About Us

Contact Us


Walkin’ the walk, talkin’ the talk

By Betsey Culp

What if “they” gave a party and nobody came? If they sent out 15,000 invitations and only 1,000 guests showed up? “Promising to protect and nurture the diversity and strength of San Francisco” — I’m reading from the official press release issued on January 8 — “Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr. today was sworn in for his second term as the 41st mayor of the City and County of San Francisco.” Saturday morning was bleak, with gray skies and a chilly wind sucking the warmth from the steps of City Hall. Except for the scarlet accents of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the sparse crowd seemed somber, as bureaucratic black mingled with umber mufti. Someone once remarked that Washington politicians have unusually large heads, the better to be seen. San Francisco politicos tend to carry the practice one step farther, sporting oversized shoulder pads, hats, and trenchcoats, the better to announce their presence.

Before this small group of large people, the Once and Future Mayor spoke soberly and at great length about his plans. His momma obviously raised him well: much of the speech was a sincerely stated thank-you note to the campaign workers who ensured his reascension of the marble steps he loves so much, with especially cordial nods to his new allies on the west side of the city and in the Chinese community. With an apparent amazement astonishing in a man who has just finished four years as the city’s chief executive, he noted that the election process had opened his eyes to the needs and wants of the people he serves. I gather that the entrance of an upstart supervisor turned an election that looked like a piece of cake into a tough slice of pot roast, with Brown forced back into the political kitchen to relearn the basics. Ever the quick study, he insists the crash course worked.

Our Mayor learned something that every old-fashioned ward politician instinctively understands: backroom deals may be fun, but to gain real political insights, ya gotta hit the streets. I’m willing to bet that, with the advent of district elections, the successful supervisors will be the ones who spend an afternoon a week pounding the pavement, listening to their constituents and seeing for themselves how things work. In the spirit of civic cooperation and continuing education, I invite Mayor Brown to join me as I re-create a walk I recently took through my neighborhood. I’ll describe some of the local sights. The lessons they contain are the responsibility of the beholder.


Saturday morning, Inauguration Day. A cloud cover had turned the city into a black-and-white photograph, but as I looked north from Bernal Hill, the sun broke through to illuminate one small area. No meteorological omens here, however. The bright spot, which lay not in the Civic Center but somewhere near the Panhandle, vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

I headed toward the 24th-Mission station, passing by a 27-Bryant bus shelter just two blocks from my house. On ordinary days, I travel downtown by MUNI rather than making the 20-minute trek to BART, but this day was special. I wanted to make sure I got there on time, and MUNI revolution notwithstanding, the buses in this part of town frequently do not.

Army Street — the signs say “Cesar Chavez,” but the old name lingers on many tongues — was lined as usual with clusters of young men hoping to catch the eye of temporary employers. The morning was well advanced, it was a weekend, and the temperature hovered in the low 50s, but still they tarried there. Better to stay and talk with friends than to wander elsewhere alone.

At Garfield Park, two boys about nine years old were crouching low, creeping stealthily along the concrete border, with broad grins lighting their faces. Suddenly, a voice sang out from the group of kids just around the corner: “I can see you!” Grand giggles all around.

A few blocks beyond, on 24th Street, the nostalgic aroma of freshly baked pastries and spicy meat sauces began to drift through the open doors of countless tiny restaurants. Despite the large Latino population of the Mission, the cuisine is international, and the scent of jalapeños mingled tantalizingly with that of soy sauce and lemongrass. Women made their way from market to market, with small children in tow. A group in front of me, laden with shopping bags, chatted animatedly in Spanish until one small boy in a turquoise jacket remembered a new word he’d just learned. “Cool!” he said. “Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool!”

On my return a few hours later, the mothers were still making their rounds. One toddler in a stroller tented with clear plastic sleepily explored her chubby face while an older sister trudged alongside. Teenaged boys emerged, traveling in packs, taking over sections of the sidewalk. A shopkeeper burst from his store, shouting at a grizzled man in faded blue jeans. For an instant, the street scene froze, as the interloper brandished a yellow plastic mat knife and fled around the side of the building. In the quiet street, a dark-haired woman in a canvas jacket and a thin flowered dress sipped from a can of malt liquor as she waited for the bus. Two slender boys paced back and forth, engaged in a serious discussion of how to extricate a pink flamingo, left over from Christmas, from the eaves of a nearby house.

People and politics converge at every step of this walk. Issues hover behind every face — issues of housing and jobs, recreation and crime, health and education. Their general configurations are easy to catch a glimpse of; it’s the specifics that elude. But it’s the specifics that make solutions possible. And they can only be observed in their native habitat.

Last week the Chronicle quoted Arthur Bruzzone, past chairman of San Francisco’s Republican Party: “If he wants to, [Willie Brown] can make a real difference in this city and leave a legacy beyond all the new construction.” Funny, that’s what some of us said four years ago. Maybe the second time around’s a charm. Let’s hope.