Saturday, December 7, 2013

get out

An organization in our neighborhood just installed a new mural - a colorful scene split in two by a woman’s contemplative face looking in two directions. On one side is the Bernal Heights of the past, with colorful houses and people chatting on the street; on the other side, the present-day hill has been turned into a pile of money being grabbed by a suit-sleeved hand (the talking couple has also been replaced by a MUNI bus, but the meaning of that part is unclear). The gentrification debate has gotten so intense that even the murals aren’t being subtle anymore.

The gentrification issue in San Francisco has reached a boiling point, to the extent that even the New York Times has picked up on it. The Times reports that San Francisco has changed a lot in the past few decades; neighborhoods that used to be working class and affordable have become so expensive that only people referred to as “techies” or “hipsters” can compete to live in them. Like most major metropolitan areas in the US, there have been massive and ever-increasing income gaps between the haves and have-nots. In San Francisco’s case, the “haves” are mostly white people who have mostly moved here recently and mostly work in the tech industry. The result is that one of America’s most famously progressive cities, championing rights for minority groups of all kinds, is increasingly an island of rich white people.

Families who have lived in San Francisco for decades or even for generations are panicking as their friends and relatives are forced out - their rents have gone up, their apartments have been sold to developers, or the cost of living amongst trendy boutiques and chic restaurants has gotten too high. They are upset, and justifiably so. But the issue for me is what are they angry at, or in this case, who. The archetypal “techie” has become the common target of ire. My argument is that there is no such thing as a “techie,” well, maybe some do act the part, but most people are simply, well, people. Individuals. More complicated than a simple category can define.

Is it better to make sweeping judgements or indictments of “techies” than of “blacks,” “latinos” or “gays?” I don’t think so. Techies may be a privileged group, and as such they deserve to be the least protected group as any, but the real point is, what does vilifying any group of people accomplish? Instead of solving a problem, it demonizes a group of people and everyone spends their energy worrying about who is in that group and who isn’t. It deflects attention from working to solve the problem, and assumes that everyone is on different sides, pitted against one another.

I'm acquainted with people who bash the "google bus" culture openly as if somehow that doesn't include my husband, who for the record hates his long commute on a bus that keeps him away from his young kids for many hours each day. His family includes me, a native San Franciscan who worked for 5 years at one of SF's toughest public schools to try to solve exactly these problems of income disparity. For the record, whenever I saw a need, he and his Google colleagues jumped to lend their time, money, or creativity to any cause I identified. Instead of focusing on the notion that there are problematic people, how about focusing on the behaviors or structures that are problematic and work on fixing those?

I ultimately think that to accomplish something as a community everyone has to play by the same rules of conduct. Just because you’ve been mistreated doesn’t give you a pass to mistreat others, no matter how “privileged” they are. If you are a member of a minority group and you’ve been on the receiving end of internet tirades or cruel stereotyping, why on earth would you want to inflict that behavior on anyone else? Telling techies that they’re out-of-touch assholes or calling them names isn’t just poor form, it’s also creating an us-versus-them dynamic that doesn’t necessarily exist. I’m not saying that there aren’t some real assholes out there, but I will argue that ignorance and indifference don’t characterize the “techie” group. Furthermore a lot of the people that really antagonize San Francisco natives, like drunken frat-types or Day-of-the-Dead facepaint revelers, aren’t even techies at all, just young people who moved to the city and don’t know anything about it yet.

Every group that has come to San Francisco has been new at some point, and all of them have changed the character and culture of this place. There’s a component of this that’s simply a perennial generational problem - what’s new is bad and what’s old was better. This nostalgic attitude overshoots recognizing the historical contributions of different groups as an ongoing, never-ending process, and assumes that all change is for the worse. As Bernal Heights’ popular Bernalwood blog quoted one eloquent neighbor, “I have a hard time with folks who want to hang on to a neighborhood’s particular ethos at the time they lived there. That’s as disrespectful to the folks who came before them as it is to the newer folks who are changing the neighborhood today.” Some of the people I personally know who are fighting against gentrification have lived here less than 10 years themselves, but manage to exempt themselves from their part in this process of change, maybe because change seemed more gradual then or they just don’t like the feel of the changes happening now. I could argue that I’m exempt just because I was born and raised in San Francisco and can claim native-status, but does that really entitle me to a home or a job that a new transplant doesn’t? I don’t believe so.

Rather than just vaguely bashing "techies" how about we embrace a solution - like improving public education or creating more affordable housing or stopping evictions? I think that any group of people deserves a productive way to do right by San Francisco, rather than basically being told to leave. We all have feelings, and those feelings are all valid . . . we can abhor change and miss the past and feel wary of new trends or cultural phenomena. But feelings do not entitle us to act however we want or treat others poorly.

There are times when raising an army in protest against evil is appropriate and necessary, and I’m sure that some people would argue that this is one of those times, a time to march in the streets and confront the enemy. But who is your enemy? All of the “techies” that I know are on your side - they want San Francisco to be a colorful, diverse, welcoming place for everyone, and they want to see more affordable housing and better public transportation and more job opportunities too. Give them the benefit of the doubt, identify what they can do to help in clear and specific terms, and consider that they might be eager to help. But stop just telling them to leave, not least of all because it isn’t going to happen. If you really do love San Francisco, and consider yourself to be someone who “belongs” here, embrace the real spirit of the place and be welcoming, open, and loving to all of your neighbors . . . what’s the harm in trying?

Bernal mural

NYTimes - techies