San Francisco or bust: Class war and why we need to stand and fight to save our city

48hillsgooglebusprotest

(Editors Note: This is a speech delivered to a business conference on the “Mid-Market Transformation,” March 12, 2014)

By David Talbot

I want to talk about a very taboo, a very loaded topic today – one that even here in anything-goes San Francisco makes people squirm. And no, it’s not the battle over the right to bare your ass on the city’s streets. It’s even hotter than that. The taboo topic is class war.

San Francisco – a very confined, 7-by-7 area of prime real estate – has been the center of a raging turf war throughout its history. At the heart of this battle is a very simple but brutal question: who gets to live here?

One way or the other, that very provocative question has been at the heart of every big conflict that has torn apart the city, from the anti-Chinese riots of the 1870s to the civil wars over the influx of hippies and gays in the 1960s and ‘70s to the current storm over the colonization of San Francisco by the new tech elite.

In many ways, San Francisco is a product of these heated battles. As I write in my book “Season of the Witch,” so-called San Francisco values were not born with flowers in their hair – but howling, in blood and strife. It took decades of bitter – and often violent – struggle for San Francisco to become the beacon of enlightenment and social tolerance that it is today. These days we remember the social upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s in San Francisco as culture wars – battles over sexual freedom and creative expression, or “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” But we forget that there was an underlying economic component to many of these battles. (more after the jump)

Progressive champion George Moscone narrowly won victory as mayor in 1975 by challenging the entrenched power of the downtown banking and real estate interests and defending the beleaguered working families in the neighborhoods, who felt squeezed by soaring rents and by the erosion of the good, unionized, blue-collar jobs that had created the city’s middle class.

Harvey Milk – the city’s other leading progressive icon in the 1970s — was not just a crusader for gay rights. He had a broader vision of human liberation. Milk realized that much of the anti-gay backlash in the city came not just from die-hard homophobes, but from working families who were being displaced by gay gentrification in the Castro, Mission, Alamo Square and Duboce Triangle areas. Many of the gay newcomers were young white professionals with disposable income, while those they were squeezing out were poor and working-class and minorities. Harvey’s true greatness as a progressive leader came from the way that he brought together the gay struggle with the labor movement and the tenants right campaign and the battle for women’s liberation and racial justice. He understood that the imbalance in wealth and power – that never-ending battle between the have’s and have-nots – was the common thread that connected all these social struggles. And he dreamed of a grand coalition that would have the clout to bring power to the bargaining table – the way Longshoremen’s Union leader Harry Bridges brought management to its knees in the 1930s by coordinating the city’s labor unions.

The waves of hippies and gays that poured into San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s were indeed disruptive. But they brought a fresh infusion of progressive energy into the city, just as San Francisco’s labor movement was growing soft and bureaucratic. By absorbing this new human energy, the city became more creative, enlightened and even prosperous. San Francisco, in fact, became a social model for the world. After years of debate and turmoil, San Francisco innovations like gay marriage,  legalized marijuana, a livable minimum wage, city-wide green programs and bike systems, and guaranteed health care – after all this, San Francisco – as the social laboratory for America — can quite legitimately take much of the credit for moving the country forward. God knows, the right wing has recognized how dangerous the city and its notorious “San Francisco” values are. For years, we’ve been the whipping boy for the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

But now that San Francisco’s cultural revolution has been won, the city is facing a new crisis, one that again tests its very soul.

This war pits San Francisco’s bedrock progressive values – including a strong commitment to social diversity and the common good – against the defiantly individualistic, even solipsistic, world of digital capitalism.

Let me state right up front that I am no Luddite.  As I wrote in my article for San Francisco magazine back in October 2012 – an article titled “How Much Tech Can One City Take?” which helped spark the current debate – I have benefited enormously from technology, not just as a consumer but as a journalist, author and media entrepreneur. I’m a strong believer in the power of technology to liberate the human spirit. And I’m very proud that San Francisco is a beehive of this kind of buzzing innovation.

I clearly could not have launched my own pioneering online publication — Salon — back in 1995 without the miraculous digital infrastructure built by the architects of the web. This new digital wizardry allowed me and my merry band of ink-stained wretches to bail out of a moribund newspaper industry and reinvent journalism. At Salon, I become very fond of the brilliant geeks who were constantly coming up with new ways for Salon to connect with our readers and stay one step ahead of financial disaster. Working closely together, the editorial staff and tech team at Salon proved that we could defy The Man, run our own shop, and break away from the numbing conventions of the mainstream news industry.

But over the years, the innovation bubbling up in the Bay Area has become much more market-oriented than socially driven. Vast fortunes have been created overnight by raiding the intellectual content that others have painstakingly built over the years. Other new empires have risen by convincing millions of people to give up their privacy and reveal their deepest thoughts and desires for free – a kind of Tom Sawyer business model based on persuading the public that it’s lots of fun to paint someone else’s fence.

