Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 2

Yes, I think the parents described in the editorial are hypocrites, at least in a general way. I would probably have a more nuanced view if I got to know them.

I have some relatives who could be described as affluent white progressive parents, and I think, for the most part, they are not hypocrites with regards to social justice. But they do not behave like the parents described in the editorial. They do send their kids to race-and-class diverse public schools, some of them used to live with their kids in a neighborhood with plenty of non-affluent African-American neighbors (which, um, gentrification, but that’s different from the issues raised in the editorial) and I’ve seen that their kids’ peer groups is also diverse, and based on listening to their kids talk about social justice issues, I think they’ve done as much to pass on social justice values as is possible for affluent white people.

I believe the parents described in the editorial are sincerely in favor of progressive changes which do not threaten their privilege, but when their is a conflict between preserve their privilege and pursuing social justice, they clearly choose to preserve their privilege. If they actually cared about racial and class diversity, they would send their children to public schools and get involved in school politics to improve those school. As a public school parent, my mother was able to make a few very small improvements to San Francisco’s public school system. If she had been a private school parent she would have been too far outside the public school system to do anything meaningful.

And I do not think that social justice values is the only way they are hypocrites. They claim that they want their children to have the best education possible. Yet, based on what I read between the lines in that editorial, that’s not what they are doing. They are trying to improve their children’s social standing, not their intellectual or personal development.

First of all, I think there is an educational benefit to being around students of diverse backgrounds. That includes, but is not limited to race and class diversity. As a teenager, I attended a summer boarding school which had an admission policy of having student body which represented all of the regions of California, with a slight tilt in favor of students from rural regions which offered fewer summer education options. It was the first time in my life I got spend a lot of time with peers who weren’t from San Francisco. Exposure to that geographical diversity expanded my horizons.

I think the greater benefit of diverse schools is not the passing on social justice values, but the fact that people from different backgrounds tend to have different points of view, and being exposed to many points of view is good for developing independent thinking skills. By not sending their children to diverse schools or putting them in diverse environments, they are denying their children that benefit.

Beyond that, it seems that these parents are choosing their private schools for prestige and exclusivity, not because they have verified that these private schools actually offer better education. It is very difficult to compare the education quality at public and private schools, but the studies with the largest sample sizes find that, when you control for socio-economic background, private schools do not offer better educational outcomes than public schools.

That is not to say that all private schools are primarily for entrenching/advancing elite privilege. There are many kinds of private schools. Yes, I think there are situations where attending a private school may be the better choice for intellectual/personal development, as well as situations where, even if the private school does not provide a better education than public schools, it has some other advantage which justifies the cost.

Though if it is one of those high schools which charge $40,000/yr for tuition – and San Francisco has some of those – I cannot imagine any advantage which justifies that cost; even if it were the best high school in the world AND the only high school in all of San Francisco AND I had that money on hand, at that price I would choose homeschooling, and if I were so wealthy that $40,000/yr was pocket change, I would rather hire a bunch of really good tutors than send my kid to high school. Okay, I can imagine ONE situation where paying more than $40,000/yr for high school tuition would be worth it; my child has special needs due to disability which I absolutely cannot meet with homeschooling and that super-expensive high school is the only way to meet those needs.

However, the real tell for me is this line from the editorial: “One boy said proudly, ‘My school is not for everyone’ β€” a statement that reflected how thoroughly he’d absorbed his position in the world in relation to others.” Okay, yes, it is impossible for a school to be right for absolutely everyone, therefore no school is for everyone, but clearly that was not the boy’s point. It’s seems that these parents are choosing schools for their exclusivity, to signal that heir children have the means to enter schools which less privileged kids cannot. I cannot find the essay, but I recall reading a piece by Alfie Kohn which argued that, if a private school really wants to prove that they offer superior education, they need to do admissions by lottery, and then produce better education outcomes than other schools. If a private school gets to cherry-pick students, it’s not proving that it provides a better education, it is just proving that it knows how to choose better students.

I think for some private school parents – including the ones described in the editorial, the point is not to actually provide a better education, but to have those schools mark their child as being ‘superior’ by admitting them while rejecting ‘lesser’ children. It is also why some people prefer to attend colleges with lower admission rates – admission rate does not say much about educational quality, but being able to say ‘nyah nyah, I was one of the 5% who was able to get into this famous exclusive college where most of the lower division classes are taught by underpaid graduate students with little teaching experience’ is a much more prestigious social marker than ‘I got into this college with wonderful experienced teachers which has a 100% admission rate’.

(And obviously, private schools select heavily for income/wealth, especially the ones which charge higher tuition and/or offer less financial aid).

You remember that summer boarding school I mentioned? Not only did my parents not help me get in, they were opposed to me attending it, it was harder to convince them to let me go than in was to get admitted to that school, and I had to pay for the tuition myself (as a 15-year-old, when I was not eligible for financial aid because of my family’s income). But in the end, I’m glad that summer school experience was something that I made happen rather than something that my parents handed to me on a platter. My parents almost did me a favor by being an obstacle (though that is not how I interpreted the situation at the time).

If the parents described in the editorial really are doing things like arranging ‘coveted summer internships’ for their children, than means that their children are not learning how to go out on their own and seek their own opportunities. And that disturbs me for than their social justice hypocrisy.


Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 1

I recently read the editorial “White Progressive Parents and Conundrum of Privilege” and a lot of it rings true based on my experience.

One of the clearest bits of evidence that San Francisco is not actually a progressive city is to point out that a higher percentage of K-12 students are in private schools than any other metro area in USA (or at least it did when I was in high school, apparently San Francisco fell to third place, though it seems that it is still true that about one fourth of all K-12 students in San Francisco are in private school).

I remember, when I went to Museum of African American History and Culture in Natchez, Mississippi, and I told the man who worked there that I was from San Francisco, his reaction was not ‘wow, you come from such an progressive and enlightened city’ but ‘wow, San Francisco has the most racially segregated school system in the country.’ And I did not argue with him because I knew he was probably right. One of the main mechanisms for maintaining the high level of racial segregation is the private school system (though there are also mechanisms within the public school system itself which contribute to segregation).

I was a bit of an anomaly, because my parents are white and had the financial means to send me to private school, yet they sent me to public school for all of my K-12 education. Very few white parents with the financial means in San Francisco did this. That meant most of my classmates came from families with less socioeconomic privilege, including my white classmates. I know that some of my white classmates would have definitely been sent to private school if their parents had the money to cover tuition. My most affluent white classmates often had attended private school for some years, and then their parents decided to switch to a public school. I would not say that being different from my classmates in this way was a bad thing – in fact, I think most of them did not realize how much money my parents actually had – but it led to some odd experiences.

When I was in high school, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of articles about San Francisco’s education system. Many of the articles focused on the differences between public and private schools. I noticed that, even though the articles quoted many parents who said they chose private school for their children, none of those parents provided evidence that private schools offered a better education (and the articles also did not find any evidence that students learn better in private schools than in public schools). The only parent who actually had first hand knowledge of both private schools and public schools because he sent one child to private schools and another child to public schools said that the public schools offered a better education, and that he regretted sending his older child to private school.

After I discussed these articles with my mother, she said “private school parents don’t actually care about the quality of education, that’s why they don’t check whether private schools offer a better education, they just want to keep their kids away from black kids”.

I don’t think my mother’s assessment is entirely fair, since I have met quite a few people who attended private school in San Francisco for at least a few years, and I learned something about their parents (though since these were mostly the parents of students who eventually ended up in public school, they probably are not representative). But I do agree with her that these parents actually care more about social image/status than whether or not their children are learning a lot in school, though many of them do not seem to understand the difference between a prestigious education and an education which actually develops a student’s intellectual potential.

And I think the public schools might even be safer than the private schools. When talking to some former students of private schools in San Francisco, I found some of the things they described rather scary (though I might be biased by the fact that most of these students later ended up in a public school; students who find themselves in danger at a private school are probably much more likely to transfer out). I suspect that the illusion of safety at private schools might actually make them more dangerous. A lot of people are concerned about safety at public schools and there is a lot of scrutiny; a lot less people pay attention to safety issues at private schools.

That said, the private schools are definitely better for making social connections and offering opportunities which can entrench/increase a child’s privileges. I’ll give a specific example: one of my high school classmates was admitted to Harvard. It was a big deal because a) my high school was small, so everyone knew this guy and b) he was the first student at my high school to be admitted to Harvard. He later found out why he was the first, and told us about it; that was the first year that Harvard admissions actually bothered to read applications from students at my high school. If he had graduated just a year earlier, the Harvard people would have tossed out his application unread, and he would have had zero chance of getting into Harvard. That was because my high school was a public school in San Francisco that wasn’t Lowell. Previously, with regards to applicants from San Francisco, Harvard’s policy had been to only read applications from private school students and Lowell students (Lowell is the top-rated public high school in San Francisco). The year he applied, Harvard decided finally read applications from students from other San Francisco public high schools. I think that my high school previously had students who were just as qualified to get into Harvard as my classmate who was admitted; it was unfair that they did not have a chance. Hopefully Harvard reads all applications now, but I suspect that there are still other ways that private high school students get unfair advantages (especially social connections).

Speaking of Lowell and racial diversity, I recently read that Lowell only has eight African American students in its class of 2018. I was surprised. I looked through one of my old yearbooks, and counted thirteen African-American students in my graduating class (not including several students whose racial background was not clear based on the photos and I couldn’t remember whether or not they identified as African-American) – and my high school was much smaller than Lowell. (No, I am not in favor of changing Lowell’s admission standards, but based on the article, it seems that their outreach could be significantly improved).

My parents are white, and might even be described as center-left, but they definitely are not progressive. They did not particularly care about racial and class diversity in schools – they would have been totally fine sending me to an all-white-affluent school, but they also did not mind sending me to racially and class diverse schools. So why did they send me to public schools? Both of my parents thought that paying private school tuition would be a waste of money, but it was more than that. My father felt that it was his civic duty to send me to public school. My mother did not care about civic duty, she simply was not convinced that I would receive a better education in private school than in public school, therefore private school tuition was a horrible waste of money.

