The Golden City

Shortisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece is one of four shortlisted articles in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find a list of the thirteen longlisted entries here.

The Golden City

Light spills from hipster cafes and glitzy storefronts as I arrive in downtown San Francisco in the darkening dusk, breaking my rule about being on the roads after dark.


Impatient traffic stop-starts around me on precipitous gridded streets as I will my heavy legs to pedal for another mile or two. A rumble approaches, accompanied by a ‘ding ding’, as a cable car trundles past on the web of tramlines that stitch the city together. Lego-block towers of glowing lights rise on either side of me. People hurry along the sidewalks, moving in time with the metronome tick of pedestrian crossings. Clouds of steam hiss from air outlets, ejecting shouts and banging pots from restaurant kitchens and the smell of deep-fat fryers. My stomach growls. As the evening air cools, I shiver beneath my high-vis layers.

The traffic thins as I turn into Ellis Street, the reach of my bike light more evident and my phone screen, with its directions, now glaringly indiscreet. Clusters of people sit and stand on the sidewalk talking as music plays from boom boxes at their feet. These people aren’t hurrying home – they are home. A man in a padded jacket leans sideways against a wall, his head and shoulder resting against the brickwork. A woman changes her trousers beside an intersection, spindly legs backlit by headlights of waiting SUVs, bare feet on the cold November sidewalk. Beyond, tents crowd to the edge of the road. People sit huddled on crates and stacks of cardboard. This is the Tenderloin district and I’ve not seen anything yet.

Daylight reveals the reality of life on the streets of San Francisco. On my way to the Post Office, I tiptoe between tents and people, some rocking gently back and forth, others slumped. Crouching in front of the wing mirror of a parked car, a thin man prods a hypodermic needle at his neck. Blood trickles as he probes for a vein.

I step over a man showing no signs of life, apologising as I go.

Even on a winter morning, the stench of urine is overpowering in this place where the closest thing to privacy is found between parked cars. Further ahead, a pair in matching tabards and latex gloves use litter pickers to tidy needles from the gutter. Across the road, a shirtless and shoeless man shouts and smashes his bottle of beer without breaking stride. White foam explodes across asphalt.

San Francisco is a city on edge. A city of those who’ve lost everything and those who fear they’ll be next. Perhaps it’s the sidewalk cities of canvas and cardboard, constant reminders of how quickly things – lives – can change. Perhaps the stress of the San Andreas fault is contagious.

‘You should conceal your PIN better,’ advises the cashier as I pay for my bike repair, followed by ‘don’t leave your bike out on the street.’

Does he really think I’m the person most at risk here? I’m lucky to have a hostel dorm to return to, money for food and healthcare. Or am I just someone he feels he can help? Throughout the city, the fear is tangible. Not fear of the social system that so easily upends people’s lives, but fear of the people themselves.

Isn’t San Francisco meant to be the Golden City? Perhaps naively, I didn’t expect the gulf between those with and those without to be so vast, or so evident, here in this supposed land of plenty. And there should be plenty – enough for everyone. America’s excesses have struck me since I arrived: the cyclist-dwarfing SUVs, the drive-thru everythings, the disconnect between our habits of today and our lives of tomorrow.

As I reload my bike outside the hostel, getting ready to cycle south, a man in an oversized checked jacket with a fleece collar pauses to look at my set-up through watery eyes.

‘Wow,’ he murmurs, ‘wow’.

I try to chat with him, but his thoughts stop-start like the city traffic, not idling long enough for me to understand. He is 66, an addict. He raises his Gatorade bottle and tells me it is liquor. I ask if there is help available, anywhere he can go for food and warmth.

‘These are all good people,’ he tells me, gesturing along the sidewalk, before turning and walking away.

Here in America, super-size is the default setting, served to go. It’s taken until San Francisco, where so many people live amongst discarded Starbucks cups and Subway wrappers, to realise the throw-away culture extends to people too. With that, the Golden City loses its shine.

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