Much of the new tech wealth is either built on this kind of shameless piracy – or on what I call the idiocy of ingenuity. You know — creating apps that are nothing more than solutions in search of problems. The fact that so much of this new wealth is based on either trivial or downright damaging human pursuits makes it doubly hard to stomach the arrogance and self-absorption of this new tech elite. These are men – and as we know, 98 percent of them ARE men – who sincerely believe that just because they came up with some new “friction-free” way of accessing people’s bank accounts, they are now entitled to run the world.

(Just a little aside — I love terms like “friction-free,” dreamed up in the world of tech-capitalism – language that romanticizes a brave new world where there is no human contact and where the very human consequences of innovation are hidden underneath layers of marketing hype. Another one of my favorite terms is “content aggregation” – which really means intellectual property theft. )

When they’re not busy trying to run the world, these men are turning San Francisco into their private playground. Technology tycoons like Larry Ellison of Oracle are not content to hijack whole blocks of downtown San Francisco to celebrate themselves and their latest product lines each year – shutting down entire streets and snarling traffic to stage their corporate orgies. No, it wasn’t enough for Ellison to take command of our city streets – now he owns the San Francisco Bay too.

Last year’s America’s Cup race gave Ellison the opportunity to turn the Bay into his own personal water park. The sailboat he entered in the race was so over-engineered and prohibitively expensive — it cost upwards of $100 million to build — that only one other sailing team, underwritten by an oil sultan, could afford to compete with him. And even though he overspent nearly near every competitor out of the race, Ellison’s team still felt it had to cheat in order to win.

Ellison, of course, promised that this spectacle of wretched excess would bring millions of dollars into the city. But the reality, as City Hall accountants finally revealed, was that San Francisco ended up subsidizing Ellison’s vanity water show. City taxpayers were stuck with a bill for the event that will total at least $5.5 million.

The tech elite seems more interested in what they can take from San Francisco than what they can give back. It took years of creative and social ferment for San Francisco to become what it is today — a magnet for young and ambitious people from all over the world, including many of the best and brightest digital workers. But instead of expressing gratitude to a city that has given them numerous competitive advantages, tech moguls demand more and more handouts from the city, in the form of tax subsidies and other public giveaways. Mayor Ed Lee has all but turned City Hall over to the tech industry, meeting with digital executives on a weekly basis to ask them what more he can do to make them happy. The mayor not only hands over entire sections of downtown for tech block parties, he has reserved a prime section of the city – the Mid-Market area – exclusively for the Twitterocracy.

The battle over the Mid-Market corridor – which runs through the heart of the city, along Market Street between Fifth and Nine Streets – is a battle for the city’s soul. For years, City Hall and community organizations have struggled for ways to revive this blighted urban zone. As the local newspaper keeps reminding us, the Mid-Market has long been a magnet for junkies and street criminals. But it’s also a home for immigrant families and the working poor, as well as people trying to get a foothold in the city after surviving bouts of hard luck, mental illness or addiction. Some urban activists and dreamers – like writer and visionary Dave Eggers — have proposed turning the Mid-Market area into a mixed-use haven for the poor, as well as artists and craftsmen who still work with their hands. But Mayor Lee decided to turn Mid-Market into an urban Silicon Valley, making it a tax haven for tech companies like Twitter, Zendesk, and Yammer.

To make Mid-Market squeaky clean enough for the young engineers and marketing managers now pouring into the new office buildings here, the mayor has ordered the police to sweep the homeless off the street. This amounts to sweeping the problem to other corners of the city – including the mayor’s own front yard. The mayor can now look out his window at City Hall and see roaming packs of scruffy street people with their shopping carts and pit bulls in tow. They congregate in Civic Center and they crash in the Main Library, turning these central public spaces into dumping bins for the city’s chronic homeless problem.

Meanwhile, as City Hall showers millions of dollars in tax giveaways on the tech companies, a new city study shows that for an extra $44 million in annual spending, the city could wipe out the homeless problem by building new supportive housing for people living on the streets. Despite all the uproar about the problem, San Francisco’s homeless numbers have remained relatively flat for the past 12 years. The city only needs to focus on getting about 3,500 people into housing.

Defenders of the new tech boom point to all the new jobs and tax revenue coming into the city. But somehow this new wealth has failed to trickle down to the people most in need. The rapid rise of tech wealth in San Francisco has actually INCREASED the already disturbing gap between the haves and have-nots in the city. A recent report by the Brookings Institution found that the wealth gap in San Francisco is the second largest among American cities. The top 5 percent of San Francisco households earn more than $353,000 per year, whereas the bottom 20 percent of households earn less than $21,000. And it’s important to note that his grand chasm between the top and bottom grew more QUICKLY in San Francisco than in any other city.

