Only YOU Can Stop the Frisco "Doom Loop"
Media Literacy
San Francisco

Only YOU Can Stop the Frisco "Doom Loop"

Lately, I keep seeing a barrage of disparaging articles claiming that either San Francisco is a “failed city.” Or San Francisco is in a “doom loop.” Or San Francisco is “dying.”  

In fact, on Sunday, May 14, 2023, CNN aired a special segment titled, “What happened to San Francisco?” The trailer opens with Sara Sidner, CNN’s reporter, claiming that she “Truly loved San Francisco,” and then goes on to state, “I still do, and it just hurts to see what happened to it.”

I love San Francisco, too. It isn’t past tense. I landed here at 11pm on December 31, 1997, and I am still here. San Francisco became home when I started being curious about its people, its history, and how we all find ourselves within a City named after a Catholic saint. What I am learning is that these narratives of failure, doom, and death are part of a long legacy of the City working in tandem with the private sector and the media to spin tales that ultimately enrich themselves and harm those they deem undesirable. And it’s all there in plain sight. 


I’ve been reading City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco by Chester Hartman with Sarah Carnochan. In chapter two, it goes into detail about how throughout the 1960s to the early 1970s the media, via the Chronicle, the Examiner, and other press, were in collusion with the City to sell redevelopment. Journalists moved effortlessly between working in newsrooms to working for campaigns to working for City Hall. (Sound familiar?) And looking at this period, you can see clearly how talking points from the private sector and the City were sold as fact-based reporting with little to no actual investigation throughout the press.  

It goes even deeper than that, though. In 1965, the Chronicle and Examiner entered into a joint operating agreement to cover printing and business functions. This brought them into alignment politically, with almost identical endorsements in all subsequent elections. It also created a vested interest in both parties in working together to enrich themselves and their corporate owners. After all, land is the most valuable asset, especially in a city with defined geographic boundaries, and between the two companies they owned 36 parcels of land near or directly adjacent to the redevelopment happening in the South of Market neighborhood.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the Chronicle and Examiner peddled stories that increased the value of their land. 

Creating a narrative to drive redevelopment was crucial. The words everyone (e.g. press, the redevelopment agency, City Hall, the private sector) all focused on was “blight,” “slums,” and “skid row.” Suddenly, an entire neighborhood housing mostly low income folx, veterans, immigrants, Filipinos, and seniors (because it was an affordable neighborhood) was blamed for dragging down the local economy. Anyone in that neighborhood who was concerned for their home was cast as “degenerates,” “hippies,” and “bums.” 

This includes Don Caldwell. The Chronicle on April 1, 1971, wrote an article about him with the opening line, “Don Caldwell’s  little dog Tammey and his own dogged obstinacy has probably cost the taxpayers about $1000.” Caldwell had refused relocation offers for numerous reasons, but mostly because offers were either up stairs, uphill, or wouldn’t allow him to bring his dog. He successfully sued the City to stay in his home until reasonable and safe accommodations were provided by the Redevelopment Agency. 

In a May 12, 1971, article titled “Yerba Buena Holdout Is Still There” the Chronicle reported, “The Redevelopment Agency learned yesterday that it is costing $1394 monthly to maintain old Don Caldwell and his best friend, a toy terrier named Tammey, as the only occupants of a decrepit Skid Row hotel.” This immediately led to death threats to Don Caldwell, including four phone calls and a special delivery letter that read, “Hope people spit on you, costing us old people $1394 a month,” and “May God punish you that you pray to die.” I know this because the Chronicle reported on May 19, 1971 (emphasis mine), “The threats followed news stories that the Redevelopment Agency was saddled with $1394 monthly bills to maintain Caldwell and his dog Tammey, at the Dalton, which the agency wants to help pave the way for the Yerba Buena project.” I wonder which “news stories” the Chronicle could be referring to. 

The intentional obfuscation of their role in all of this ins't a surprise. Remember, they own land in the vicinity, and its value was expected to go up through redevelopment. Their corporate owners were also members of San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal (now Research) Association, known as SPUR, which was formed in the 1950s to "sell public-private development projects." 

