to happen. Take a city where more than 15,000 people are HIV-positive. Where methamphetamine-related emergency room visits are the highest in the nation, and heroin-related visits rank close behind. Where, despite the mayor's promises of universal health insurance, a growing number of people have no coverage. Imagine the chaos if another epidemic is added to the mix.

The Crisis in Housing. San Francisco has failed in the basic task of providing shelter. Fewer than 200,000 rental units are available in a city of 790,000 people. Filled to capacity, their rents are soaring. For people who earn a median income of $32,000, buying a median-priced home of $325,000 is out of the question. Between 10,000 and 14,000 residents of the city are homeless, and many City workers cannot afford to live in the city they serve.

The Crisis in the Environment. San Francisco has fouled its nest. It has tainted the very ground it stands on, particularly in the southeast corner, where children learn the meaning of the word "brownfield" at an early age. It has polluted the water that washes its shores, making fish caught there dangerous to eat. Its streets are clogged; its air is increasingly smog-filled. More than 7,500 locally owned vehicles occupy each of San Francisco's 47 square miles;  about 4.37 million vehicles fill the entire Bay Area, many traveling to or from San Francisco every day. Unreliable and expensive, public transportation offers a poor alternative.
The Crisis in Time. For many people living in San Francisco, time is running out. Major construction projects from the Presidio to Mission Bay are accelerating the growth of the city's professional and service sectors at the expense of its industrial base while chains like Rite Aid and Starbucks force out small, locally owned businesses. These new pioneers come bearing gifts --- donations to job-training programs, contributions earmarked for affordable housing --- which the City Hall sachems accept without suspicion. The trusting pols even serve as Judas goats in the sellout. The Mayor's Office of Economic Development touts the Mission District as "attracting trendy thirtysomethings," and two Browns --- the mayor and the supervisor --- offer to solve the city's homeless problem by depopulating Civic Center Plaza.

A new San Francisco, a beacon for other American cities, hovers near the horizon. Will it enfold all its citizens into a more humane and just society? Or will it turn its back on those in need and erect a precarious room at the top?

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

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