San Francisco is fast becoming a city of billionaires and beggars, with middle-class and working families priced out of the city. Everyone who lives here knows dozens of friends and family members who have been pushed out – schoolteachers, firefighters, nurses, restaurant cooks, writers, artists, retired dockworkers, people with deep roots in the city – people who helped make the city.

This brings up my next point: what is a city? It cannot be summed up simply in accounting ledgers, in the numbers spewed out by Ed Lee and Ron Conway, the tech investor who seems to pull the mayor’s strings.

If you have lived in a special city like San Francisco for any length of time, you develop a sense of what makes it unique. A great city is a delicate marriage of human enterprise and natural beauty. A great city possesses something like a soul – a fragile vessel of time, memory and civic spirit that can be shattered with remarkable speed. San Francisco is less than 200 years old. But within this torrent of history, from the gold rush to the tech boom, it has become a wonder of the world. The streets of San Francisco contain multitudes – waves of immigrants and social outcasts and creative visionaries.

Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte. Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia. The rugged 49er fortune-seekers who came from all over the world, and the tough Chinese immigrants searching for their own Gold Mountain. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana’s 49ers. The Jazz Renaissance that turned the Fillmore into the Harlem of the West. The cafes and the cheap North Beach railroad apartment where Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl.” The tough hippies who stood their ground with guns in the Haight-Ashbury to drive out the heroin dealers and the bad cops and save their neighborhood from the redevelopers’ wrecking balls. The aging Filipino tenants and young activists who stood their ground to save the residential I-Hotel on the edge of Chinatown. The young gay men and women who fled the boredom and persecution of their hometowns, turning San Francisco into a fabulous Emerald City. And the brave doctors, nurses and agitators who put their lives on the line to fight the AIDS epidemic. In the process, they truly made San Francisco the City of Saint Francis – a city that refused to abandon its sick and helpless and dying – no matter how untouchable they seemed.

I wrote about this turbulent and magical history that made San Francisco in “Season of the Witch.” And the city has embraced the book – it’s been on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list for over a year now. I think the success of the book is due to San Franciscans’ deep anxiety about what the city is becoming – a creeping sense that much of this urban wonderland can be wiped out in a single San Francisco earthquake, like the tech boom that is now rocking the city.

The tech cheerleaders prefer to call this type of boom, “creative destruction.” Now I know that many of the rank and file people who work in the tech industry are not disciples of Joseph Schumpeter and Ayn Rand – they are good, hard-working people who share our progressive San Francisco values. But the political ethos of the tech elite is far different. By and large, the new digital elite are selfish libertarians – the type of instant billionaires, three or four years out college, who feel that since they scraped and clawed their way to the top — with mom and dad’s and Kleiner Perkins’ help — they owe nothing and nobody in return.

Some of these baby billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg, have even joined political forces with older, very uncool fat cats – like the notorious Koch brothers, whose motto most certainly is “Be Evil.”  Zuckerberg belongs to a corporate lobby that is working hard to roll back pro-labor and minimum wage legislation, climate change reform, and voter rights. But this very same Facebook billionaire feels quite comfortable building a dream mansion overlooking Dolores Park, in the heart of a city whose pleasant surroundings and genial mix of citizens were ensured by decades of progressive struggle and reform.

This is the type of selfish and greedy corporate behavior that empties out the heart of a city. And this is, of course, what is fueling the rage against the Google buses – those vast, sleek, wi-fi vehicles that have become symbols of San Francisco’s colonization by Silicon Valley. They represent one more way that the tech industry is feeding off the city’s public treasury, clogging the streets and municipal bus stops, and reminding everyone of the privileged bubble people who seem to be taking over our city.

The few, scattered protests that have broken out against these buses have sent Marie Antoinette-like shivers through the tech aristocracy. Silicon Valley billionaire investor Tom Perkins became so agitated by this rather mild outburst of democracy that he compared his fellow one-percenters to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust – which only underlined how out of touch with reality many of these bubble billionaires really are.

Of course San Francisco is also lucky enough to have a few sane and generous tech tycoons in our midst – people like Marc Benioff of Salesforce, who has not only bankrolled a new children’s hospital, but has contributed to San Francisco’s public schools, and is now pushing his fellow tech moguls to kick in to a fund for the city’s poor. “We don’t want to be the industry that looks like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ ” he told The San Francisco Chronicle. “We want to be more benevolent.

“We have to keep a light on this idea that if you come to San Francisco, you need to also be committed to giving back. You can’t just take from our city. You can’t just come here from another city, another state, another country, start a company, take advantage of all of our resources – and then leave with all of your money that you created.”

Benioff, whose family has lived in San Francisco since the 1800s, is trying to extend a great tradition of San Francisco philanthropy into the new tech generation. In the past, wealthy individuals like Warren Hellman, the Haas family, the Fisher family – even rock and roll showmen like Bill Graham – have contributed enormously to the museums and parks and clinics and music festivals that make a city worth living in. Now Benioff is reminding selfish rich kids like Zuckerberg that it’s time for his generation to step up and do the same.

