SF is a great and wretched city. My first nervous impressions: hordes of beggars, bums, and homeless people filtered throughout the downtown area. Compared to their Thai and Japanese peers, these folks seem more beaten... more aggressive... less dignified.
They gather in clusters in the Van Ness/Civic Center area. Some have signs. Some approach you. Many approach you.
They tend to be blunt-- with attitude. In Athens, most beggars either sat quietly, or offered a sad story. Generally, they were polite (now theres a nice Southern trait). But the folks here border on unfriendly. When Ive declined to give, some mutter or grumble under their breath.
Then there are the stories of crime. My good friend was beaten up by a group of guys in the Mission district. A Thai student at my school was robbed, in his apartment, at gunpoint.
After two years in Thailand and Japan... this place FEELS dangerous. I can now imagine how Asian tourists perceive American cities... and why they have the impression that this is a dangerous country (which it is, compared to most Asian countries).
This collection of human misery is in the middle of the upscale core of the city. These folks shuffle along in front of Macy's, The Apple Store, Old Navy, etc.. Wealthy Californians and tourists stroll side by side with the poorest of the poor. Its a sad situation. Hard not to ask, "Cant a little of this wealth be diverted to help these people?" (I suppose we need all the money we can get to keep the Iraqis under our thumbs).
Finally, a very positive observation. SF is an extremely diverse city. In many ways, its a mix of Asia and American. The Asian population is huge here. Huge! In some neighborhoods its easy to imagine that Im back in Japan or Thailand. In addition to the many Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants, there is also a huge Latino population (mostly concentrated in The Mission, it seems).
Of course there are many African-Americans... and the city is rightfully famous for its large and diverse Gay population.
The diversity, and the international flavor of the place, is why Im here.
SF is the progressive, multi-cultural, leading-edge capital of America. And while the worst of the country's poverty and inequality is on display here.. so too is the promise of a new America... one that finally embraces the potential of its immigrant roots.