Good-bye To The Story, Hello To The City

Right about now, all over San Francisco, my magazine piece about the Lembi family is being taken off the shelves and the next issue of San Francisco Magazine is filling that slot. As a writer, it’s always sad when that happens, when the reading public moves on. After working on the story for a year and a half, it is interesting how briefly it is in the public eye and on the minds of the few who read it.

I’ve been attacked for writing a “hit piece” against the Lembi family, as if I set out to slander them. Certainly this was never the case. I got this assignment a year and a half ago when the editors of the magazine wanted me to explore how hard it was to be a landlord in San Francisco, and the Lembis were only a piece of a much larger focus on the world of landlords.

The first family we focused on was a couple called the Macys, who had bought a building on Clementina and, according to the SF Chronicle, used a number of aggressive tactics to get their renters to leave, including pondering how to cut out the support beams under the floor of one tenant’s apartment so that it would fall with him in it. When the world economy began to collapse, and the Lembis with it, my story shifted to cover the financing behind their unprecedented expansion.

I noticed how they repeatedly closed escrow on a dozen or more buildings on the same day and worked to find out why this was so. This was the thread of investigation that led me to the complicated world of their international financing and, because of that, forced me to look more closely at the incidents alleged by the suit that the SF City Attorney’s office filed against them.

The work of unpacking this opaque world was a strain at times, but it also gave me a chance to do the things I enjoy. I spent hours pouring over financial documents, court records and title transfers in courts and public buildings. I also was allowed into the homes of many regular citizens with stories to tell.

I am grateful to the editors of San Francisco magazine for allowing me to write this story at a length that allowed me to tell it fully, something that is very rare these days in journalism. They stuck with me and this story until I had it nailed down tight with public records to back everything I said. While I got frustrated when they kept asking for more and fact checking me to the point of exhaustion, I am not sorry they did.

More importantly for me, the story gave me a chance to walk the streets of the city I love and see it, feel it, in a way that I haven’t been able to do since I was in my twenties. For all my moaning about the vanishing city of my youth, the story allowed me to see that much of what I love about this town still exists, but in the hands of people I’ve yet to meet. In all ways, a good experience for me, and one I want to perpetuate