But San Francisco can’t simply depend on a few good rich guys like Marc Benioff to make the difference. When a city or a society grows so distorted, so out of balance – as the entire country, but particularly San Francisco – has become, we need the powerful engine of government to intervene. On paper at least, we seem to have the political tools to push through this change. In Sacramento, we have a progressive governor and a legislature with a Democratic super majority. In City Hall, we have a mayor who was once a hard-core housing activist, fighting against greedy developers and landlords on behalf of poor immigrant Chinese families.

And yet for all his politically correct rhetoric, Ed Lee has done little to narrow the obscene wealth gap that is turning San Francisco into a tale of two cities. The former activist now wines and dines the tech elite and has staked his legacy on the glass palace that the Warriors want to erect on the waterfront.

San Francisco needs a different kind of leadership. We need a populist mayor who is deeply dedicated to saving the working and middle-class families that make this city run. We need a leader who will put the power of government fully behind a massive low-income housing construction program, job training programs, and tax policies that transfer wealth back to the people who have helped create it. We need, in other words, a leader who is not afraid of what a young Ed Lee once dared to call “class war.” That Ed Lee understood that class war in America is usually all about the UPPER class screwing the poor. But class war only gets screamed about by the Tom Perkins of the world when those who have been getting reamed for years finally begin to squirm.

Unfortunately, Ed Lee is no longer the crusading firebrand he once was – the man who helped engineer the first successful tenants strike, at a notorious public tenement in Chinatown. So these days San Francisco needs its own Bill de Blasio – the type of mayor who taps into the deep fear and pain of the city’s longtime residents and channels that into an overwhelming victory with a mandate for change. This type of urban revival campaign would bring together small business, labor unions, tenants rights, immigrant and homeless organizations, artists and craftspeople, parents and teachers who care about the future of local public education – in other words, all those who have a deep stake in San Francisco.

If we are to save San Francisco, then we have to make Tom Perkins’ worst fears come true. It’s time to take this city back from the arrogant tech moguls and timid city hall administrators who are killing San Francisco values.

My wife and I bought our house in the Bernal Heights neighborhood over 20 years ago. We raised our two sons there – and in fact, at ages 19 and 23, they are still living with us. Our house has become a kind of young artists commune, stuffed with kids who can’t afford to live — or eat — anywhere else. Our sons were educated at San Francisco’s School of the Arts – the excellent public school that turns out waves of talented, young filmmakers, musicians, dancers, artists and writers. My sons are aspiring filmmakers and they have already won awards from the San Francisco International Film Festival for their work.

They are now making a feature film called “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” – it’s based on the true story of their childhood friend Jimmy, a 19-year-old African-American born and raised in San Francisco, who does indeed often feel these days like the last black man in his home town. Jimmy lives with us these days. His family lost their home in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood – a beautiful Victorian built by his late grandfather, who was a minister. His family has been scattered – he’s one of the last ones left in the city. But Jimmy refuses to leave.

This is what Jimmy says in the film. “My grandfather left the Deep South because there was nothing there for him. He built his dream home in San Francisco. Now that it’s gone, they expect me to be gone too. But I’m not going anywhere. There ain’t nothing west of here but water. This is my home.”

Amen to that.

For more information about “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” contact Joseph Talbot: josephltalbot@gmail.com.

 David Talbot is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon, and the author of “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love.” david@talbotplayers.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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31 Responses to San Francisco or bust: Class war and why we need to stand and fight to save our city

  1. Jordan says:

    Why was his home lost? Was it due to poor financial decisions? I hate statements that say it was “lost”, like “Whoops, where did we put it?”. I have no idea what the details are but without any I can equally assume it had nothing to do with his family being black as to it being from mistakes.

  2. wswdt20 says:

    Great read. For a perspective on the same subject via a detour through China and Tibet, take a look at the article “Sky Trains: San Francisco and its heaven and earth conundrum” at sfheavenandearth.wordpress.com.

  3. John Lumea says:

    Very thoughtful piece.

    Many would put Emperor Norton, too, high on the list of those who have peopled our streets and fought, as best they could, for the values that came to be associated with San Francisco and the Bay Area.

    To be sure, the Emperor’s record on women’s suffrage was a little mixed. But, in the 1860s and ’70s — well before the following rights were officially recognized in the city — he persistently demanded fair and equal treatment of the Chinese, both in the workplace and in courts of law; he decreed that African Americans must be accorded equal access to public schools and public streetcars; and he called for the assembly of a council of chiefs to punish those who had been exploiting Native Americans.

    He also kept after city elders to maintain the city’s streets, understanding that the good condition of the streets themselves are an essential guarantor of the common good.

    A legacy worth remembering.