And my neighborhood? It’s racially mixed (mostly white people and Asian-Americans, but there are also some African-Americans around here and there). The class dynamics in my neighborhood are complicated, so I’ll oversimplify for brevity: there are poor, working class, middle class, and rich people all living within walking distance of my home, but that does not mean we’re socially integrated, we tend to keep our social selves separate from anyone who is more than a notch or two away from us on the class hierarchy. For example, there is an upper class enclave just a ten minute walk from my home, yet I rarely set foot there, and if I did go there and encountered one of the people who live there, it would be awkward because I don’t know how to engage with them.

Ironically, the fact that my parents care a lot less about ‘social justice’ might be why they were more willing to send me to public school than affluent parents who do care about ‘social justice’. The affluent parents who care about ‘social justice’ probably spend a lot of time about thinking about how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so the subconsciously think that they need to keep their kids away from the those unfortunate people in case the bad luck is infectious. In other words, as affluent white people who care about ‘social justice’ they may have be more susceptible to the classist and racist assumption that schools with lots of poor and/or brown students must be worse because that is where the poor and/or brown students are. (And if they discovered that some of those schools with lots of poor and/or brown students are actually good, and that poor and/or brown students are not always to be viewed with pity, it might blow their minds). My parents spend a lot less mental energy obsessing over how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so they did not develop the subconscious feeling that they needed to isolate me from all that.

To be continued…

I Have a Stream of Consciousness about the New San Francisco Transit Center

Looking down an escalator in a fancy stucture of glass and steel.

I took this photo at the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco two weeks ago.

A month and a half ago, the glittering new transit center in San Francisco somehow managed to open. And a couple days ago it suddenly closed.

I was quite surprised when the transit center opened in the first place, because I’ve been trained to believe that these projects are never finished. I was also surprised when the Salesforce Tower was finally finished because I expected that to take forever too. However, though I would not say that I ~expected~ engineering problems, I’m not terribly surprised that the center was closed less that two months after it opened.

When I was in Taiwan, I remember going to some exhibit about bridges. They had photos of bridges all over the world, including the east span of the Bay Bridge, and I was surprised that the Bay Bridge did not look at all how I remembered it. Then I looked at the caption, and realized it was the new Bay Bridge which, as of the time I was living in Taiwan, I had never seen before. They had been working on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge since the bridge was broken in the 1989 earthquake, they had been building it when I was in middle school and high school. The cost overruns were a well known joke, and the consensus when I was in high school was that the new bridge was sucking up so much money in exceeding its budget again and again that, if the bridge were ever completed, it would not have been worth the ridiculous cost. For as long as I remember, they had been working on a bridge which was a vortex of wasted money which kept on being delayed and delayed, so I was shocked to learn in Taiwan that the new bridge actually was completed, and being used by the public.

And of course, given that it took more than twenty years to build the new bridge and it cost way more money than anyone predicted, it had engineering failures as soon as it opened which were expensive to fix.

Fortunately, since the Temporary Transbay Terminal (which is where the buses stopped before the transit center was complete) is still there, it was possible to quickly reroute all of the buses quickly, and restore things to the way they were two months ago – except most of the signs had been removed, which meant that most passengers did not know where their bus was supposed to stop.

I took this photo at the former Greyhound terminal in San Francisco about a month ago – except Greyhound has now moved back in because the transit center is closed. You can see the Temporary Transbay Terminal on the other side of the glass doors. The building was never this empty when it was an active Greyhound stop.

Until a few days ago, Amtrak was the only service which was still available at the Temporary Transbay Terminal. The Amtrak ‘station’ used to be a small room in the Greyhound terminal, but since Greyhound moved out, Amtrak got to take over the entire building. During my most recent trip, I was not sure where the Amtrak stop in San Francisco was going to be when I returned because Amtrak had told me they might move their stop any day (it turns out they did not move). When I got back to San Francisco, they had even closed the bathrooms in the Temporary Transbay Terminal (which I think was rather rude given that Amtrak was still operating there), so I had to walk all the way to the new Salesforce Transit Center to relieve myself (another problem with the new transit center is that the signs which are supposed to indicate the bathrooms are very confusing). That is when I took the photo at the top of this blog post.

For Amtrak passengers, it’s rather inconvenient that Amtrak stops in a location which is no longer served by any other form of public transit (though it’s only a block and a half away from the new Transit Center, and a few blocks from Embarcadero Station, so it’s not terrible). Of course, with the closure of the new transit center, there is now a lot of public transit at the Temporary Transbay Terminal again.

According to the Amtrak employees I talked to, the reason why Amtrak stayed at the Temporary Transbay Terminal while every other service left was that the Salesforce Transit Center was going to charge Amtrak more than Amtrak was willing to pay to lease a ticket office. Like a lot of locals who ride Amtrak, I am rooting for Amtrak to forget about the Salesforce Transit Center and lease a ticket office at the Ferry Building, which used to be Amtrak’s official stop in San Francisco. A lot of bus lines go the Ferry Building, all of the ferries go to the Ferry Building, and it is right next to Embarcadero Station.

