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San Francisco Is Dead. Long Live San Francisco.
Gary Kamiya | Photo: Travis Jensen | April 29, 2014
Yes, the city we know is going away. But, as has happened throughout its history, a new one will arise. Let’s give it a chance.
In 1999, my wife and I saw a For Sale sign on a small house on Nob Hill, two blocks away from the apartment where we’d been living for years. We went to look at it. Large sections of Nob Hill are basically extensions of Chinatown, and this house and the connected three-unit apartment building behind it were essentially run-down tenements. About a dozen people were living in the front house, squeezed into rooms that had been crudely subdivided by sheets and plywood partitions—doors sealed off, the staircase drywalled over, an illegal kitchen installed upstairs. The rear apartments were in a similar condition.
This was the height of the dot-com boom, when the first generation of techies and entrepreneurs was throwing big bucks at everything in San Francisco. But even though the price of the property was really low, only one other party bid on it. The reason wasn’t hard to figure out: The rents from the back building were practically nonexistent, and the last thing the dot-com crowd wanted was to become Chinatown landlords. That prospect didn’t faze me: I’d been renting from a Chinese landlady for 16 years, and I figured I was karmically due to turn the tables.
So we bought the place. But before we could move in, we first had to evict the tenants crammed into the single-family house. It was a long, expensive process. By the time we had finished with the courts and the mediators and the move-out payments, two years had passed. Finally, we were able to fix up the building and move in. We lived there for 12 years. We raised our kids there. Being a Chinatown landlord turned out to be OK. The tenants in the back building were good people, and I enjoyed watching their kids grow up beside mine. The only problem was that they paid hardly any rent, which made our financial situation precarious. We managed to scrape by until I was laid off from my job. Soon, the financial wheels came off. My wife and I split up. Ultimately, we had to sell the property.
One day this winter, I was working on the house, getting it ready to sell, when I noticed a spray-painted stencil on the sidewalk on Jackson Street. “Tenants were forced out here,” read the black words above a depiction of a suitcase. It was the handiwork of anti-eviction activists, a screaming scarlet E notifying all who passed that an evil, evicting landlord lurked here.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ve lived in San Francisco for 40 years, most of that time as a renter. I’ve been a lifelong supporter of rent control and strong tenants’ rights, even when it was against my own self-interest to be so. When I said goodbye to one of the middle-aged women who lived in the top-floor apartment, she put both hands over her heart, smiling, with tears in her eyes. She didn’t know enough English to tell me what she wanted to say, but I understood. We had been forced to sell our house, the home we had hoped to leave to our kids, in part because our lives had changed, and in part because our tenants’ rents were so low. I accepted that. Those were the rules of the game. But now I was being publicly shunned and shamed for having removed renters from a house that I had bought a dozen years ago and lived in ever since.
The day before the first open house this January, I bought a can of gray spray paint and covered over the stencil. As I stood there, bent over, spraying gray mist onto that accusatory black suitcase until it disappeared like a container ship into the fog, I thought, This is one messed-up town.
As the great debate over the gentrification of San Francisco rages endlessly on, I find myself in a peculiar position. On the one hand, I share the graffiti-bombing eviction activists’ fear that our city is permanently changing for the worse. It’s becoming a city of Dickensian extremes: According to a study by the Brookings Institution, San Francisco has the second-widest gap between rich and poor, as well as the fastest-growing disparity, in the nation. While a disproportionately large number of San Franciscans are extremely rich (the Twitter IPO alone created an estimated 1,600 millionaires) or affluent (a household in the 95th percentile makes a whopping $353,000 annually, 56 percent more than the elites of New York City), nearly one in four San Franciscans lives in poverty. Meanwhile, the middle class—a hard term to define in a place where two-bedroom apartments often rent for $4,000 a month—are leaving town, and new middle-class people are not replacing them. San Francisco’s population rose from 805,000 people in 2010 to 825,000 in 2012, but that explosive growth was driven not by low-wage service workers or middle-class professionals, but by highly trained, generally highly paid tech workers, 13,000 of whom have joined the workforce since 2010.
All of which means that if present trends continue, the city could soon become a moated citadel of info-money, accessible only to venture capitalists, Twitter engineers, and the creators of hookup apps. To be sure, it will still harbor thousands of poor and working-class people, as well as hordes of unclassifiable artists, hipsters, drifters, bohos, and assorted lotus eaters, all aging in place in their rent-controlled apartments or the houses they bought before 1974. But those populations will inexorably dwindle as people die or move out and their units revert to astronomical market rates. After that motley crew takes the great, one-way N-Judah ride out past the Farallones, San Francisco will have a different DNA.
