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How Much Tech Can One City Take?

Shaken by the latest digital gold rush, San Francisco struggles for its soul.

 Photo Illustration by Peter Belanger

Still, the librarian worries that for most people she knows, the city’s assistance is too little and too late. Her family’s last hope is the Excelsior district, a neighborhood in transition, where safety varies from block to block. “We always try to figure out where the lesbians are going,” she says. “In the ’90s it was Bernal, now it’s the Excelsior. We just bid on a house for $399,000. Who knows? We’ll see if we get outbid on this one again.”

 

For all the real estate fervor among the Bay Area’s new digital settlers, one gets the sense that this latest generation of strivers has only the barest understanding of what has long made the city such a cool, gray oasis. When Mayor Lee sits down with the new tech royalty, he feels the need to tell them who he is, and where he came from. As a kid growing up in Seattle, Lee worked as a dishwasher, alongside his cook father, in a Chinese restaurant. He watched as his father got pushed around and verbally abused, until he finally broke under the strain, dying too young of a heart attack. As a young legal activist, Lee brought a passion for justice to his battles with San Francisco landlords and the city housing authority. “Landlords,” Lee recalls, “hated my guts.” They called him a communist.

As he chats with me in his stately office on the second floor of city hall, Lee suddenly seems to hum with the activist energy of his youth. He insists that he is not simply a servant of the new digital elite. In return for the tax breaks and other municipal favors he has afforded tech companies, he expects some civic engagement. “I say to them, ‘You’ve got to give something back to this city.’ That’s the spirit of San Francisco, to help those who can’t help themselves. This is a shared economy.”

Where are the new philanthropists of San Francisco’s tech boom? Lee is determined to flush them out. He tells the tech entrepreneurs about the Haas family, the Shorensteins, and Charles Schwab, about Warren Hellman and Bill Graham. Residents of San Francisco can see and hear and feel the largesse of this older generation of wealth: It’s all around us—in the museum buildings and Golden Gate Park, in the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. This older generation of titans, Lee tells them, helped make the city a sensual delight.

But the tech crowd, for the most part, has yet to spread its wealth around, at least in ways that make a visible difference in the life of the city. There are a few notable exceptions, of course; Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, for instance, donated $100 million to build the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Mission Bay. But overall, a sense of libertarian stinginess prevails among San Francisco’s digital elite.

One recent Friday evening, a single mother named Fufkin Vollmayer found herself at a Shabbat service hosted by Mission Minyan, a congregation started by two young Jews in the heart of San Francisco's hottest neighborhood. The fortysomething Vollmayer, who was raised in the Haight-Ashbury by an activist mother, is the kind of vibrant, idiosyncratic personality that defines San Francisco (she took her first name from the band manager in Spinal Tap, for reasons that made sense at the time).

The night she attended the Mission Minyan service, Fufkin remembers, most of her fellow worshippers had the bearing of successful digital wizards, and all seemed (to her, at least) to be single-mindedly focused on the business of tech. As the startup chatter droned on, Vollmayer finally blurted out, “What about giving something back?” A deep silence fell over the room. No one responded. After the embarrassment faded, the conversation returned to business as usual.

“Maybe it’s youth—the folly of youth,” Vollmayer mused to me later. “The group that night was clearly about 15 years younger than me. If you’re young and rich, do you really think much about the implications of the work you do and the money you make?”

 

Is San Francisco’s high-tech workforce too cocooned from the cultural life of the city? Karen Wickre, the editorial director of Twitter, wrestles with this question one recent afternoon, when I visit her at the company’s headquarters. The Twitter offices seem to float in the sky above the squalid urban turf below, where the raw life of the Tenderloin spills onto Market Street. Not only do Twitter employees work in the clouds, high above the rough street bustle below, but some don’t even have to rub elbows with other San Franciscans on Muni. They can avoid the teeming masses by hopping aboard an exclusive shuttle that the Shorenstein Realty Company—owner of the Twitter building—runs between the Caltrain station and their mid-Market destination.

Wickre, a 61-year-old veteran of computer-magazine publishing and Silicon Valley communications, is one of the seasoned, thoughtful mandarins who balance Twitter’s generally youthful management team. As she chats with me in the company’s high-ceilinged dining room, an army of hungry employees comes pouring in, heading for the steaming tables that are abundantly piled with a variety of lunchtime cuisines. The Twitter workforce—young, heavily male, and mostly white, Asian, and Indian—clearly has little incentive to venture onto the streets below in search of midday sustenance. Few of the cafés and restaurants in the area appear to be cashing in on the presence of their new corporate neighbor yet, despite the “Welcome Twitter” signs in storefront windows.