In a Chronicle article published on February 13, 1960,  it was reported that SPUR was spearheading an effort to “Cleanup” South of Market. SPUR hosted a breakfast with the private sector to gain support for the “Redevelopment Agency and Planning Commission to clean undesirable buildings from the area.” It goes on to admit that “[a] group of investors who have been purchasing property in the vicinity of Third and Howard streets for private redevelopment indicated approval of the plan.” It followed that the director of city planning could support the investors through conducting a preliminary survey of the area, and that “officials of [SPUR] offered to raise money for the survey. Once sufficient data has been gathered the Redevelopment Agency could start work on designating the area as one to be redeveloped.” Concluding with a quote from Mayor Christopher calling the area “a disgrace to San Francisco.” 


Given this history of the City, the private sector, and the media working in tandem to craft narratives about the “degenerates” of “skid row” “disgrac[ing] San Francisco,” I decided to dig a bit deeper into the CNN hit piece. 

First, in the trailer for “What happened to San Francisco,” a disembodied, deep, authoritative voice says, “the crisis of homelessness in America has reached a shocking level in San Francisco.” This is followed by an interview with someone who appears to be living on the street saying, “the drugs attract them. The no punishment kind-of attitude. And then the resources make them want to stay.” And then a concerned voice reports, “the video showing a group of kids getting off a Muni bus as they try to navigate their way through an entire block of open drug use.” The relationship between homelessness and substance is a correlation. It is not causation. CNN knows this, and it chose to edit the trailer to imply causation. 

Second, it immediately cuts to scenes of someone shoplifting from a Walgreens and refers to “mobs of looters ransacking luxury stores.” All of the accompanying footage it uses is from late 2021 to early 2022, and it looks like scenes straight out of movies about the end of days. What they fail to mention is that Walgreens was intentionally over inflating its shoplifting claims as reported on by CNN Business in an article from January 7, 2023, titled, “‘Maybe we cried too much’ over shoplifting, Walgreens executive says.” Again, CNN knew this and included the shoplifting footage from 2021-2022 anyway. 

Third, in their hit piece CNN reveals the main thesis around the 10 minute mark. They share the story of a representative from Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Deaths, whose son became addicted to prescription drugs during high school. The mother admits to trying to commit suicide three times in distress. Now, she believes that "you should be arresting people for using illegal drugs." Nowhere in this narrative constructed by the mom or CNN is any recognition of their role in fueling a crisis of loneliness and despair that is at the heart of drug addiction. Instead, the solution to an addiction started by prescription drugs (most likely gotten at a Walgreens) is jails and prisons.  

Last, in the Fall of 2022, CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros Discovery, opened new offices in San Francisco as a way to invest more heavily into AI and data intelligence. In a paid advertisement (that reads like a news article,) on a site called Built In, their Executive Vice President of Engineering states that they are looking to recruit “out-of-the-box” thinkers to help Warner Bros Discovery strike a “healthy balance between human intelligence and artificial intelligence.” Their Vice President of Global Technical Program Management and Global Partner Integration goes on to state (regarding the staff they are recruiting) that, “If a single voice feels like they have the power, that’s how we’re going to be the best for our customers.” It’s ironic that at the same time CNN is running a hit piece on San Francisco their parent company obviously feels safe enough to open new offices dedicated to innovation. (Note: It is even more ironic that these offices are honing the technology that is partly at the center of the Writer’s Guild of America strike, and that their own Vice President admits that workers being empowered is good for their customers.) I wonder why this didn’t end up in their hit piece on San Francisco. 


San Francisco is a place with a rich and complicated history, just like every bit of land in the United States of America and any land upon which the USA has clamped down its bald eagle talons. San Francisco is (and has always been) filled with violence, oppression, and inequity cast along racial, gender, and class lines because it is a place where the City works hand-in-hand with the private sector and the media to define the haves and have-nots. Together, they systemically punish the have-nots for not having enough. This is also the history of our country, and to not acknowledge this structural oppression and violence only further entrenches White Supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy. And that is WHY the narratives being peddled focus only on the “degenerate,” the “homeless,” the “open air drug markets,” the “slums,” and “the disgrace of San Francisco.” 

So next time you see some negative headline about San Francisco that proclaims how much we are “failing” or how we aredoom looping” our way to “oblivion” or how we are “dying”, don’t click it; just skip it. You’ll be doing me (and San Francisco) a huge ass favor. 

And tell your friends to stop the “doom loop,” too!

We can and MUST stop this spiral together. And it requires all of us to fight against it. They may have money and land on their side. But we have our eyes, our minds, and our voices. Together let’s reveal truth and stop spreading their lies.  

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