This prospect worries me. As someone who loves San Francisco’s maverick tradition and its class and ethnic diversity (I celebrated both in a book I wrote last year called Cool Gray City of Love), I find the idea that my beloved town is on the verge of becoming another Manhattan—a picturesque but increasingly expensive, homogeneous, and sterile burg—distressing, to put it mildly. When I hear about yet another writer/artist/mentor/activist/all-around cool person being priced out of town, or learn that African Americans now make up only 6 percent of the city’s population, or hear stories about another young family that can’t afford to move here, my heart sinks.
And yet, the political, cultural, and class war that has erupted over what is happening to San Francisco—call it the Change—strikes me as wrongheaded to the point of surreality. Some of the foolishness is on the right, as when venture capitalist Tom Perkins absurdly compared the criticism of tech moguls to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. But more of it has come from the left, from such august intellectuals as writer-historian Rebecca Solnit, my former Salon boss and close friend David Talbot, and ex–Bay Guardian honcho Tim Redmond, who now runs the excellent blog 48 Hills. Some of my fellow progressives have reacted to the techies as if they were an alien life-form, to be removed from the body politic by any means necessary. The most well-known manifestations of this culture clash are the demonstrations against the Google buses. But there are others. Hundreds protested outside the Twitter offices on the day the company went public. Posters of the city’s last three mayors adorned with the words “Wanted for the Murder of San Francisco” have been pasted up all over town. There’s the campaign waged by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to demonize all people (including me) who have ever evicted anyone for any reason. There’s the view—promulgated by former elected officials like Art Agnos, Quentin Kopp, and Aaron Peskin—that any alteration in the physical landscape of San Francisco, especially if it involves market-rate housing, is akin to the Mordor Development Corporation’s erecting the Dark Tower in the middle of the Shire. There are the demonstrators who marched to the market-rate Vara condos at 15th and Mission in January, yelling up at the residents, “We hate you! The Mission hates you!”
It isn’t clear how many San Franciscans subscribe to these ugly, us-against-them sentiments. There is reason to believe that the great army of angry activists is like the gang of riflemen lurking in the bushes behind famous stagecoach robber Black Bart—a posse that turned out to be a couple of sticks propped up on top of a rock. But however many true believers there really are, they’re loud, they’re smart, and they know how to capture the media’s attention. For these provocateurs, the Change truly is a matter of good versus evil: an unholy trinity of greedy developers, compliant city bureaucrats, and arrogant, overpaid, libertarian techies in a showdown against struggling artists, people of color, downtrodden workers, and other virtuous keepers of the real San Francisco flame. It’s a life-and-death political struggle, complete with revolutionary rhetoric worthy of the Paris Commune. To the barricades, comrades! The fate of the city is at stake!
I’m all for rushing the barricades when there’s an enemy to fight and a battle that can be won. I’ve engaged in my share of such battles. But it’s time to reckon with reality: There is no enemy here. Or if there is, it’s an enemy that won’t be defeated. What has hit San Francisco in the last couple of years can be summed up in one word: capitalism. And that is a tsunami that no seawall can keep out. Herb Caen once described San Francisco as “surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by Republican reality,” but that reality—right now taking the shape of free-market capitalism—does not magically stop halfway across the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. We may wish that it were otherwise, but San Francisco is no more exempt from the almighty market than anywhere else in the United States. As a result, much of the left’s response to what is happening here is what philosophers call a “category violation”: the confusion of surface phenomena (techies, new construction, city policies) with the economic system that is actually responsible for the problem.
The Change is an unconquerable force of nature, like death. And much of the reaction to it recalls the first three stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grieving: a combination of denial, anger, and bargaining. If we yell and rage loudly enough, if we find someone to blame, if we replace reason with hyperbole—Solnit memorably compared newly arrived techies to ivory collectors in China—then somehow the city we know will come back. This reaction is not surprising. Cities are always dying—their phenomenology is harsh, irrevocable, tragic. The building or business that you saw yesterday, that was an old friend for decades, today is gone forever. Enormous changes are never easy to deal with, and it’s human nature to want to fight back, to assert control. So it’s understandable that many progressive San Franciscans, people whose values and vision I share, are kicking and screaming and spray-stenciling sidewalks as they watch their city turning into something they don’t recognize.
