World leaders, CEOs, protesters and thousands of others will soon descend on San Francisco for a global trade summit that could give the battered city a chance to reverse its image of an economic powerhouse now in decline.
The annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit will be San Francisco's largest international gathering since dignitaries gathered in 1945 to sign the charter creating the United Nations.
The summit opens Saturday and runs through Friday, drawing an expected 20,000 people. Of particular note this year is a planned tete-a-tete between President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the summit — their first direct engagement in a tension-filled year between the world’s two biggest economic powers.
As host, San Francisco and the city's partners are polishing sidewalks, scrubbing away graffiti and moving homeless people to accommodations indoors. Separately, Mayor London Breed has been promoting pop-up shops, new destinations and restaurants in a downtown struggling to regain foot traffic post-pandemic.
Breed has repeatedly said she wants summit visitors to return home with memories of a San Francisco that is safe, vibrant and open for business — not the image of grime, crime and homelessness so often reflected in media coverage.
“Not to suggest that we don’t have challenges like any other major city, but we think that because we’re expecting thousands of press from around the world, that will give them a chance to experience San Francisco,” she told The Associated Press.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Breed on Thursday in touting the state’s work to build a tree nursery near a homeless shelter and along Interstate 80. Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, said the project shows the city’s resilience.
“I’m so excited about showing this off to 21 fancy foreign leaders from around the world -– tens of thousands of people that are going to come in and wonder what the hell Fox News has been talking about all these years,” he said.
As the summit looms, Chinese state media has focused on talks like Thursday’s meeting here between U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng.
But searches for San Francisco on Douyin — Tiktok’s original Chinese version — showed dozens of videos of homeless people sleeping in the city's streets.
Besides world leaders, APEC finance ministers and foreign press, the summit is also expected to draw an array of people protesting human rights abuses, authoritarian regimes, the Israel-Hamas war and the fossil fuel industry.
Some critics complain events like APEC prioritize corporate profits over everyday people. APEC is a regional economic forum established in 1989 and has 21 member countries.
“I think it’s very cynical to be using it like an Instagram moment, basically to sell real estate in the city,” said Karl Kramer, campaign co-director for the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition.
The pandemic decimated the city's main economic drivers of tourism and tech. Major retailers closed downtown outlets last summer, leaving more empty storefronts in a district that once bustled with tourists and office workers. Businesses complained of vandalism, shoplifting, break-ins and unresponsive police.
San Francisco boosters, however, say the “doom-loop” narrative is not only unfair but false.
San Francisco tech public relations firm LaunchSquad was hired with private summit funds to pitch journalists on stories setting the record straight. And a civic business group co-headed by the president of the San Francisco Giants launched a $4 million marketing campaign touting the city as a place for creative dreamers.
Kenya-based public relations CEO Gilbert Manirakiza was among interviews obtained through LaunchSquad to share his experience in the city during a conference last month. He said a person processing his visa warned him to be careful. But he loved his visit, seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, walking to Chinatown for late-night food, and taking a robo-taxi back to his hotel.
“The general theme there," he said, "was a sense of ‘I can dream anything and make it happen somehow.’"
San Francisco promoters point to furniture giant IKEA, which opened on a troubled downtown block in August, and to the city's emerging AI industry. They also herald the arrival of Chotto Matte, a high-end global restaurant chain, now serving Japanese Peruvian food from a stunning rooftop perch above a former Macy's store.
Chotto Matte Founder Kurt Zdesar said 3,000 reservation requests poured in within the first half hour of opening last month. “It shows that San Francisco isn’t dead,” he said, adding he believes “there's an appetite for things to change” despite negative media narratives.
But Azalina Eusope says no amount of positive press will fill her 32-seat Malaysian restaurant blocks away in the Tenderloin District, an area filled with children and immigrants like herself as well as drugs and homelessness. She said diners often cancel reservations once they find out the location.
Eusope, an entrepreneur also suggested by public relations firm LaunchSquad, opened Azalina's last year with hopes of helping change the neighborhood. Besides serving high-end, four-course dinners, she offers deeply subsidized meals to neighborhood children and weekend cooking classes.
But already she sees more unfamiliar homeless residents camped out near her restaurant when she arrives each day, likely pushed out of their regular downtown spots ahead of the summit.
“So already I’m a little nervous. People just come inside the restaurant, we can’t lock the door, they throw a tantrum. One guy had a knife. We called 911 and they didn’t show,” Eusope said of police.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said she fears a repeat of what happened when San Francisco hosted the 2016 Super Bowl. Then, people were booted out of shelter lines to make way for those who normally reside downtown and had to be moved.
“It’s rough out there,” she said. “Folks want to get off the streets, but there’s not capacity for everybody.”
The city is not opening special homeless shelters specifically for the summit. However, a group shelter opens Friday and roughly 300 new beds will be available this month and next, said Emily Cohen with the city's Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
Meanwhile, city boosters see grounds for optimism.
This month, Air China resumed direct flights between San Francisco and Beijing after suspending flights just before the pandemic.
Tourism from Asia, and China in particular, fuels San Francisco's Chinatown, says Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. He hopes the city will facilitate visits to the neighborhood and use the summit to declare that Chinatown is back, along with all the city's other vibrant Asian American merchant communities.
“APEC really is a moment to say, ‘Hey, we’re open for business, we’re open for business, Asia,’" he said.
Associated Press journalists Haven Daley in San Francisco and Huizhong Wu in Bangkok contributed to this report.