A photo of the Ferry Building taken shortly after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Notice that the Ferry Building is intact, and that there is a lot of rubble in the lower left part of the picture.

The people behind the new Salesforce Transit Center say that it will become “Grand Central Station of the West.” The irony is that the “Grand Central Station of the West” used to be the Ferry Building. Before the completion of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the Ferry Building was the second busiest passenger terminal in the world (the busiest was Charing Cross Station in London). It was the most expensive public building built in San Francisco in the 19th century (though I doubt it has as many cost overruns as our new transit center or our new Bay Bridge), and it was so well built that it go through the 1906 earthquake and fire and the 1989 earthquake without major damage. The trains no longer run to the Ferry Building, and it’s not built to handle all of the transbay buses, but it seems like it was a more successful project than our new transit center.

I also have a new appreciation for the Temporary Transbay Terminal. It’s cheap, simple, and a lot more foolproof than these fancy construction projects. Most of the terminal is an open-air bus staging area – very cheap to build and maintain, the roof can’t collapse because there is no roof. The building which used to be (and is once again) the Greyhound terminal is basically a one-story tin shed – cheap to build, simple engineering, the roof is unlikely to have too much load to bear because it is a single story structure. I do not miss the old Transbay Terminal (and I suspect renovating the old Transbay Terminal might have been just as much as a mess as building the new transit center), but maybe, instead of pouring lots of money into a fancy new transit center, it would have been better if the Temporary Transbay Terminal were in fact the Permanent Transbay Terminal and they did not build a new transit center at all. After all, the Temporary Transbay Terminal functioned well as a bus terminal, and that’s all we really need.

There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

content note: murder, specifically murder related to sexual jealousy

This summer, I saw a performance of Othello. It was the first time I had seen or read the play in over ten years. And I was a bit shocked, because even though I knew the story of the play perfectly well, when I had seen or read the play before, I had never consciously thought about the fact that Othello thinks it is okay to kill his own wife because of infidelity. And everyone else in the play, except Emilia, seems to agree with him. The characters treats the murder of Desdemona as a tragedy because she was chaste, if she really had been engaging in an extra-marital affair, they would have been fine with Othello murdering her.

Othello’s final line came across as especially creepy, the one where he describes himself as being “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Wanting to kill one’s wife because of jealousy counts as ‘loving too well’? Really? And if that is not what Othello means, then what does he mean? (note: I hope that people who consider killing their own wives because of jealousy to be an expression ‘love’ will never, ever love me)

In an English class in high school, we studied Othello. We analyzed the play extensively, from various different angles. We had in depth discussions of Othello’s feelings. Yet amid all of that analysis and discussion, I don’t recall anyone asking the question ‘if Desdemona was really having an affair with Cassio, would it be okay for Othello to kill her? Is the problem that Iago tricked Othello into thinking she was unchaste, or is the problem that Othello wanted to kill Desdemona ~at all~?’ And in retrospect, I am shocked that I have no memory of any discussion like that happening in my high school English class. If my memory is accurate, and we did not talk about that, then what does that imply about our values?

The most memorable part of studying Othello in that high school English class was hearing the teacher describe her Real Life Soap Opera. She shared with us the story of how a woman had an affair with one of her brothers, causing him to divorce his wife, then she had an affair with another one of her brothers, causing him to also divorce his wife, and then this woman had an affair with my teacher’s husband, which ruined their marriage, leading my teacher to legally separate from her husband and stop cohabiting with him. In addition to doing everything short of divorce to break up with her husband, my teacher played some mean-spirited pranks on the woman who had the extra marital affairs with her brothers and husband. My teacher was very proud of her pranking skills, and that she made the woman break down in tears. I got the impression that our English teacher really sympathized with Othello.

Legal separation and ending cohabitation are ethical and reasonable responses to infidelity. Mean-spirited pranks are not necessarily ethical or reasonable, but at least my English teacher (as far as I know) never threatened that woman with violence.

When Othello came to the conclusion that Desdemona was unfaithful, why did he immediately decide to murder her? Why not divorce, or legal separation? Or even mean-spirited pranks?

Maybe you’re thinking that we do not discuss whether it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona even if she had been unfaithful because the answer is obviously ‘no, of course it would not be okay’. Sadly, I can tell you that it was NOT obvious to all of my high school classmates.

This is a true story. I don’t want to reveal these people’s real names, so I am going to use the following names: Sara’s Classmate, Girlfriend, Friend, and Victim. Sara’s Classmate became convinced that his Girlfriend had some kind of sexual flirting with Victim. Therefore, with the help of Friend, he kidnapped Victim. Sara’s Classmate said that he wanted to kill Victim, and had a loaded gun. Though Friend was willing to participate in the kidnapping, Friend did not want to be an accomplice to murder, so he came up with a scheme to deceive Sara’s Classmate into thinking that Victim is already dead. I would like to think that my classmate would have come to his senses in time, and not actually carry out his murder threat, but I think it is very possible that, without Friend’s deception, Sara’s Classmate would have killed Victim.

