Our trip to San Francisco didn’t start on the right foot. We stayed in a decent enough neighborhood a few blocks east of Union Square — it’s a very touristy area. However, this part of town is right next to the Tenderloin, which is not the best part of the city. While we were headed for BART, the subway system, our smartphone walking directions lead us through a few unpleasant blocks.
I immediately went into New Yorker mode, quickening my walking pace and avoiding contact with dozens of homeless people and dodging poop on the sidewalk. I then realized that I was leaving the rest of the family behind. My wife and two boys were visibly uncomfortable and I made sure to fall back to their position.
Now, I know all cities have their challenges; even a world-class city like San Francisco. Homelessness is a problem all over the U.S. and even in Austin. I also know that life in San Francisco is especially challenging with the high cost of housing; many people on the margins are being forced out. But, I wonder how many tourists, especially from abroad know this. I know my wife and teenaged boys certainly started with a negative impression, within an hour of their visit.
I also made this a teaching lesson for my boys. I let them know how difficult it is for many to live in such an expensive area with wages stagnating relative to the cost of living. Ultimately, I view this as positive, having my sons experience something that they don’t usually see. I also stressed how lucky we are. I don’t think we were ever in any danger. It was midday and the folks on the street kept to themselves. Still, it’s something jarring for people usually confined to the suburbs.
We made it to Powell Station for our ride up to the Mission District. For all the times I’ve visited San Francisco, I’ve never been on BART. I actually love trains and public transit systems; I was looking forward to my ride. I wasn’t expecting anything close to what Japan and Singapore has. After all, they have some of the best transit systems in the world. However, I was surprised that BART scored poorly even compared to the old and dirty subway in New York City.
Ironically, for being next to Silicon Valley, with all the advanced technology and user interfaces, the BART ticket machine is the worst I ever experienced. It took us a few minutes to figure it out. The station itself is dated but it was at least wider and more generous than the truly outdated New York City ones. But the trains were the real disappointment. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) opened in the early 70’s and the trains look like they haven’t been updated since. Even the much derided New York City transit have regularly updated their cars.
On the positive side, the rest of the trip was great. We all enjoyed the wonders of San Francisco. While I still love the city, it’s worth noting the negatives. I know everything has its downsides; we just happen to experience them all upon our first hours in the city.
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