San Francisco Is a Slum? Hardly.

On Feb. 18, NBC Bay Area published an article regarding their Investigative Unit’s survey of 153 blocks of downtown San Francisco. The amount of garbage, needles and feces found in this area prompted them to equate San Francisco to “the poorest slums of the world,” such as the ones found in Brazil, Kenya or India.


I’m not going to lie – the statistics are pretty bad. Anyone would agree that there are parts of San Francisco that are very dirty and that something needs to be done about it.


However, equating San Francisco with some of the poorest slums in the world is absolutely preposterous. Further, it sounds like a “First World Problems” meme. A lot of the article’s data comes from Dr. Lee Riley, the Division Head of Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at UC Berkeley, who is undoubtedly qualified to speak on the scientific validity of these claims. However, I can’t help but wonder how Riley, who has done programs in some of these slums, could possibly venture to equate them to San Francisco. Most people who have been to slums and developing countries before would probably tell you that there is a literal world of difference separating them from even the worst parts of a city like San Francisco.


I’m a Peruvian citizen, and as such I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel there many times. When my family goes back to visit, we usually stay in an apartment that my grandparents own in Lima. Lima is both the capital and largest city of Peru, while also being by far the wealthiest. As many are aware, the wealth in South American cities is extremely top-heavy.


When I was in Lima with my dad in 2012, he had to get a dress-shirt altered and knew there was a guy in the city who would do it cheaply. The best thing about the guy was that he only lived a block away from our apartment. Since it was close by, my dad and I decided to go down the elevator, through the lobby of our apartment building and then walk to his place. The lobby had glass doors, ornate walls, marble floors, security guards. You get the idea. Walking out of the building is a striking view – right across the street is a park that extends about half a mile down the coast in either direction. From that street, you can see the beach that sits about a hundred feet down from the park. Anyone living on that particular street is effectively living in Peruvian paradise.


Unfortunately for our guy, he didn’t live on that street. He lived a block inwards. And in Lima, a lot can change in a block. His street didn’t have luxurious high-rise apartment buildings, lush parks, or breathtaking ocean views. It had trash, feces, needles, stray dogs and cats, decrepit homes, people on the streets… you name it. It sounds similar to San Francisco, but it was far more extreme than anything you’d find here. The house we were visiting didn’t even have a door, roof or fridge. Like I said, a lot can change in a block.


But despite all of that, the conditions that he lived in would never qualify as living in a “Peruvian slum.” As bad as he had it – and believe me, he did have it rough – he was still a lot better off than anyone living in the actual Peruvian slums. In Peru, the slums are huge collections of crumbling brick dwellings, jammed together in tight proximity. They are almost exclusively built on hills in rural areas, with no clean water, scarcely any food and virtually no wealth to speak of. A house with four walls is rare, and one with a roof is even more rare.


So when NBC compares San Francisco to some of the worst living conditions on the planet, I can’t help but feel that they are a little bit out of touch. Yes, there are people who struggle and suffer greatly in this city. And yes, there is a lot of work that needs to be done about the street conditions. But honestly? NBC Bay Area’s article is ignorant to the plight of those who live in actual slums.


Featured Photo: It is undeniable that there are many people who are suffering in San Francisco, but is it right to compare their situation to those who live in slums? FRANCO FOLINI / FLICKR


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