The obvious parallels between this true story and Othello are Sara’s Classmate = Othello, Girlfriend = Desdemona, Friend = Iago, and Victim = Cassio. However, whereas Iago deceived Othello so that Desdemona and Cassio would die, Friend deceived Sara’s Classmate in order to save Victim’s life.

Though my classmate and I were not in the same English class, I know he also studied Othello in his English class because all of the 10th grade English classes at my high school studied Othello. I suppose it’s possible that in his English class they discussed whether or not it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona if she had been unfaithful, but … I doubt it.

We were classmates in theater class, and I definitely know that he studied Othello in our theater class because he performed a monologue from the play. Specifically, this monologue:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,β€”
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!β€”
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her]
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Yes, it’s the monologue shortly before Othello kills Desdemona. When I was in that theater class, and saw my classmate perform this monologue multiple times, I had no idea that in a few years he was going to try to do something like this in real life. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he chose this monologue, and then later attempted to murder someone because of jealousy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Othello inspired him to perform kidnapping and attempted murder – if anything, I think the reverse is more likely, that he chose this monologue because he already had fantasies of doing something like this in real life. However, in English class, and even in theater class, there were opportunities to discuss whether Othello’s conduct would have been okay even if Desdemona were guilty, and those discussions, as far as I know, did not happen. And maybe, if that discussion did happen, my classmate may not have tried to imitate Othello.

The last time I had seen or read Othello was before my former classmate committed his crimes. This year, when I watched the play on stage, I was thinking of my former classmate quite a bit.

And my former classmate is not an isolated anomaly. At least one third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by a male initmate partner, and that is not counting people like Cassio or Victim, who were suspected of being the women’s lovers, or attempted murders which did not result in death. I could not find statistics indicating how many of those murders were related to sexual jealousy, but I suspect it is a high percentage.

I am not opposed to reading or studying or performing Othello. On the contrary, I think it can be useful for provoking discussion. But, in my observation, the discussion of whether murder due to jealousy is ever justified usually does not happen. I certainly noticed no traces of that discussion around the production of the play I saw this summer.

Compare that to The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play in a college class, and my college class did not ignore the anti-semitism. On the contrary, the anti-semitism was one of the most discussed aspects of the play. And whenever there is a production or adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary United States, the way the anti-semitism is addressed tends to be the focal point of the producer’s, the performers’, and the audience’s attention. I disagree with some of the common ways the anti-semitism is addressed, but at least it IS acknowledged and addressed, people aren’t silent about it. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the way readers, directors, actors, audiences, etc. treat the misogyny in Taming of the Shrew.

I do not think the play Othello itself is dangerous. I think ignoring the way the play tacitly supports murdering unfaithful wives (conditional on the wives being truly unfaithful, unlike Desdemona) is dangerous.

The Visitor Perspective vs. the Residential Perspective

The book cover of Want

I read two novels back to back, Want by Cindy Pon and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome by Nancy Taforo-Murphy. Both of these novels are centered in a particular city – Want is centered on Taipei, and Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome (which from now on I will abbreviate as ‘AMCatPoR’) is centered on San Francisco. Reading these two novels one after another – and my familiarity with these two cities – made it apparent that these books are not only about two different cities, but they are presenting those cities from very different perspectives.

I have an odd relationship with Taipei. I lived in Taipei for a few months, and I worked in Taipei for years (my job in Taiwan was split between Taoyuan, Taipei, and Hsinchu), not to mention all the times I went to Taipei to run errands/meet with people/make a transit connection. On the one hand, I got to know Taipei very well because I commuted there so often, but it never became ‘home’ to me the way that Taoyuan did.

In any case, I definitely noticed that Want focused very much on the touristy parts of Taipei and ignored anywhere which was not touristy. For example, they go to the touristy Shilin Night Market, but not the more-popular-with-locals Shida Night Market (confession: I went to the Shilin Night Market more often than the Shida Night Market, but that was only because I went to the Shilin District often – everyone I knew who lived in Taipei preferred the Shida Night Market). I was almost expecting them to go to the National Palace Museum at some point. They go to Snake Alley, which is a place you pretty much only go to if you are a tourist or you are with a tourist. They go to Yangmingshan, the most touristy mountain in Taipei, rather than one of the many other mountains around the Taipei Basin.

Meanwhile, there are many features of Taipei which I found prominent, but the novel ignores. I was amazed by all the rivers in Taipei because I had never lived in a city with a river before, let alone FOUR rivers (yep, there are four rivers in Taipei – the Dahan river, the Keelung River, the Xindian river, and the Tamsui river). Yet the novel hardly ever mentions the rivers at all, not even to say something along the lines of ‘the rivers were such toxic polluted messes that they all had been buried in tunnels to prevent their corrosive chemicals from destroying the buildings whenever there a flood’ (yeah, this is a dystopia novel).

I know that Cindy Pon was born in Taipei. I don’t know how much time she has spent in Taipei, but the novel read like it had been written by someone who had visited Taipei, but never immersed themselves in the city.