    John Lumea
    The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign

  4. You might want to double-check your facts regarding the America’s Cup. There were three teams that competed to go up against Oracle in the America’s Cup, which is essentially the finals and always has just two boats competing against each other. The expense of the boats did limit participation more than organizers were hoping. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether the event was positive, negative or some of both for the city.

  5. Filmmaker says:

    I left SF 3 years ago…the place has too many guys with #1 haircuts…using biz terms socially like ” I have a Hard Stop for this lunch”…too may 27-35 kids trying to play adults…walking down the street with a professional blank stare…or frown. I moved to Marina del Rey – Venice…..my first reaction was the amazement at seeing folks over 47 walking or skate boarding around. It’s not perfect…but it is creative…and not so corporate /biz mentality….am I the only one?…..of course I come back to visit:)

  6. Mia C says:

    I am a third generation native of this city-my son is a fourth-
    We are the last of our ENTIRE family to still live in SF. Why should
    I have to leave the city that I love because I am not rich OR poor?
    The middle class is being pushed out of the city along with working
    artists and musicians- the working class and the art an music scene is
    what made SF great! I work and pay taxes why can’t I afford to rent or even own
    a home in the city?
    Growing up in the Sunset in the 70′s and 80′s I recall it being a well mixed
    neighborhood -lots of kids and muscle cars-it was the epitome of the
    middle class “Urban Suburb” and a great place to raise a
    family….now houses rent for 5000.00 a month-it’s sad to see the sunset become
    too expensive for a two income family- why should we have to leave our hometown?
    Something has got to give-the rich have their homes, the poor have their homes…why are the Middle and working class being forgotten?

  7. Cow says:

    Agreed, keep them out, we don’t want their kind.

  8. Jeff Hoffman says:

    This is in response to Tim’s comment about him not being a Luddite and the positive aspects of computer technology.

    When Bruce Brugmann owned and ran the Bay Guardian, I realized early on as a conservationist Luddite that these guys were leftists, not environmentalists, and I accepted that fact. However, it is quite clear to any sane person — and it seems that there are few left — that technology has gotten way out of hand. People have turned into some sort of androids or Borg, with Blu-ray things in their ears, constantly looking at their i-Whatevers, etc. I have to tell clients and potential clients to turn off their cell phones because if I don’t, they’ll rudely answer them while they’re consulting with me. A colleague will rudely answer his cell phone while we’re having beer or eating out. And none of this even takes into account the serious environmental harms caused by all this stuff, like polluting out atmosphere with non-ionizing radiation, the effects of which have barely been studied and are not even known.

    So while I understand Tim’s applauding technology that allowed people like him to start online publications, remember that those publications would not have been necessary if not for the technology that drove them out of business in the first place. Humans have way overdone it with technology, and it’s past time to start living more simply and ditch all the ridiculously needless crap, consumption of which is causes more serious environmental harms. Start by getting rid of cell phones, the world was fine for thousands of years without them.

    • SlideSF says:

      The article is by David Talbot, not Tim Redmond.

    • Paul McEnery says:

      “those publications would not have been necessary if not for the technology that drove them out of business in the first place.”

      Not even slightly true. As we know, Salon was started by disgruntled Examiner people who couldn’t get decent articles published in its grubby pages.

      The decline of newsprint began long before net publishing, and net publishing was a response to it.

  9. kscarlata@gmail.comcarlosscarlata@aol.com,antonioscarlata @scar.com says:

    Thoughtful

  10. Chuck Karish says:

    Is it useful to present the effects of the tech boom as a San Francisco issue? They’re the results of 60 years of planning decisions throughout the Bay Area. The solutions to the problems will also come from actions to be taken throughout the region.

    Taking a properly populist approach won’t help much. There’s way too much economic power driving the housing crisis to be turned aside by the things one city government can do, like rent control and housing subsidies.

  11. Barbara Saunders says:

    The place these arguments annoy me is the confusion of a whole lot of unrelated things. How does people using too much technology relate to the issue of gentrification? I get that both things are problems. But it seems counterproductive to feed an amorphous mass of emotion directed simultaneously at corporations (are all of the problematic corporations tech corporations?), technology itself, technology executives, technology grunt workers, and people who use tech.

    • It’s rather simple – useless consumer-based apps are the basis of the tech industry. That is a whole lot of incredible talent that could actually be used productively for society, but unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of money in that…so the talent goes to useless consumer-based apps, which as I mentioned, make a whole lot of money.

      Now, instead of Angry Birds, say we have an open-source platform that integrates with social media services enabling people to learn about and donate to individual children’s surgeries, creating more awareness of the organization’s mission among donors. Doesn’t generate nearly as much money, but sure is better for society. If more philanthropic tech companies existed under models like this, they would simply make less money,meaning they can’t throw as much at their employees, but the work they would be doing is drastically more meaningful. What is one of the end results? White people with less money to spend on Valencia street and $4,000 rent, focusing on local problems, slowing down gentrification.