But cities are also always being reborn. And as I wander through our new city, I find myself open to it. I’m not convinced that it is really going to become a soulless simulacrum of Manhattan (or worse, Atherton). I’m curious to know what San Francisco in 2025 or 2050 will look and feel like. I’m interested in the young people who are pouring in. When I wander through Dolores Park on a hot Saturday afternoon and watch the throngs hanging out, talking, drinking wine, smoking weed, and listening to music, I don’t examine them suspiciously, trying to figure out which ones are the bad techies and which ones are the good baristas (except for the people playing that inane toss-the-beanbag game—they gotta go). As I walk through Nob Hill or the Mission or mid-Market and see the fancy single-family homes or the sleek high-rise apartments that are sprouting up here and there, I don’t inwardly groan (except with real estate envy). Mostly, I view them with equanimity, as if they’re seedlings growing in the forest.
For even if it were possible to keep San Francisco exactly the way it is—and it isn’t—why would anyone want to? Any such attempt would be antithetical to the very things that I value most about the city: its youth, its vigor, its ability to reinvent itself. Responding to the Change by calling for a culture war—as several leading voices of the left have done—is a recipe for personal bitterness and public divisiveness. Ultimately, it transforms tragedy, which is painful yet fruitful, into politics, which is painful and fruitless.
It would be so much easier to deal with the Change if it were a matter of right and wrong; if it were like the city’s worst mistake, the destruction of the Western Addition and the attending evisceration of the city’s African-American community in the name of “urban renewal”; if it had heroes like the community activists who fought the bulldozers and villains like Justin Herman, who sent them in.
But this is not a case of history repeating itself. On the surface, the current situation resembles that earlier debacle: rich white people displacing poor people of color, thanks to misguided city hall policies. But that comparison is superficial to the point of absurdity. Urban renewal was a conscious, racist, top-down policy to remake entire neighborhoods. The Change, on the other hand, is organic and inevitable, the result of forces beyond anyone’s ability to control.
The simple truth is that the unprecedented gentrification of San Francisco is being caused by the most banal of facts: People want to live here. They’re not just techies, who make up only 8 percent of the city’s workforce, albeit a very highly paid 8 percent (the average tech worker in San Francisco makes $108,000 a year). They’re people in all kinds of professions from all around the world, and they are drawn here for the usual reasons: San Francisco is a spectacularly beautiful city with a Mediterranean climate, American opportunities, a European vibe, a romantic history, and progressive politics—oh, and it’s a pulsing center of the economic engine that’s driving today’s world. What’s not to like, other than the housing prices? It’s not the least bit surprising that once again, the world is rushing in to San Francisco.
But that inevitability hasn’t stopped the parties on the left who attack city hall for rolling out the red carpet for tech firms, thus abetting, they say, San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the flight of artists, people of color, and the middle class. If Mayor Ed Lee had not handed out the so-called Twitter tax breaks, “all but turn[ing] City Hall over to the tech industry,” according to David Talbot, those problems would have been alleviated. In this view, allowing in the tech firms was the original sin of the gentrification epic, the first chomp out of the apple of good and evil.
“I think that’s crazy,” says David Prowler, a former planning commissioner and director of economic development for San Francisco. Having witnessed several booms and busts, Prowler scoffs at the notion that the city should have resisted the tech firms this time around. “People forget that just a few years ago, we were in a major economic slump,” he says. He points to earlier worries voiced by city dwellers that San Francisco was in danger of becoming “a Potemkin village, a Venice, where people would just work in tourism. That was only five years ago.”
What’s more, the idea that somehow city officials have the mandate (or the wherewithal) to keep people out is delusional, says Prowler. City Hall is in the business of stoking new business, welcoming new people, and attracting new capital here. The city’s employment numbers bear out this thinking. Statistically, San Francisco’s economy is approaching its all-time peak. Of a total workforce of 490,100 people, 464,600 are employed, a mere 900 jobs short of the record set during the first dot-com boom. The city’s unemployment rate stands at just 5.2 percent, as opposed to 6.7 percent nationally and 8 percent statewide. Compare that to January 2010, when 56,900 fewer San Franciscans were employed than are working today.