(I was also wondering the whole time what was going on in other parts of Taiwan. I understand why the writer wanted to keep the action focused on Taipei, but the way they never, ever mentioned anywhere else in Taiwan, not even places like Tamsui or Kaohsiung, was weird. People who live in Taipei often do reference other parts of Taiwan in everyday conversation. On the other hand, people who do not live in Taiwan often do not know about any city/town other than Taipei itself, so the complete lack of recognition any part of Taiwan ex-Taipei contributed to the feeling that this was a shallow outside perspective).

Book cover of Ann Mary, Contraception, and the Pope of Rome

By contrast, AMCatPoR offers ample description of San Francisco, yet barely mentions any touristy areas, and on the rare occasion it mentions a touristy place, it does so in the same context that a local resident would think about the touristy place. In particular, AMCatPoR focuses on the Sunset District. I grew up on the outskirts of the Sunset, and I can tell you that this novel offers a very accurate picture (even though I grew up in a different part of the Sunset than where the novel takes place). I cannot judge if it presents 1940s Irish-American Catholic culture accurately, but it obvious that it was written by someone who knows the Sunset very well.

There is also the matter of audience. Want is written in English, and most people in Taipei do not read novels in English, thus the people of Taipei are not its target audience. AMCatPoR, based on the reviews I’ve found, is mostly read by people who are long-term residents of San Francisco, and I suspect it is to a large extent aimed at San Franciscans. That may be another reason that Want (in spite of having protagonists who spent their whole lives in Taipei) reads like a tourist guide, whereas AMCatPoR reads like a native San Franciscan engaging in nostalgia.

Mind you, I’m not saying that writing about a city from a visitor’s perspective is bad. For example, if I am a traveller, I want my guidebooks to be written from a visitor’s perspective. And in fiction, if the protagonist is a visitor to the city, then a visitor’s perspective is probably appropriate.

I am very used to media presenting San Francisco from a visitor, rather than a residential, perspective, which is why I am so sensitive to whether a writer is writing about San Francisco from the perspective of a visitor or the perspective of a resident. This is the first time I’ve seen Taipei in a fictional presented from a visitor’s perspective, which might be why it was a bit jarring.

I’m not sure if I would have picked up on this if these novels were set in cities I do not know well. I wonder if it possible to write about a city from a resident’s perspective without ever having been a resident. I think it is, but would require good research, and most of all, to mentally put oneself in a resident’s shoes (i.e. ask oneself whether a resident of Taipei would ever want to go to Snake Alley, or whether a resident of San Francisco would ever want to go to Fisherman’s Wharf).

The Density Debate: Infrastructure (Part 2)

Find Part 1 here.

If I am understanding the anti-density advocates arguments about the sewage system (and infrastructure) in general, then they predict that, if San Francisco’s population increases, either the degradation of our sewage system will accelerate, or if more resources are put into maintaining/upgrading the sewage system to accommodate the increase in population, diseconomies of scale will cause sewage bills to go up (i.e. the costs will be so high that, even with a larger base of ratepayers, the SFPUC will still have to charge more PER PERSON).

But what do I know? While more people means more stress on the sewage system, it also seems like a lot of the costs of the sewage system are fixed, not dependent on population. Even if San Francisco’s population does not increase, having a bunch of 100-year old sewers failing would still be a problem. Maybe having a larger base of ratepayers to cover the fixed costs will help even out the marginal costs incurred by a larger population. I’m definitely not enough of an expert on sewage systems to judge this one.

And then there is transportation. Traffic is bad in downtown San Francisco, and the streetcars / buses going to downtown are quite crowded during rush hour. I think the problem of crowded streetcars and buses could be solved by hiring more drivers and buying more vehicles and increasing frequency, but I know that is expensive, and that there are also logistical obstacles to buying more vehicles (even when the public transit agency tries to buy more vehicles, they sometimes fail, and have to repair the old vehicles instead – it’s complicated). The pro-density people say that increasing density would help alleviate congestion because more people could live close to their workplaces, and the anti-density people say that more people means more congestion and overloaded public transit.

Does population density increase or decrease congestion? Methinks the devil is in the details. It is true that there is a correlation between population density and congestion within San Francisco. Chinatown, which is densely populated, is also one of the most congested neighborhoods, the buses tend to be full, and I don’t even want to think about parking in Chinatown. In Forest Knolls, one of San Francisco’s least densely populated neighborhoods, I do not recall ever seeing a traffic jam, the buses tend to be less than half full, and parking is not so hard to find (by San Francisco standards). But that does not mean I think transportation is better in Forest Knolls than in Chinatown. In Chinatown, the buses are frequent, whereas the buses are not frequent in Forest Knolls. Also, Chinatown has a lot of grocery stores and restaurants, whereas I cannot think of a single convenience store, let alone a grocery or restaurant, in Forest Knolls, so one basically has to leave the neighborhood to buy food, and that is a transportation problem (and one of the main reasons I would rather live in Chinatown than Forest Knolls). I’ve seen some people from Forest Knolls protest against building more housing (i.e. increase population density), and while I think some of their concerns are valid, I do not think their concern about how it would impact public transit is valid. I actually would like to have more people living in Forest Knolls because then there would be more an incentive to increase the frequency of the bus lines there (and the buses going through Forest Knolls almost always have plenty of seats anyway) (and if you’re wondering how I know so much about buses in Forest Knolls, it’s because I used to use those buses to get to school).

