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The Google Bus Protests Aren't About Google or Buses or Even Affordability
Ellen Cushing | Photo: Courtesy Flickr | January 24, 2014
They're about nativism.
On Tuesday, I took BART to City Hall and squeezed into a very crowded public hearing room to witness an argument I’ve watched so many times before that it’s become rote. One by one, tech employees got up and stated their case in support of the city’s new commuter-bus pilot program. And then, one by one, local activists got up to state their own case, which was ostensibly about the buses, but was really about gentrification and fairness and housing prices and the privatization of public space and a bunch of other laments. More often than not, the speakers began their arguments—Kevin Roose at New York magazine used the term “sermons”—the same way: By saying how long they’ve lived in San Francisco.
This kind of language isn't all that uncommon at fractious local meetings like this one. But in this case, it struck me as a code for something that’s been bubbling below the tech-bus conflagration for awhile now. Saying you’ve lived here for nine years (or 29 years, or—jackpot!—since birth) isn’t just about putting yourself and your interests in context. It’s an implicit argument about who has the right to exist in this city and who doesn’t. It's about nativism. It's about authenticity. It’s about who got here first.
Of course, the Google Bus debate has long since stopped being about the Google Bus. At a moment when San Franciscans are seeing their city changed—sometimes subtly, other times garishly—by companies whose campuses they will likely never see and by people whose work is ethereal, abstruse, difficult to wrap one’s head around, the buses are a blunt and obvious symbol. This isn't about transportation, as one anti-bus speaker said at Tuesday's hearing. “This is about class warfare!”
But recently, the debate has started to transcend even that order of abstraction. The Google Bus isn’t just an avatar for the privileged class any more. It’s become a proxy for change. Like so many culture-wars arguments in this town, it’s a fight about Old San Francisco versus New San Francisco. And it's a fight that's fundamentally unwinnable—not because it’s too late and tech has taken over, but because it’s about something that doesn’t exist. That city you knew when you arrived by boat, or plane, or hippie bus, or your mother's birth canal—it started changing the moment you got here. San Francisco has essentially reinvented itself every generation since the Gold Rush. That process didn't begin during this boom or the last one. It's been happening here for literally centuries.
This isn’t to say that the activists don’t have a point, or that they’re all creaking nostalgists. Tech is changing this city—irrevocably and in some cases for the worse. The anti-bus speakers generally did a persuasive job explaining the consequences of those changes on a human scale: the rising cost of living, the recent increase in Ellis Act evictions, all the many ways that life is being (for lack of a better word) disrupted right now. It’s a logical impulse, to use time lived in San Francisco as a shorthand for your authenticity and legitimacy, and as evidence of your opponents' lack thereof. It's what has made Chris Tacy’s ultra-viral Valleywag piece, “Douchebags Like You are Ruining San Francisco” (which begins by saying its author moved to San Francisco in 1992), and Rebecca Solnit’s London Review of Books Diary (with its second-paragraph reference to “people who’ve lived here awhile”) so damn convincing.
But here’s the thing: Implying that the only people who belong here are those whose life circumstances brought them to San Francisco before '92 or '72 or '52 isn't just a facile and alienating argument—it's also not a winning strategy. You don't see politicians running on the slogan "Vote for Me—I've Been Here Longest." And you don't gain friends and allies through nativist condescension. There's no reason that staying in place means your voice counts more.
Besides, we all know that in twenty years or so, the tech bros will have put down roots in Pacific Heights. They'll be sending their kids to University and S.I. They'll be board members of the Opera and the Ballet. And they'll be telling anyone who'll listen about the way things ought to be, like they were way back in 2014.