  12. AB says:

    You lost me at “who gets to live here?” This is the fundamental problem I run into with this entire argument. I agree there are problems but what doesn’t help is this fundamental attitude that living in SF is your right. SF is one of the most desirable places in the world to live, and it should stand that it’s expensive. Is it getting out of hand, probably, and things should be done to help. But I hate seeing all these one sided arguments that the city is being destroyed and the culture sucked out of it.

  13. RW says:

    If San Francisco is one of the most desirable places in the world to live, it is fundamentally so because of its rapidly declining, diverse culture. The very qualities that attract new arrivals to San Francisco (besides the ability to make a lot of money) have either disappeared and are disappearing precisely because of their presence. This is a fact, not an opinion. You can’t have a vibrant culture when only the economically elite can afford to be here. All you have left is a lot of pretty Victorians on a hill above the Bay.

  14. Matt Sheehan says:

    I read loved, and widely recommended Season of the Witch, but I came away with a very different perspective on the tech influx. To me what the book showed was that the city is a perpetually evolving organism, one that reflects the times and can never be frozen and preserved like some wax artifact.

    As the author points out, each wave has driven out the previous group to a certain extent: If you were a homeowning Italian grandmother in the Haight in the 1960s you probably felt you were driven out by the drifter population and then the rising crime and rampant drug use. If you were a hardworking longshoreman and longtime Castro resident in the 1970s, you probably felt you were being driven out because you didn’t want your kids to see huge cock statues or men having sex in the park on Halloween. You can say those folks should’ve just opened their minds and chilled out, but many of these people grew up in religious families in Depression-era America. Telling them to get down with LSD and the Cockettes is about as useful as telling the working poor to just get with it and learn to code.

    Now we have tons of people who love the San Francisco born out of the 60s (just like the previous generation loved the San Francisco of the 40s and 50s) and loathe what is emerging today (ditto with the previous generation). Are we going to try to put the sealant on the city and say that this static soul of San Francisco, one that was born of huge dislocations, should be fenced off in hopes of a return to the glory days?

    Gentrification and rapidly rising rents that push out the working class are a real problem if you value a socially and economically diverse city. So let’s focus on that problem and come up with solutions. Those could be larger tax transfers, more low-income housing, subsidized (or better) transportation, whatever. If the city still has that progressive heart and innovative soul then let’s get creative on the solutions.

    The key is that those solutions don’t need to involve demonizing a population of people who want to live in San Francisco because it’s where the action is. Before it was hippiedom, then it was the gay community, now it’s tech. They’re all vibrant cultures that transformed society during their time. If we can find a way to keep San Francisco open to all people without descending into cultural protectionism then we’ll have the best of both worlds: a dynamic city where life and transformation bubble up from the city streets.

  15. quarkgs says:

    “My wife and I bought our house in the Bernal Heights neighborhood over 20 years ago. We raised our two sons there – and in fact, at ages 19 and 23, they are still living with us. ”

    Ordinarily, I wouldn’t engage in such a cheap shot, especially since, as an anonymous poster, it’s easy to attack someone who actually has the courage to put his name to such a post. But in this case I think it’s warranted because of the personal nature of his appeal. If we assume that Talbot has an average house in Bernal Heights that is for the most part paid off, than he is far wealthier than I as a mid-level, middle age techie living in a studio apartment in the tenderloin will ever be. I don’t resent that fact at all, it is partly due to chance and timing and partly due, presumably, to Talbot’s hard work and considerable ability.

    And certainly there is an element to which I must accept the consequences for my own poor decisions, insufficient effort and rather modest ability in not having achieved more. But we should make no mistake that what Talbot is proposing is launching an economic war against me and others like me in the name of social equality. A war that presumably block tech companies from moving to SF and perhaps even drive them away, both perhaps putting me out of a job and simultaneously making it impossible to get another one, a serious consideration for anyone over forty in the tech industry. We block the construction of market level housing so that not only will I have no prospects of ever owning a home, but I will never be able to rent an apartment with even a bedroom of my own.

    And of course the anti-development agenda he’s promoting ostensibly to help local poor and working class, will also, as it happens, prevent larger apartment building being built too near to his house and casting an afternoon shadow over his dining-room window and keep his morning ritual from being disrupted by preventing the coffee-shop on the corning from being displaced by a Star Bucks.

  16. RMS says:

    It was a good read until it became an ad for your son. Too bad it ended in such a selfish way. And I can’t begin to care for or understand your last black man in SF without knowing why his house was “lost”. Great article, extremely bad ending.

  17. As someone who very much felt “pushed out” of San Francisco, i read this article with much interest. Close to twenty years ago, I left my boring (and dying) rust belt hometown and settled in San Francisco. At that time there were droves young people coming into the city. We were part of the first internet boom. We brought our skills and ambitions with us. Even then it’s nothing like it is today. We had fun but so many of us were about social change using technology.

    Flash forward to today, and I don’t recognize SF anymore. The black community is all but gone. The poor in general are being pushed out. And unscrupulous landlords abound – looking for any loophole or reason to kick out those tenants with rent controlled apartments.

    After years of this, I finally said “enough-is-enough.” I packed my bags and moved back to mid-western town. I also know I’m not the only one. Many people have crossed the “big water” and headed to the East Bay. Some have just gong back to their roots.

    I also know a few of my old “Gen X” friends have so completely burned out on tech, they can’t even look at a computer. Many of us are changing careers to people orientated fields like nursing, social work, teaching, etc..

    I still love San Francisco. It hurts my heart to be torn away from it. Part of me hope this second tech bubble bursts – so that I can return.

  18. Great article. And “Season of the Witch” is a wonderful book.

    The difference between the current demographic change and “Italian grandmothers being pushed out” is a matter of economics. The Irish and Italians who used to populate places like Eureka Valley and the Mission largely joined the white flight to the suburbs, as similar groups did everywhere in the US after WW2. A more appropriate analogy might be the black community that was basically destroyed when the Fillmore corridor was gutted in the 60s.

    While people often tend to think of SF as a hippy themed love fest, its history is actually more as a rough around the edges blue collar town, which is certainly not news for anyone who’s lived here for any period of time. From the Gold Rush era to the Depression, SF was always a workingman’s town. Labor was in demand, and SF was remote from the rest of the country, so workers earned a lot, were everywhere, and therefore had a certain political clout (Alaska might be a good current parallel). This nurtured a sort of independent and anti-authoritarian streak that basically became the backbone of the San Francisco we know in 20th Century history.

    The Beat-era scene developed in North Beach and Telegraph Hill because dockworkers used to congregate in that area. There were epic labor struggles in the early-mid century, and that ensured a lively left-leaning political culture as well. The Beats begat the Hippies, and the rest is history.

    Concurrently with those decades, SF’s blue collar economy was being phased out, as in so many cities. Between the onset of the Depression and the late 60s, there was virtually no downtown development. Then, all of a sudden circa 1970, there was a whole spate of skyscraper building, giving us the modern skyline. Finance and tourism grew, but the dock work was disappearing, as was the once massive military footprint on the city as the draft was phased out, and later as the Cold War ended.

    This is the post-1967 San Francisco most of us know. It was a breathtakingly beautiful city with million dollar views in every direction, but no high-paying industry to draw people in. It stayed like this throughout the 70s, the 80s, and even into the 90s. But it was only a matter of time before some sort of industry would come along and bring SF in line with the laws of supply and demand.

    We have that new industry now. And what makes it different from all the previous waves of immigration into and out of the City is that this is not a blue collar town anymore, quite the opposite in fact. It’s becoming an industry town, and that industry is high tech.

    As Talbot describes in this article, something doesn’t feel right about fortune hunters coming here and seemingly taking advantage of the City’s longstanding esprit and then banking their millions and walking away.

    It wasn’t that long ago that there seemed to be an entirely different relation between high tech and SF. Tech workers were, or seemed to be, part of the counterculture. Think of how the first Apple workers were. Think of how Cole Valley was in the 90s. Yes there were techies there, and yes it was becoming a pricey neighborhood, but there seemed to be a certain ethos Even if people were getting rich, there was no real culture of conspicuous consumption. You had to go to the Marina for that.

    This is the difference between the Craig Newmark era entrepreneurs and the current crop. In an Orwellian twist, SF’s formerly anticonsumerist culture is morphing into a glorified food court. Dive bars are being replaced by dive-themed bars with mixologists being imported from L.A. So-called “artists’ lofts” and the boutique second-hand furniture stores that cater to them are probably the most overt example of this dynamic.

    The Jobs, Wozniak, and Craig Newmark era of high techsters were practically hippies. The current crop are sensitive to not perceiving themselves, or being perceived by others, as “yuppie scum.” That is, after all, why they like the Mission so much in the first place, because of that aura of bohemian counterculture it gave off.

    But with the next generation, the Apple ideal of high tech people being part of the counterculture will get even more diluted. The next crop of entrepreneurs will have no use for those pretenses. They will be in it to get rich. It is after all the get-rich-quick industry of the 21st Century, and will begin to attract more and more people who might otherwise have gone into something like investment banking a decade ago.

    In addition to the very concrete facts of high rents forcing people to get evicted and priced out of the Bay Area altogether, I think a big part of the unease that many longtimers now feel about SF is a reflection of the way the whole counterculture is being co-opted.

  19. Mark Vogel says:

    I agree with Matt. Talbot’s “Season of the Witch” argues that change is inevitable. In the book, Talbot describes the waves of change: one “old guard” displaced by the next. The Hippies and Gays, for which San Francisco’s history seems inextricably tied, did not arrive to a city that welcomed them with open arms. As Talbot describes in the book, these new arrivals in SF were met with resistance, often violent.