I’m not talking about gas or electricity because I know even less about electrical grids and gas delivery than I do about water and sewage and transportation.

I do agree with the broader point of the anti-density activists that at some point the diseconomies of scale outweigh the economies of scale, and that increasing population density beyond that point means either paying a lot more for infrastructure or living with crappier infrastructure. And maybe San Francisco is at that inflection point, at least for some infrastructure systems.

I have lived in Taoyuan, a city in Taiwan. Just about any city in Taiwan with a population > 150,000 people is much more densely populated than San Francisco, and infrastructure in Taiwan, including Taoyuan, is generally crappier than the infrastructure in San Francisco (is the infrastructure crappy BECAUSE the population density is so high? I don’t know – I’m just saying that the population was much higher AND the infrastructure was crappier). I’ll be more specific – I drink water straight from the tap in San Francisco, whereas I did not dare do that in Taoyuan (I did not even take showers in the tap water in Taoyuan, I used a shower filter, the water is that bad). After hearing all of the horror stories about how crowded BART (a transit system in the San Francisco region) is during rush hour, I tend to be pleasantly surprised when I do end up riding BART during rush hour, because it is not as packed as the trains going in and out of Taoyuan. I can only recall one occasion when I took a bus within Taoyuan city (as opposed to an intercity bus) because the bus system in Taoyuan is much more limited than the bus system in San Francisco. And during all my decades of living in San Francisco, I have never encountered awful traffic like the awful traffic of Taoyuan (to be fair, Taoyuan appeared on a list of five Taiwanese cities with the worst traffic, so it may not be representative of Taiwanese cities). Sewage – well, the sewage system in Taoyuan could not handle toilet paper. Garbage? In San Francisco, garbage gets sent to a landfill outside the city. In Taoyuan, because Taiwan has a much higher population density than California, there is no space for landfills, so garbage is incinerated, which reduces air quality. Electricity – actually, in my experience, electricity was more reliable in Taoyuan than San Francisco, so I guess maybe Taoyuan did not ~always~ have inferior infrastructure.

Taoyuan was also lacking in some of the less obvious types of infrastructure. For example, San Francisco has a system to limit the number of stray cats, and the few stray cats who live in San Francisco tend to be relatively healthy. If Taoyuan had any kind of system to limit the number of stray cats, it was failing badly, and while I generally enjoyed watching the stray cats of Taoyuan, I could see that some of them were suffering.

Heck, the sidewalks of Taoyuan were so thoroughly awful that, even as an able-bodied person, I sometimes felt they were an obstacle course (and it is worse for people who are not able-bodied). I now have a much better appreciation of San Francisco’s sidewalks, and the local ordinances which require that sidewalks not be obstructed. I am also aware of the cost of such ordinances, since when the sidewalk outside our home was in such bad condition that it violated ordinances, my mother, as the property owner, had to pay for the repair.

And yet, the crappier level of infrastructure in Taoyuan did not ruin my life. Though it definitely helped that I lived in downtown Taoyuan, which meant that groceries, restaurants, my workplace, the library, and the train station were all within walking distance of my apartment – that allowed me to ignore most of the traffic congestion (though I still got tripped up – sometimes literally – by the crappy sidewalks). I was just as capable of attaining happiness and fulfilment in Taoyuan city as in San Francisco. I do not consider relatively crappy infrastructure to be as unspeakably awful as some of the anti-density activists imply. At the same time, I think it is something which needs to be considered, and something which the pro-density activists tend to not pay enough attention to.

In short, I agree with the anti-density people that increasing population density may lead to a crapification of at least some types of infrastructure. If increasing the population density of San Francisco brings enough benefits, I would be willing to accept a crapification of infrastructure – but the question of whether or not increasing population density brings substantial benefits is beyond the scope of this post.

The Density Debate: Infrastructure (Part 1)

There has been a long, ongoing debate about population density in San Francisco, and whether or not it is a good thing to build lots of new housing and increase the population density. It is a complex subject with many nuances, so it would be impossible to do the subject justice in a single blog post. Thus, I am singling out one aspect: infrastructure.

First, I suggest at least quickly skimming this essay, which has a proposal for how to build a large number of homes in San Francisco for just $50,000 per unit. You may notice that it completely ignores the question of water, sewage, and electrical grids, though it does address transportation to some degree.

Meanwhile, I’ve seen a presentation by people who are strongly opposed to increasing the population density of San Francisco, and one of their major arguments is that San Francisco’s infrastructure is already at capacity. If we increased the population of the city without major investments in new infrastructure, they claimed, our infrastructure will fail. They especially focused on water, sewage, and transportation.

I’m going to make a gross simplification: with increasing population density, there are economies of scale for infrastructure, UNTIL a certain point is reached, and then there are diseconomies of scale (or more accurately, before the inflection point, economies of scale > diseconomies of scale, after the inflection point, economies of scale < diseconomies of scale).

