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Why San Francisco Prevails

By Frank Holland

As we try to imagine what a post-COVID world will look like, we reimagined some of our iconic portraits for the new era. Top row, left to right: Buster Posey, Denise Hale, Gavin Newson, Felicia Horowitz. Bottom row, left to right: Charlotte and George Shultz, Tony Bennett, Kara Swisher, NHG Martini Man. (Images by Spencer Brown, Cody Pickens, David Downton, Michael Schwab)

By all accounts, San Francisco has paced well ahead of most American cities in its response to the coronavirus outbreak. Early intervention and bold collective action have slowed the disease’s spread and forestalled the dire predictions of mass death and hospital system collapse that marked the early days of the pandemic. Of course, it’s far too early to declare victory. This was but the opening battle in what promises to be months or even years of trench warfare against a dispassionate, relentless and invisible enemy.

Still, it’s worth considering why the Bay Area — with San Francisco at its core — managed to achieve its initial curve-flattening objectives while so many other cities have not. Certainly, assertive leadership and forthright public health directives played a crucial role, but there’s reason to believe that something else is at play, an innate character trait that underscores decades of the City’s growth and development.

The Barbary Coast, Herbert Asbury’s eye-popping 1933 romp through the founding days of San Francisco, painted the picture of a lawless boomtown perpetually on the brink of self-destruction. Criminal gangs roamed the waterfront, setting fire to the City repeatedly as part of a grotesque pillaging scheme. From this cycle of incineration and regeneration rose the City’s newly salient symbol — the phoenix, a mythical bird rising from the ashes.

Today, we confront a new criminal element, a virus that has left our structures intact but stolen something far dearer to us all: Time. Memories. Connection. Lives and livelihoods. The coronavirus has robbed us of opening day at the ballpark, the buzzing excitement of the last day of school, barbecues with friends and neighbors, and the ability to credibly tell our children that everything is going to be OK.

As local literary hero Dave Eggers recently illustrated in a tour-de-force New York Times op-ed, we have little idea where we are headed, much less whether everything will be OK once we get there. But if history is any guide, San Francisco will tap into its capacity for reinvention once again and emerge stronger on the other side.

Although the phoenix symbol has developed new resonance amid the City’s shuttered businesses and silent streets, San Francisco is perhaps better described by another mythical emblem, the ouroboros. Represented by a serpent swallowing its own tail, the ouroboros represents the cyclical nature of time, the extremes of life and death, darkness and light, exhaustion and regeneration.

For more than 170 years, San Francisco has similarly evolved from within, assimilating the largest human mass migration in recorded history during the Gold Rush to transform from a fishing village into a rollicking port city. It overcame the 1906 earthquake to become the most important city on the West Coast. One hundred years later, its gravitational pull consumed the energy, wealth and dynamism of Silicon Valley, turning the City into the world’s most important technology hub and a true global metropolis.

Our capacity for resilience rests more in our ability to overcome our limitations and leverage our unique strengths than some intrinsic grit or fortitude. Our region is one of the healthiest, most highly educated in the country. Perhaps this fact has more to do with our ability to respond to the coronavirus crisis than we realize. Sensing the coming storm, many of our largest employers issued work-from-home orders precious days prior to those emanating from local public officials, who were themselves far ahead of the curve compared with other U.S. cities. Bay Area residents took social distancing seriously and not only flattened the curve — they crushed it.

Forget comparisons to New York City — the mayor of which famously encouraged residents to go to the movies on the same day Mayor London Breed encouraged residents to begin preparing for a major disruption of their lives — look at the Bay Area compared with Los Angeles. Although it is now understood that the coronavirus was stalking the Bay Area community as early as February, today’s charts of total cases and COVID-19 deaths tell starkly different stories of the two regions.

No one knows how this all ends. The idea of “getting back to normal” is a fallacy; as Governor Gavin Newsom has repeatedly pointed out, we will be collectively developing a new normal for some time. One thing we can say for certain is that things will look different one year from now. Circumstances will change. People and businesses will adapt. We will likely be contending with wide-spread economic devastation, the likes of which few of us have ever seen.

The fact remains that no region is better equipped to mitigate the worst effects of this virus, and no region is better positioned to thrive in its aftermath, than the Bay Area. As the country inches toward herd immunity, rapid testing, therapeutics and vaccines will begin arriving at scale, many of which will be developed by our own world-class scientific community. Our businesses, already steeped in the tenets of resilience by preparing for earthquakes, wildfires and market crashes, are better positioned than most others to weather the storm and rebound vigorously.

Our knowledge economy is second to none, undergirded by companies founded on the pillars of innovation and perpetual reinvention. How many other cities would be able to pivot on a dime, thousands of employees shifting to remote work at a moment’s notice? A recent white paper by researchers at the University of Chicago found that roughly 65 percent of Bay Area jobs could be performed at home. Just 80 miles away in Stockton, only 30 percent of workers could say the same. In an environment in which going to the office can be a matter of life and death, our ability to shift on the fly is a massive competitive advantage.

Even in the wake of unimaginable suffering, our traditional brick-and-mortar businesses have shown their capacity for creativity and rapid adaptation, quickly converting dining rooms to commissaries, rolling out curbside pickup programs and pushing deeper into on-demand delivery via digital apps. None of these measures will blunt the economic tsunami that has befallen the world, but when adaptive new business models emerge, they will likely do so first in the Bay Area.

The Bay Area is not perfect. The pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies of our social safety net and exacerbated the inequities that have separated the haves and the have-nots for generations. The coronavirus will leave lasting economic, social, political and psychological scars that we will contend with long after the virus has been eliminated as a threat. But the San Francisco Bay Area is uniquely equipped to handle these challenges at every step of the crisis, from response to mitigation to recovery.

In our darkest hours, it can be tempting to succumb to the idea that our best days are behind us. Still, there is ample historical precedent for wealthy, well-positioned cities to surge from the jaws of crisis.

When the Black Death gripped the medieval city of Florence in 1348, nearly 60 percent of the city’s population perished within just a few short months. Boccaccio’s Decameron paints a gruesome picture of fear, hopelessness and loss, as his genteel protagonists escape the decaying city for the more inviting (and socially distant) climes of the Tuscan countryside. Similar human tragedies played out across Europe. In Florence, however, the ashes of the Black Death gave birth to the Renaissance, the greatest explosion of artistic, literary and scientific creativity the world had ever seen.

Maybe it’s cheeky to compare Salesforce Tower to Brunelleschi’s dome, or the Fairmont’s Tony Bennett statue to Michelangelo’s David, but there’s something to be said for this particular city at this particular time. We have approached calamity time and time again — resolutely, collectively, creatively — drawing upon all that has come before us to write even more compelling chapters in our shared history. We’ve done so via love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy.

The spirit of St. Francis runs through us all.

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