To be sure, these statistics hide some less rosy realities for residents forced out through eviction (or simple cost pressures) and for small businesses that can’t afford the rising commercial rents. But are these things evidence of evil, or simply Economics 101? The Change is happening at a frightening clip, but its effects are not different in kind from those that transformed neighborhoods like SoMa, or the Haight, or lower Pacific Heights, or a dozen other San Francisco neighborhoods over the last several decades. Take Bernal Heights, where I lived 40 years ago, when that now ultra-trendy precinct (“the hottest neighborhood in the country,” according to real estate site Redfin) was much poorer and less white. Is it harder for a working- or middle-class person to open a business or own or rent a home in Bernal now? Yes. Were a lot of renters and merchants forced out over the years? Yes. Is the neighborhood nicer now than it was before? Yes, if the measure is aesthetic appearance; maintenance and value of houses; clean streets, sidewalks, and parks; an active street life; and a lower crime rate. So there are pluses and minuses—that’s city life.
The unfortunate truth is that aside from a massive, game-changing reformation of America’s tax codes, there are no silver bullet solutions to the predicament in which San Francisco finds itself. Experts across the political spectrum agree that the city needs to build more housing and protect the existing rental stock. There’s disagreement about how much market-rate housing to allow, how many affordable units developers should be required to fund, whether more housing should be built for middle-class households than for lower-income ones, whether to change the city’s restrictive zoning and planning process, and a host of other issues. But no matter what decisions are made, government won’t be able to build more than a tiny fraction of the affordable housing that’s needed. Mayor Ed Lee has called for 30,000 homes to be built in the next six years, but even if that magically happens, it won’t solve the problem. We would need more than 100,000 new units to do that. Progressives (who, it should be noted, played a key role in blocking housing starts for decades) can yell and scream at the techies and the mayor all they want, but they’ll still end up in the same place: a city with more housing demand than it has supply.
So yes, the sudden influx of highly paid workers has exacerbated San Francisco’s housing problem. But the real problem isn’t those workers, or city policies. The real problem won’t be solved until we raise taxes on corporations, slash the defense budget, and unplug the national security state. The real solution is to turn the United States into Denmark.
Not since the rabble-rousing 19th-century demagogue Denis Kearney threatened to burn the plutocrats’ mansions atop Nob Hill (he also wanted to expel the Chinese from the city, but that’s another story) has a group of San Francisco elites been as vilified as the techies. The list of their supposed sins is familiar: They’re young, entitled, overpaid, individualistic to a fault, clueless about their surroundings, boring, apathetic, and insufficiently philanthropic. Of course, there’s some truth in this portrait. Too many tech CEOs (even one is too many) seem to embrace Ayn Rand as their role model, and some tech foot soldiers are certainly clods and boors. But on the whole, it’s grossly inaccurate.
“Techies, as a group, don’t lean as libertarian as the stereotype holds,” says Andrew Leonard, longtime technology columnist for Salon. “Maybe as you get higher up in the executive ranks they do, and, certainly, the kinds of people who found startups are a particular class. But I suspect that the average programmer or Google engineer, like most people in the Bay Area, skews liberal politically.”
My own sense is that rather than resembling the Ron-Paul-in-a-hoodie cartoon, rank-and-file techies are mostly nonideological, relatively apolitical, solutions-driven people. If they do have a tendency toward libertarianism, it’s less a rigid dogma than a somewhat naïve response to the inevitable shortcomings of government. They do tend to be ignorant of San Francisco and its traditions. But they’re young, and they just parachuted into town—cut them some slack! And not all the big tech moguls are Randian horror shows: Just look at this issue’s cover subject, Salesforce chief executive officer Marc Benioff, for evidence of that.
The fact is, none of the techies’ supposed shortcomings are exactly mortal sins. So why is it that as a group, they are being held to a higher standard of civic behavior than any other clique in the city’s history? They’re attacked for driving up housing costs, for being left-brainers in a right-brain city, for not engaging in constant acts of charity, for not paying lip service to the disadvantaged. But since when is “giving back to the community” the price of admission into society? I know a lot of longtime San Franciscans who’ve never done a damned thing for “the community” save for paying their taxes and sitting on a couple of juries. Does that make them bad citizens?