To illustrate what I mean, I'm going to give a hypothetical example. Let's say there are a network of villages where nobody uses wheels, let alone any motorized vehicle, and there is also no water transportation, thus all travel is done by foot. Trails are the infrastructure which facilitate inter-village travel. If the population density is very low (villages don't have many people & are far apart) trail maintenance really is not worth the bother, it is better to just go cross-country when someone needs to get from one village to another. As the population density increases (more people in the vilages / villages closer together) the collective effort it takes to maintain trails is less than the collective effort it takes to travel cross-country, so it makes sense for the villages to break and maintain trails. As the population density gets higher, the trails get clogged with traffic, so it makes sense to break and maintain even more trails to accommodate the higher traffic. But if there are too many trails, the terrain becomes eroded, and the erosion threatens the villages' livelihood (it degrades the villages' water supplies or it threatens to bury the villages with landslides or something like that). Once it reaches the point where additional trails will cause destructive erosion, if the villages wish to preserve themselves, they either make do with trails that are clogged with traffic, or they limit inter-village travel.

I know that the people who designed San Francisco's water and sewage system thought that San Francisco might eventually have a million residents, and planned accordingly. Meanwhile, the water and sewage system is roughly a hundred years old, and the current population is about 880,000 (which actually blows my mind, because I always think of San Francisco as having a population of 750,000). Though I do not know enough about the workings of the water and sewage system of San Francisco to judge the claim 'San Francisco's water and sewage system is already maxed out', I think the claim is at least plausible.

Of course, a higher population would, presumably, increase the economic activity of San Francisco, and either through water & sewage bills or taxes, there would be more money for improving the water and sewage system. The question is, is the cost for expanding the capacity of the water and sewage system higher or lower than the economic benefit of having more people? And is there an inflection point where the marginal cost of accommodating more people with infrastructure shoots up?

Given how viciously expensive it is just to repair and maintain the current system, my guess is that any attempt to increase the capacity is going to be very costly. For one thing, California is prone to drought, and there is already intense competition for water in California, so increasing San Francisco's water supply beyond the water that San Francisco already has water rights for would be difficult (yes, San Francisco sells water to many other Bay Area communities – but even though San Francisco holds the water rights, the communities which buy water from San Francisco have very long-term contracts which would be difficult to break without serious consequences – and even if those contracts were broken, San Francisco would only be 'gaining' water by depriving other Bay Area communities of water). That is one reason why local groundwater is being added to the tap water supply – a lot of people are opposed because the local groundwater is much more polluted that the water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, but the local groundwater is the only additional supply of fresh water that San Francisco has an indisputable right to use.

Not all ways of increasing the capacity require ~building~ more infrastructure, but they still would come with high indirect costs. The simplest method is simply to impose strict water rationing, and as the population increases, to reduce the per-capita ration. That said, I think it is obvious that water rationing would impose numerous costs on residents.

Sometimes, I envy the water situation of Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Marin County is mostly self-sufficient in water – it has just about enough high-quality water within its borders to supply its residents (unlike San Francisco, which depends on water from the Sierra Nevada mountains), so its water system is much less entangled with other counties, and it is also less prone to drought than most parts of California. Marin County can only pull this off because it has a much lower population density than the highly-populated Bay Area counties – if Marin County's population substantially increased, it would also depend on water sources outside its own boundaries.

Sewage has its own issues. The Southeast Treatment Plant is old and basically at capacity, which is why partially untreated sewage is sometimes dumped into the bay. There are numerous ways to solve this problem, and all of them are damn expensive. Increasing sewage usage in the part of San Francisco served by the Southeast Plant would definitely make these problems worse. The plant is going through a multi-year renewal process, which is a) damn expensive and b) for the most part is just going to maintain current capacity, not dramatically increase capacity (for example, seismic retrofitting is necessary to prevent the sewage plant from being destroyed by the next big earthquake, but does not increase capacity). The Ocean Sewage Treatment Plant is newer and, as far as I know, not at max capacity, but it only serves about 20% of the population of San Francisco, and buildings can't be shifted from one sewage plant to the other because of San Francisco's geography (if it were possible to do so, I'm sure it would have already been done). If sewage were the most important matter, then this would be a strong argument for allocating all population increase to the catchment area of the Ocean Plant and not having any population increase in the Southeast Plant catchment area – but sewage is just one of many issues.

And that is just the sewage plants, not the sewers themselves. 60% of all sewers in San Francisco are 80+ years old, and some sewers date back to the 1860s and frequently fall into disrepair, stressing the whole system.

To make all of this EVEN MORE COMPLICATED, San Francisco is the only city in California (aside from the oldest part of Sacrameto) with a combined sewer system. That is because San Francisco has such a high population density that, unlike other cities in California, it could not afford to separate its sewage and stormwater systems, and that is a large part of why San Francisco sometimes dumps partially untreated sewage into the bay. Though combined sewer systems cause less water pollution than separated systems (except when the system is overwhelmed and partially untreated sewage is dumped in the bay) it is a system with higher maintenance costs.

This post is so long I split it into two parts, and I'm just ending Part 1 here because this is about halfway through the original post.