    Why Talbot would now argue that the Tech influx is any different from these previous displacements is puzzling. My only guess is that the change going on around us now is personal, not the subject of a historical book. But, in reality, it’s hard to imagine that what’s going on now is any worse than the drug-ridden streets of the Haight, or the Irish displaced from their historical neighborhood, or Blacks in the Fillmore displaced by “development” (a lot like that of today). It’s just more real for Talbot and all of us, as it’s happening in real-time TO us, not an abstract historical past.

  20. This is the quote that speaks volumes and gave me a nice chuckle “A new city study shows that for an extra $44 million in annual spending, the city could wipe out the homeless problem by building new supportive housing for people living on the streets.”

    This is the same kind of gullible logic from people who honestly think that they can win The War on Drugs if they were just given some more money and resources to throw on the fire. “Hey, just give me some more homes to throw at these homeless people and…. Pow! Problem solved! I even got a new city study that says so!”

    It’s not like the homeless are one of this cities prized cash crop industries that the San Francisco poverty pimps harvest every year like Children of the Corn vampires. It’s like the War on Terror. If we won it tomorrow what would Homeland Security and the TSA and the NSA and all those other fools do next week? Are you honestly that gullible to think San Francisco really wants to destroy that cash crop or win those wars?

    “Our sons were educated at San Francisco’s School of the Arts – the excellent public school that turns out waves of talented, young filmmakers, musicians, dancers, artists and writers. My sons are aspiring filmmakers and they have already won awards from the San Francisco International Film Festival for their work.”

    Gee, that’s great Dave. Congratulations. You should get a bumper sticker or something.

    But, hey. Do you ever think to yourself, “Maybe if I pressed my kids to go to a real school and get a degree in engineering they could be making a real life for themselves right now? With their combined income they could have even bought Jimmy’s house in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood – that beautiful Victorian built by Jimmy’s late grandfather, who was a minister. There, they and all their friends could live as self sufficient, self reliant, human beings. Wouldn’t that have been a great life lesson to teach my children?”

    Sorry if that seems kind of harsh, but the truth hurts sometimes.

    Also, you’re That White Guy Who Hangs Out With Bill Clinton And Then Cries Class Warfare.

    So, yeah. I’m not really sorry.

  21. SF Today says:

    Jesus, this entire “article” was just one giant self-serving commercial.

    A commercial for my kid’s movie, a commercial for how awesome my old website was. Few things are as pathetic as old hippies who can only talk about how awesome Woodstock was and how everything now sucks or old punks who can only talk about how The Dead Kennedys really meant something and stuck it to The Man and everything now sucks.

    Let it go. Life has moved on.

    That’s what this article and these people reek of, the stench of failure and broken people living in the past and who think they have some God-given right to always live in San Francisco and the San Francisco of their glory days must always welcome them with open arms. They will never, ever, have the guts to be honest enough with themselves to just admit that Life has passed them by.

  22. Sheila Green says:

    So you bought your house in Bernal Heights 20 years ago. Who did you displace when you did that?

  23. Darfur Princling says:

    The essential problem here is that techies are so boring. Here we have a bunch of people, most of them male, all overpaid who suffer from asperber syndrome. They don’t know what’s going on around them (which is why they don’t notice and can’t even acknowledge the suffering they cause) and they can’t hold a conversation unless it’s online. SF cafes used to be full of lively conversation. Now it’s just assburgers staring at their computers. It’s appalling.

  24. Nobody says:

    A lot of things need to be addressed.

    The black guy’s family who “lost their house” either sold it or used their home as a cash ticket & were foreclosed on. Whose fault is that? THEIRS.

    20 years ago your home in Bernal Heights was still really expensive. The fact that your two adult children live there is your choice. Isn’t it great you got tons of money from the left for Salon?

    Oh and DAVID TALBOT was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Tons of money! Went to private schools all his life. Love that he married a woman 32 YEARS YOUNGER THAN HIM.

    Also, since TALBOT’s children went to SOTA a CHARTER SCHOOL, just so they could AVOID the black people that he is now writing about. Love the hypocrisy of this leftist David Talbot.

    Talbot your money was inherited. For anyone else reading this article, read all about him and his inherited wealth at Wikipedia.

    What a HYPOCRITE! TRUST FUNDER!! At least TECH WORKS FOR A LIVING!

  25. Pingback: Weekend Reading: Savvy Perspectives on a Changing San Francisco | Bernalwood

  26. peezah says:

    The class war that SF is experiencing has more to do with lack of housing than big bad evil tech. Had we relaxed construction permitting after the first dot-com boom, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation again. Blame your elected officials and your NIMBY neighborhood associations, not the economy.

    For an excellent, non-myopic, look at what is really going on in SF read this: http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/14/sf-housing/

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