If pushed, some of those launching these attacks might admit that their arguments are heavy-handed, but that sometimes a blunt instrument is necessary to do the job. If by attacking the techies as a group, they succeed in shaming more tech CEOs into volunteering or giving money, or they manage to draw people’s attention to the affordable housing crisis or the problem of income inequality, then, they believe, the ends justify the means. As one of my left-leaning friends puts it, “It’s good for the techies to feel the dragon’s breath.” Hers is not a completely baseless opinion: Google, to name one example might not have donated $6.8 million to Muni if it hadn’t felt the bus protestors’ heat. But the negative consequences of the “attack them first and let God sort them out” approach ultimately outweigh the positive ones. Just as smearing all homeowners who have ever evicted anyone does nothing to build sympathy for the legitimate cause of fighting illegal evictions, demonizing all techies divides the city—and works against the very civic engagement that progressives are calling for.
I found this out in the most poignant way imaginable when I attended a recent discussion asking “Is Tech the New Counterculture?” at the Hattery, a SoMa tech incubator where 87 members pay $700 a month for a work space and one chef-cooked meal a day. After the talk, a number of attendees asked questions indicating their desire to make a difference, to help effect social change, to be part of something meaningful. One techie in the audience plaintively said, “I’d like to get more involved, but I’m worried that people will get mad at me.” This poor guy felt so stigmatized as a techie that he was afraid even to raise his hand to volunteer.
Demanding that the techies prove their worthiness may lead some companies to increase their commitment to charity. And there’s nothing wrong with cleaning up garbage in the Tenderloin, as employees of Twitter and Yammer do, or serving soup at Glide, like workers from Zendesk and One Kings Lane, just as there’s nothing wrong with the six companies that have signed community benefit agreements, or CBAs, as part of the mid-Market tax break deal. But that kind of interaction between the techies and the underprivileged is far more dutiful and perfunctory than interaction driven by real interest and passion, interaction that taps into the idealism that young techies possess just as much as any other group of their peers.
You can see some of that idealism in action at FreeSpace, an intriguing new community art center and intentionally purposeless facility at Sixth and Market. FreeSpace is exactly what its name implies: a free, experimental space, located in a storefront, where people can come in and do whatever they want as long as they don’t behave irresponsibly. There’s a grand piano outside on the sidewalk that anyone can play. On the back wall hangs a large, striking portrait by a guy who lives around the corner. There’s an in-tune guitar upstairs, and some Legos. Everyone from techies to homeless people to nonprofit workers to random passersby drops in. A young guy working on a bike told me that he was sleeping on the street when he found FreeSpace and that it had given him something positive to do with his life. One of the few rules is that everything is free. In that regard, and quite a few others, it’s like a little piece of Burning Man dropped down on the edge of the Tenderloin. In fact, the building’s owner rented the storefront to FreeSpace for a dollar a month because he wanted to do something positive with his empty building.
“We started in June 2013 on Seventh Street,” says Ilana Lipsett, one of FreeSpace’s founders. She and some of her fellow founders have a background in community organizing; others are of the techie persuasion. “It was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, which encourages people to get involved in their community. We decided to give people a whole month in a physical space. In the first month alone, we had 119 free events—everything from yoga to bike repair to art, dance, music, and books. Five thousand people came through.” They raised money to stay open by crowdsourcing through Indiegogo. In March they moved to their new storefront on Market and Sixth. The city has given them a small grant.
Lipsett recounts the story of one visitor, a former Apple engineer who “wanted to find something more inspiring to do.” For several weeks after leaving his job, he spent every waking hour at FreeSpace, playing around with things like an LED waterfall structure that needed programming. Before long, he was inspired enough that he went off to look for work and ended up at Spotify. “There’s a purposelessness about the space that draws you in,” says Lipsett. “And then you find some purpose—making friends, making art, working in the community. When you have diversity of people, you get a maximum of innovation.”
For better or worse, the techies are here. Barring an economic meltdown that would probably send the world into a catastrophic depression, they’re going to be here for a long time. Yes, it’s possible that the gloomy view will prove correct and the techies will bring little or nothing positive to San Francisco. But I’m betting that at a minimum, their sociological impact will be neutral. If they’re low on charisma but invent something that makes the world a better place, we’ll take it. Who knows? The mixture of compassionate old-school progressives, with their commitment to social justice, and high-IQ, problem-solving techies, with their ambition to change the world, just might be the alchemical combination we need.
At this fraught moment, a venerable slogan from an earlier cultural revolution could be useful. As the Change breaks over the city like a huge wave, the classes shouldn’t make war. They should interbreed and reproduce.
Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco