Super Bowl 50 in the Stratified City: The Big Game's Big Problem

In San Francisco, the controversies surrounding Sunday's game point to an issue that's plagued the city – and America – for years

The Super Bowl invades San Francisco. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

On Monday, I rode the Muni train from my apartment into the Powell Street station in downtown San Francisco, hurried down a long underground corridor regularly populated by the homeless and arrived at the Super Bowl media center just in time to hear San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, in the midst of an obsequious "panel discussion," proclaim that, "This is going to go down in history as a special Super Bowl." Then, unlike Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf (who is dealing with the ongoing drama of the failed Los Angeles escape attempt by the Oakland Raiders) and San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York (who is sifting through the wreckage of his own once-proud franchise), Lee slipped out of the room without taking any questions from reporters.

Earlier this year, Lee easily won re-election – his challengers included a musician and a self-professed "broke-ass" journalist – and I imagine he viewed this week as an unparalleled opportunity for the city to expose its considerable charm to the wider world, even if the game would be played roughly an hour south of his city. But I have to presume he didn't envision the backlash that would emerge from his constituents. People are pissed off, and they feel used, and some of that has to do with San Francisco's overarching countercultural bent (is there anything more establishment in America than the Super Bowl?), and some of it has to do with tourist-oriented monstrosities like Super Bowl City – I mean, did you see that giant football sculpture made entirely out of Bud Light cans? – obstructing people's ability to drive through and get to work in the Embarcadero district. This explains, at least in part, the vandalism of those unsightly Super Bowl 50 statues that have been put up all over town: It's gotten so bad that there is now a security guard stationed next to one of those Super Bowl 50 statues on Market Street (when I walked past him yesterday afternoon he was taking pictures for tourists while talking on his cellphone).

But there's something bigger happening here, and it's reflective of the underlying anger coursing not only through San Francisco, but of the country as a whole. This is a story about social stratification, and the Super Bowl just happens to be caught in the middle of it.

Lee's astoundingly tone-deaf remark last summer about sequestering homeless people in the days before this Super Bowl arrived proved a bellwether for everything that's taken place this week. The rumors about city officials removing the homeless from certain parts of downtown and shuttling them to a "tent city" under the freeway appear to be exaggerated, but it doesn't change the fact that San Francisco has an intractable homeless problem that seemingly isn't being addressed with any real effectiveness by the current administration. And yet even that is only one element of the story.

A few hours after Lee's remarks, on the roughly 90-minute drive from San Francisco past Levi's Stadium and into San Jose to witness the rampant idiocy of the Super Bowl's Opening Night, I saw a bus on the side of the road, hooked to a tow truck. I presumed it was a tech bus that had broken down, because this is another thing you get used to when you live in this city: There are tech buses everywhere, all the time, shuttling employees back and forth from San Francisco to points south, to jobs at Google and Apple and Facebook and Genentech.

The reason for this is obvious, and it's the same reason the Super Bowl is centered in San Francisco when the game itself is being held far to the south: Because like the tourists and media in town for this game, young tech employees don't want to live in Silicon Valley. They want to be in San Francisco. And so they go back and forth, and other than the fact that the demand for housing has elevated the city's rents to New York levels (and I include myself among the guilty parties, since I moved here from New York a couple of years ago), it's also lent an air of transience to many neighborhoods, and led to the displacement of long-time residents who contributed to the character of the city. Many young residents of this city don't utilize public transportation at all; many of them seem almost like tourists themselves. So when it was revealed this week that San Francisco might be on the hook for roughly $4.8 million in costs associated with the Super Bowl while Santa Clara (the home of Levi's Stadium) is being reimbursed for its expenses, people rightfully lost their minds, because it stomped on every button of neurosis that currently plagues this increasingly complicated and stratified city, as well as the region that surrounds it.

"Who invited Santa Clara's Super Bowl to my city in the first place?" one of my San Francisco friends (and, it should be noted, a pro football fan himself) wrote on Facebook the other day, and you can make the argument that the city will benefit from increased tourism, but even that argument appears layered in a certain amount of flimsiness, given that most sports economists have said that a Super Bowl – and particularly a Super Bowl in a city like San Francisco, where tourism is a booming business year-round – doesn't really do as much for the local economy as we might think.

I don't know if this is a tipping point for the city, because as others far more versed in local politics than me have pointed out, San Francisco is not exactly a well-oiled machine of good governance; but if nothing else, it feels like a moment resonant of an era, and of a piece with the kind of anger that is driving America's political argument. The privileged few are driving the conversation, and the rest of us just have to deal with it.

As it turned out, that wasn't a tech bus I saw on the side of the freeway on Monday. It was one of the Denver Broncos' team buses, which had been in a minor accident on the way back to the team hotel from practice. No one was hurt, and it could have been far worse. But then, maybe it already is.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb