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present-day hill has been turned into a pile of money being grabbed by a suit-sleeved hand (the talking couple has also been replaced by a MUNI bus, but the meaning of that part is unclear).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

14 comments:

  1. I don't think that all "techies" are destroying San Francisco, but let's be real. After some of the stuff that's been published by transplants in the tech industry - especially that rant by Peter Shih a few months back - I'm hard-pressed to see how the tech community's presence in the city is benefiting it in any concrete way.

    The reality is that rents and housing prices are on the rise because people in the tech industry can afford to pay them. They're not only pushing out the poor, but also the middle class. San Francisco has always been expensive, but the levels of exorbitance that the city has reached in recent years are absolutely dumbfounding. It seems fundamentally unfair that even people who make a decent salary - but not one comprised of six figures - can't afford to live comfortably or raise their families in the city.

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    1. My point is that there definitely are assholes like Peter Shih, just as there are assholes in any given group of people. I know lots of people in tech and absolutely every single one of them found Shih's rant abominable and in no way representing their opinions. If you can't see ANY benefits of the tech community then you're missing a lot - there are lots of people and companies donating time, money and energy to solving the very problems that everyone's complaining about (transportation, education, housing, etc). Just because you don't like tech or "techies" doesn't mean that they are some evil group contributing nothing. I can dislike pets (ha!) without questioning their value or why others like them. There's just such a huge difference between disliking something and saying that it's inherently bad or bad for a community.

      Yes, rents have gone up, people can't afford to live in San Francisco. That's a fact. It's unfair. But just because it's awful doesn't mean that we need to vilify the actual people who live in that housing - who, for the record, are raising families like everyone else. Why not focus on solutions rather than hating on a community of people? And again, I'll point out that when someone says the "tech community" that includes my husband and my family, implying that we're not benefiting our community, which is just sad for me to hear.

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    2. What are the solutions? Mine was to move away. And I think that may be the solution of most of the other people who grew up there, hoped to stay there, and simply couldn't afford it. The solutions you're providing, like "improving public education" or "creating affordable housing," are admirable, but they're unrealistic. They're slow. They can't keep up with the rate of gentrification the city is experiencing at the hands of major tech companies and their employees.

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    3. Improving public education and creating affordable housing isn't realistic? That seems to be giving up too easily, at least it is for me. Some (most?) great changes take time . . . seems like it might be worth the work, patience, and wait.

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    4. Love this sentiment. You really hit the nail on the head. Speaking of Peter Shih, have you considered cross-posting this piece to Medium? (full disclosure: I work there)

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    5. @torigottlieb "creating affordable housing," are admirable, but they're unrealistic. They're slow. They can't keep up with the rate of gentrification the city is experiencing at the hands of major tech companies and their employees.

      Agreed. But who/what is to blame for that? Newcomers or decades of under development? Blaming people for moving here is without merit. Blaming people for competing for available hosing is too. Granted, building new housing will take a while. I'm happy to help find solutions. But I will not apologize for moving here or go away, nor should anyone else.

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    1. Todd you totally made my day, I'm a huge fan of yours . . . thank you!

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  3. I also work in education and I have no anger towards techies, even though the tech industry in general has made this city close to unaffordable for those in my chosen profession. To be quite frank you have a husband that's probably very well off and can afford you a fairly comfortable lifestyle in this city. However most people in education or related fields are finding it close to impossible to afford to live here in ANY neighborhood.

    I said this on another post about this, but what really pisses me off is the sense of entitlement, the sense that its here, and there is nothing we can do about it, and the sense that tech money is nothing but a positive for the city as a whole. Just once I wish friends in tech would take a long look in the mirror and understand what it is that middle class and lower class folks are upset about. Not that I'm blaming them specifically. I think our city government, and the nimbys have prevented meaningful reform from happening, but I also think the tech companies need to understand how much drastic negative change has come with the positives they bring to the city, and yes there are positives. However, do we really want the kind of class and racial disparity that makes the suburbs such an undesirable place to live? Is that the sort of neighborhood you want your children to grow up in?

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  4. @Joshua If you're not blaming your friends in tech, what do you mean by "take a long look in the mirror"? What entitlements are people claiming? Are you calling out specific people or normal, everyday people who happen to work in tech?

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  5. @Marc They could start by paying for the city infrastructure they are currently using (ie. Tech Buses), actually start paying city taxes(ie.Twitter) and having respect for the community they live in. (ie. Day of the Dead, Peter Shih, etc. etc. etc.)

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  6. @Joshua My understanding is that a plan is already in place for the companies operating private buses to start paying to use the infrastructure:
    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Muni-seeks-to-bring-order-to-shuttle-bus-chaos-4673551.php
    Peter Shih, and Day of the Dead issues are problems with individuals, not "techies" as a group. I'd even suggest that the Day of the Dead incident is more an example of issues with young adults in general than with tech workers. As for Peter, he was almost universally condemned, including by those in tech. I'll agree that the habit cities and states have been taking with tax breaks for companies isn't good. But it isn't unique to the tech industry or San Francisco. In this particular case we did at least get one thing out of it: an attempt at revitalizing Central Market. (Or at least that's how the Mayor put it in 2011.) But my questions pertain more to tech workers and companies in general. A lot of the anger I've seen isn't directed at specific bad actors, but rather at the group as a whole. So pertaining to the average tech worker, not a few specific individuals, I'd like to know what the grievance is. The vast majority of us aren't disrespecting anyone.

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  7. @Joshua with regard to paying city taxes, I agree with @Marc...your elected Mayor and city officials decided to give substantial corporate tax breaks to many companies - tech, cleantech, biotech, etc. So, first, if you or anyone else is angry with the tax breaks, you should focus your anger at your elected officials through the democratic process. San Francisco voter turnout over the last 4 years averages about 40% (http://www.sfgov2.org/index.aspx?page=1670). So while a lot of people want to complain and want change, they don't appear to want to do much about it. Also, to be clear, the "twitter tax break" was brokered in 2011, PRIOR to Mayor Lee's reelection in 2012, and at the time, the city was freaking out about losing the tech industry to more "tech-friendly cities" and saw Mayor Lee's plan to use tax incentives to revitalize the cesspool that was Mid-Market as a solid plan. My point is, if you don't like the way our city's government is being run, then get out and advocate and vote for change. But don't block citizens' buses on the way to work, and don't spend your time freaking out about some meaningless blog post that a random "techie" posted. I'm sorry, but citing taglines like tax breaks and techies without knowing anything about either does nothing to further the debate or to create change; it only creates divisiveness and anger...if you want a good example of that, look at Fox News. Do some research, formulate a learned opinion, and then engage in the process of getting things changed. If your only action is to post comments on a blog or block some commuters from getting to work, you're really not adding much.

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