By Frank Holland
Published in the San Francisco Examiner
November 16, 2023
If you were looking for a weeklong experiential Rorschach test to probe your feelings about San Francisco, you could do a lot worse than APEC.
Depending on who you talk to — and which parts of The City they typically haunt — APEC was either a tour de force that thrust a glittering San Francisco back upon the world stage or a reason to close your deserted downtown restaurant early and buy your employees a drink at a nearby bar.
For many others, it was the Super Bowl of protest opportunities. Who cares if your issue has nothing to do with APEC? The eyes of the world are upon you!
As for the visiting dignitaries and members of the international press corps, it was probably more or less what they thought it would be, give or take the odd strong-arm robbery of $18,000 in camera equipment.
In the chilly early morning hours near the ominously identified “perimeter” that cordoned off sections of downtown for APEC programming, one could be forgiven for mistaking the mise en scène for the Orwellian police state of a Black Mirror episode.
The law enforcement presence against a backdrop of security fencing was set to an eerily silent soundtrack, as though the extras meant to bring life to the shot hadn’t been told that the SAG-AFTRA strike had ended. In truth, most people who usually bring the buzz and energy to the streets simply decided to avoid the headache and stay home. As everyone who has read a story about The City in the past three years knows, San Franciscans are adept remote workers.
The sterility on the street belied the palpable energy inside Moscone Center, which teemed with diplomatic bigwigs, titans of industry, and their attending support staff. Every meeting and event was scripted “to the gnat’s eyebrow” to borrow a phrase from Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin that deserves readmission to the popular lexicon.
Indeed, APEC was a triumph of collaboration, planning, and determination. Witness the power-washed sidewalks, vanishing graffiti, dwindling homeless encampments, and feel-good public space activations throughout downtown.
Is that the lingering scent of stale urine you smell? For once, maybe not!
At a recent press conference with Mayor London Breed, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave voice to what we’ve all been thinking:
“I know folks say, ‘Oh, they’re just cleaning up this place because all those fancy leaders are coming into town,’ That’s because it’s true,” Newsom said. “This is what you do; this is the table stakes. But everything has got to get dialed up, just generally.”
He’s not wrong. But all the people asking why The City can’t be like this all the time (minus the security fencing and riot police) aren’t wrong either.
We should be both proud of our ability to rise to the occasion for this historic global summit and outraged to see how blindingly straightforward it was in retrospect. It’s not a matter of resources in or out; The City raised a little more than $20 million to produce the big show, which officials crowed would inject $53 million into The City through local spending.
For those keeping score at home, $20 million equals 0.14% of The City’s annual budget. And that $53 million flowing into local hotels and restaurants that everyone is so proud of? Well, that’s about 0.02% of The City’s annual GDP or 1/12th of The City’s daily economic output.
One might call it a “gnat’s eyebrow” if one were so inclined.
The City’s pre-APEC glow-up wasn’t purely a function of additional financial resources brought to bear on our problems. And if the motivating factor was an increase in one-time economic activity, the ROI hardly seems commensurate with the upside attached to maintaining a cleaner, healthier, more hospitable public sphere on a day-to-day basis.
Our experience with APEC demonstrates what’s possible when a sense of urgency takes hold of our public officials and forces action and coordination. Make no mistake: It is precisely that sense of urgency that marks the difference between Governor Newsom’s “big event table stakes” and the plight of everyday San Franciscans going about their business in a city that fails to serve them time and time again.
With APEC, accountability was baked into the price of admission. If The City had failed to deliver, the ramifications would be significant and embarrassingly public. On any given Wednesday on Market Street? Not so much.
Our ossified institutions sprang to life and moved heaven and earth for a few days of good impressions because, for one shining moment, incentives were largely aligned across our fractured constellation of hidebound interest groups.
Because no one stood to gain from a failed summit that confirmed the outside world’s worst preconceived notions, people decided to behave like grownups, make tough decisions, and get the job done.
In the process, San Franciscans caught a glimpse of what The City could accomplish with a modicum of gumption.
On APEC eve, at a politically star-studded event for President Biden and Vice President Harris hosted by Examiner owners Clint and Janet Reilly and Governor Newsom, Mr. Reilly took the stage. He recalled the groundbreaking ceremony for the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition when President Taft christened San Francisco “The City that Knows How.”
Our experience with APEC demonstrates that Taft’s sobriquet still applies — at least this week.
What comes next matters. Does The City have the initiative, focus, and determination to sustain a better, more civil environment after the world’s attention shifts elsewhere? Or is providing for the common welfare of everyday San Franciscans and local businesses an insufficient justification for keeping the house clean after the party’s over?
We’ll soon find out.