SanFran’s mean streets become clean streets for Biden, Xi and Co

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San Francisco: It’s a grey autumn day in the Golden Gate City, where the streets have been scrubbed clean to impress the global leaders who have gathered here this week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

What a difference a summit can make.

Tony Phillips, who’s been unhoused for eight years, rests near a security fence on Fourth Street, San Francisco, ahead of the start of the 2023 APEC week.Credit: San Francisco Chronicle/AP

For the past few years, San Francisco has struggled to recover from the COVID lockdowns that upended life across the US. The exodus of tech commuters left many downtown offices vacant and shops bereft of customers. Drug overdoses began to surge as the fentanyl crisis took hold in once thriving areas such as the Tenderloin district between Union Square and Nob Hill.

And homelessness, which has long been a problem thanks to job losses, evictions and unaffordable housing, became far more prevalent – so much so that San Francisco now has the third-highest rate of homelessness in the US behind the neighbouring cities of Oakland and Los Angeles.

But in the lead-up to APEC this week – and US President Joe Biden’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping today – the city has been given a much-needed makeover.

On Market Street, the main thoroughfare, maintenance workers spent weeks removing graffiti, cleaning up trash and resurfacing uneven footpaths.

A homeless encampment is seen along Leavenworth Street in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco last week.Credit: AP

Nearby, the United Nations Plaza, epicentre of the city’s drugs and homelessness crisis, has been transformed from a bustling marketplace for stolen goods and open-air drug dealing into a new skateboarding park with games and activities: Zumba, chess, yoga, table tennis. There is hardly a homeless person to be seen.

Christopher Crandall, 50, who usually sleeps on the street in a part of downtown west of the APEC convention centre, told Reuters he’d even noticed the city had planted new trees. He’s also seen waist-high gates going up in the area where he usually beds down. “I’m wondering if I will be able to sleep there tonight,” he said.

Homeless encampments have been removed and many of those living in them have been offered temporary shelter. Thousands of law enforcement officers have also been called in to police the areas around the event, while entire blocks have been fortified with high fencing and barricades.

“I know folks say ‘Oh, they’re just cleaning up this place because all those fancy leaders are coming into town’,” said California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who many view as a future presidential contender.

“That’s true, because it’s true. But it’s also true that for months and months and months, prior to APEC, we’ve been having different conversations … that we all have to do more and do better.”

San Francisco has been waging a multi-pronged war on drugs and related crime, homelessness and unaffordable housing for years – even earning headlines as a city in an economic “doom loop”.

A city cleaner pressure-washes a sidewalk in San Francisco.Credit: Bloomberg

Officials have tried to clean up the streets, with limited success, drawing criticism from residents and conservative politicians who blame the city’s problems on its liberal policies.

Whether this much-needed effort can be sustained, or is just another Band-Aid solution, is yet to be seen – and many have their doubts.

Such “sweeps” which force homeless people to move will never solve the real problem, which is that there isn’t enough affordable housing, said Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a coalition of homeless groups.

“They do this for the Superbowl, they do this for conferences … but nothing ends homelessness like a home.”

San Francisco cracked down on hot dog vendors and urged people living on the street to seek shelter as it raced to prepare for the APEC event.Credit: Bloomberg

For now, however, the city has certainly rolled out the red carpet for what is said to be its largest gathering of world leaders since the United Nations Charter was signed here in 1945. The event is expected to draw more than 20,000 people, from captains of industry and journalists, to world leaders and ministers from 21 Pacific Rim countries.

Among them is Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who started his three-day visit on Thursday with a meeting with Microsoft bosses, followed by a leaders’ dinner hosted by Biden and First Lady Jill Biden (and featuring entertainment by No Doubt vocalist Gwen Stefani).

Also here is Trade Minister Don Farrell, who met his Chinese counterpart Wang Wentao on the sidelines of the forum last night, and told me that he was “hopeful” export barriers on Australian lobster and beef could be lifted by Christmas.

And as APEC kicked off on Monday, Treasurer Jim Chalmers attended a meeting of finance ministers alongside US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, where fears that the Israel-Hamas war could escalate into a broader regional conflict was top of mind. “If it does, it could pose risks to the global outlook that all of us would be concerned about,” Yellen told us after the meeting.

The most anticipated APEC event, of course, was the powwow between Biden and Xi, which took place this morning (AEDT) at a secluded country estate about 45 kilometres from the CBD – far away from protesters holding up signs emblazoned with messages such as “Dictator Xi” and “Free Tibet”.

Protesters outside San Francisco’s St Regis Hotel on the sidelines of the APEC forum. Credit: Bloomberg

The meeting is the first face-to-face discussion the pair have had in about a year, after flashpoints such as the Chinese spy balloon scandal, state-sanctioned industrial espionage, and then House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s defiant trip to Taiwan.

And while the talks won’t end the stand-off between the US and China, they are nonetheless a sign that Biden and Xi want to stabilise the relationship by keeping the dialogue open. “We’re not trying to decouple from China,” Biden said, “but what we’re trying to do is change the relationship for the better.”

with Reuters

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