Willie L. Brown, according to the Chronicle's John Cote, is "a tremendously popular figure in the city, viewed by many as an avuncular man-about-town, elder statesman and a uniquely San Franciscan character." The Ed Lee Story, a hagiographic campaign book, refers to Brown's "characteristic showmanship and hypnotic charm." Even Randy Shaw, the housing activist who clashed with Brown over gentrification once upon a time, now says in BeyondChron that Brown's first term "was the most progressive of any mayor in modern San Francisco history."
I feel as if I'm living in some sort of strange parallel universe, something out of Orwell or North Korea or the Soviet Union of the 1950s. It's as if history never happened, as if the years between 1996 and 2004 have just vanished, have been deleted from San Francisco's collective memory. It's crazy.
What about the thousands and thousands of people who lost their homes and were tossed out of the city like refugees from a war? What about the rampant corruption at City Hall? What about the legions of unqualified political cronies who got good jobs and commission posts? What about the iron-fisted machine rule that kept local politics closed to all but the loyal insiders? Doesn't any of that count?
Here are some things that absolutely, undeniable, demonstrably happened while Willie Brown was mayor:
Rents on the East Side of town, particularly in the Mission, tripled and sometimes quadrupled between 1996, when Brown took office, and 2004, when he left. Evictions more than tripled, too, and at one point more than 100 people a month were losing their homes. Most of those people were low-income, long-term tenants. They were forced out because richer people were moving into town during the dot-com boom and could pay more for those apartments. We called it the "Economic Cleansing of San Francisco."
Every day, it seemed, we'd be out at another rally as the Tenants Union and the Mission Antidisplacement Coalition tried to save another family from the forces of gentrification. Every week, it seemed, another group house full of artists would be served an eviction notice. Everywhere you looked, nonprofits and small businesses were losing space to high-tech companies with plenty of money.
I watched the wrecking crew tear down a studio complex on Bryant Street, forcing more than 100 painters and photographers to leave, to make way for a high-tech office project that was approved even though it violated the local zoning laws — and then was never built. For two years, I walked to get my lunch past the empty hole in the ground that had once been a thriving community.
That was typical. Every developer who waved money in front of the mayor got a building permit, no matter how crazy, illogical or illegal the project was. The Planning Department and the Bureau of Building Inspection were little more than fronts for the lobbyists and Brown cronies who determined development policy in the city.
In October, 1999, the author Paulina Borsook wrote a famous piece in Salon called "How the Internet Ruined San Francisco." I agreed with the sentiment; the influx of the dot-commers was wrecking all that was cool and weird about the city. But she got one point wrong: The Internet didn't ruin anything. The Internet was, and is, a technology, a tool, something that, like most technological advances, can be used for good or evil.
Mayor Brown didn't create the dot-com boom. Although he took credit for an awful lot of things, even Willie didn't claim to have invented the Internet.