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Letter from California, Part 2

To Tad Friend, c/o The New Yorker

By Betsey Culp

When Newsom moved into Room 200 at City Hall, he inherited a city that was still nursing its wounds. He also inherited a host of festering problems. Dealt double body blows by the collapse of the dot-com boom and the decline of tourism after 9/11, San Francisco’s economy was on the ropes.

During the happier, headier days of the 1990s, Willie Brown had sought to create a bright new physical image for the city — some called it an imperial image — by fostering a long list of major construction projects including a rebuilt DeYoung Museum, a home for Bloomingdale’s, a new city-within-the-city at Mission Bay, and a consolidated TransBay Terminal. At the same time, a runaway housing market and rampant development had priced homes beyond the pocketbook of most residents, generating an ugly bitterness in low-income areas. I remember sitting in a Thai restaurant in the largely Latino Mission District and listening to a developer complaining, loudly enough so that everyone in the room could hear, about how much it was costing him to evict the tenants of a building he had just bought.

Frustration over high housing costs continued after the economy collapsed, compounded by the sight of a number of projects where work suddenly ceased when they ran out of money. Downtown, plans for a Mexican museum designed by Ricardo Legorreta and a Jewish museum designed by Ground Zero architect Daniel Libeskind floundered. And today at the corner of Bryant and 20th, in the heart of the Mission, a large pit — like an Olympic-sized swimming pool with no water — is all that marks the site of a once-controversial office park.

A reeling economy, a disgruntled citizenry, a frustrated business community — these were only some of the problems facing Newsom when he took office. Add to them a perennial homeless population and a burgeoning crime rate, and you’ve got a pretty stiff assignment.

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That’s where Newsom stood in February, barely six weeks after his inauguration, when he announced that the city would start marrying same-sex couples. It’s common lore that San Franciscans do not share the worries over gay marriage that torment many other parts of the country. But I had forgotten, until the vice presidential debates, how easily the subject makes even articulate speakers like John Edwards squirm. For most of us here, we’ve seen too many decent people wrestle with cruel red tape in dealing with a loved one’s hospitalization, or agonize over the possible loss of an adopted child. Gay marriage simply isn’t an issue.

This is not to say that we are unanimous on the subject. Perish the thought! This is San Francisco, after all. When Rose Tsai, a candidate for supervisor, espouses “family values, traditional marriage,” she often gets nods of agreement from members of the audience.

Despite hostile talk-show ravings elsewhere, and death threats delivered here, San Franciscans saw the 29-day wedding party as one long happy moment. If you managed to walk through City Hall at the time, you must have noticed the joyous atmosphere that filled the marble chambers. Even city employees, ordinarily rather humorless civil servants who wear their stern black suits as a badge of honor, stopped to watch as one couple after another recited their vows. Perhaps you are correct that the marriages restored the city “to its onetime status as an avatar of social rebellion.” But they also healed many of the wounds left over from the mayoral election. Who can resist a wedding, much less 4,000 weddings?

Most of us realized that the unions were unlikely to survive a court test. But it was the right thing to do. And even now the glow lingers, long after the events themselves. As people travel throughout the city, they encounter 130 hearts made of fiberglass or metal, standing five feet tall, three-dimensional embodiments of the song made famous by Tony Bennett. Imaginatively decorated by artists or celebrities and sponsored by local businesses such as Wells Fargo and Intel Corporation, the hearts will be auctioned off in November to benefit San Francisco General Hospital. In the meantime, they give new meaning to the adage, “Home is where the heart is.”


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