Have you ever heard of APEC? Likely, the answer is no. But, to borrow a phrase from President Joseph Biden, “This is a big fucking deal!”
And it’s coming to a Downtown near you in November.
Literally thousands of government security personnel will flood San Francisco, along with a State Department-estimated 30,000 diplomats, business leaders, journalists and senior political leaders from 21 nations. Including this one: President Biden will be here. This is a big fucking deal!
The Secret Service et al. do not want randos — or, worse, bad actors — mingling with our out-of-town guests. So the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum will require yet-undisclosed “Zones of Exclusion” in San Francisco from Nov. 12 to 18. Swaths of the city will be converted into a police state where you will not be welcome. Mission Local is told that it’s not at all off the table that the feds will call for barring the public from the cable cars and the Central Subway (in the case of the latter, they could at least note that they paid for most of it).
And, commensurately, there’s a lot at stake: This is a city that thrives on international investment, particularly from Asia. Now all of the government and business honchos will be in one room, drinks in hand, ready for our pitch (Yes, there’s a full slate of very serious events — but there’s a big gala, too).
More broadly, this is also a chance for this city to alter the hyperbolic-yet-entrenched narrative that it’s a dystopian wasteland replete with crime, filth, overt drug use, tent encampments and barefaced misery; a dingy place befitting a Robocop reboot.
Government officials I spoke with had few worries that the city could throw a big party. Several mentioned Martha Cohen by name. The city’s special projects director is described as “old-school competent” and has World Series parades and civic extravaganzas on her resume: “When she retires, they’re gonna have, like, five people replace her,” says a former mayoral staffer. “The logistics of it, I’m not concerned about.”
But it’s not what happens in the room that has city officials concerned. It’s what happens outside of it, and there’s only so much control anyone has over that. Homeless people may not be wandering through the various checkpoints necessary to hobnob with world leaders, but the international press corps certainly can wander out. They may not like what they see.
At any point in the past 40-plus years, out-of-town journalists could’ve documented filth and misery and drug-use and homelessness and crime in San Francisco without even scuffing up the bottoms of their shoes. But now much of that is easier to find — and out-of-town media will be primed to go look for it, insofar as they need to look at all. That’s because it has, honestly or deservedly or not, become the San Francisco storyline.
“My feeling is, there is only one story in San Francisco right now: The decay of the city and its streets,” says former longtime KPIX journalist Hank Plante. Regarding the hordes of reporters heading to town for APEC, “That is the story they will be doing. Guaranteed. They would be remiss not to.”
“You know the story your boss wants you to do. You don’t dare come back without doing that story.”
And this is the great fear of San Francisco officials scrambling to avoid embarrassing the city, state and nation on the world stage.
That and fundraising, of course.
Because fundraising is not going spectacularly. To be fair, raising money to host APEC in your city is a challenge. The Secret Service’s top man in San Francisco flat-out says San Franciscans should stay away from APEC and work from home. An event that the general public is overtly and heavy handedly encouraged to avoid is not an intuitive sell for many donors.
Regardless, San Francisco has set an ambitious $20 million fundraising goal. The mayor’s office on Sunday said that $11.5 million has been amassed.
But, when pressed, it noted that only around $4.8 million of that has actually been delivered. So, this is not a fantastic place to be for an event that starts in mid-November. And every fund-raising professional I spoke with said yes — hell yes — it’s not a good thing to have a sizable delta between money in hand and money promised; it brings to mind the old Jackie Mason joke about the accountant who ran away with all accounts payable.
Also, yes, you’re paying for this too. Mayor London Breed has allocated $10 million for city-related expenses — logistics, overtime, etc. But the sort of things the city is fund-raising for (think gala) cannot be covered with public money.
It is a hard expectation that San Francisco will throw a proper party so the international press corps will be able to access the diplomats and elected officials and business titans who attend this conference. That’s why they attend. And the city family would likely prefer visiting journalists to linger in the Zones of Exclusion than wander through Downtown taking notes.
Among some city officials, there is a hope that the over-the-top storylines about crime and filth and misery have grown so excessive that San Francisco will get a pass for merely being bleak. Think of the George W. Bush debate strategy.
Also, San Francisco’s misery is not evenly apportioned. The city remains serenely beautiful, as ever, and many neighborhoods are doing as well as, or better than, before the pandemic. But some are markedly not: “If all the out-of-town journalists stay at the Hilton and walk west,” jokes a longtime city official, “well, that’s not so good.”
To be clear, it’s not hundreds of reporters from the New York Post and Daily Mail who’ll be parachuting in. They will, primarily, be overseas niche journalists covering politics and economics. But San Francisco’s incredible proximity of wealth and abject misery is absolutely both an economic and a political story. And if the city uses heavy-handed means to move homeless people out of sight, out of mind, that’s a story too.
“The dominant story about San Francisco over the last year has been the capitulation of the city to homeless people, and the emptying out of significant commercial districts,” said media analyst Ken Doctor, a longtime Knight Ridder executive who is now helming the Santa Cruz Lookout. “That is an easy story to do. The helicopter story to do is ‘the fall of San Francisco.’”
Tom Goldstein, a University of California, Berkeley, emeritus professor and the former dean of Berkeley’s and Columbia’s journalism schools, said out-of-town reporters who haven’t been in the city for 10 or 20 years will be shocked at how much more overt many of the city’s problems have become.
“The opulence still remains in San Francisco, so it’s the juxtapositions,” he said. “They’re going to see a contrast. And those are stories.”
It would also be a story if even a handful of attendees had their cars broken into or suffered stressful interactions with unhinged people — or worse. These are everyday occurrences in any American city, but they’re not the stories your city leaders want to see. So we have learned that big-money establishment organizations are going to be launching a campaign to push positive San Francisco narratives to the national and international media.
Dios mio, man. It’s worth taking a moment to smile, shake your head and appreciate the weapons-grade insanity of all that’s about to transpire between now and November.
The same organizations and politicians who were happy to indulge in the crime and filth and chaos storyline when it was politically convenient now want to talk about how San Francisco’s violent crime rate is actually lower than most cities and the scenes of misery on its hardest-up streets are both nothing new and not indicative of life in the city writ large. Now it’s politically inconvenient. Now they want to be rational.
At last. At last we have a definition of chutzpah that doesn’t involve a child killing his parents and pleading for mercy as he is an orphan. That’s good, if not a big fuckin’ deal.
So, if nothing else positive comes from this year’s conference, at least we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice.