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San Fratricide


The current problem in San Francisco is similar to the problems in a host of other major cities, only on a somewhat smaller scale. Monied interests are capitalizing on real estate as wealthier individuals move into previously middle and lower income neighborhoods, displacing former residents whose sense of place and style of culture are what made those neighborhoods ‘destinations’ to begin with.

There are some cycles going on here. Cities were built around industry and trade and wealth in close proximity to one another. The rich had townhouses uptown from, or sometimes simply just up (above), their industrial factories and manufacturing hubs and shops. Once the situation proved too tight, too much industrial waste having accumulated, too many workers having been brought in as business expanded, these wealthier denizens fled to what were soon coined ‘suburbs’. Later, after even more waste and workers–many of whom subsequently lost their jobs as the efficiency of modern machines increased–piled up in urban areas, business owners decided that their industrial and manufacturing centers should flee too. Frequently, this meant abroad, outsourcing their means of production, and at other times simply into their own ‘industrial suburbs’. Inner cities had got so bad that new industries chose to build expansive, glass-and-concrete business ‘parks’ outside the cities altogether, circumventing the pollution (social and environmental) with Interstate highways and International airports and the occasional never-say-die train line. One of the most salient examples of this is the tech settlement known as Silicon Valley.

The circle has closed. Businesses, new and old, and their employees want to live and exist in cities once more.

For the urban residents being displaced, this is an obvious tragedy. City dwellers are drawn to these centers where one can live comfortably, close to one’s place of work or business, and enjoy the diversity of people and traditions that for the past hundred years cities have been allowed to cultivate. The fact that they are now being forcibly removed for the sake of an outsider making a lot of money makes this worse (indeed, I’m not sure what people are thinking when trying to reason with the displacement of longterm SF residents by talk of investment and money–truly, they do not give a damn about ‘redevelopment’ and lining city coffers.) They are here because they want to be able to work where they live, and because they thrive within a diverse community of individualist strivers.

At the same time, we cannot talk about these people without talking about culture. This is a muddied game, as plenty of people are distrustful of ‘culture’, or of defining it in any way, or else do not at all understand it or its supposed draw, and are thus fearful of it. Cries of ‘pretension’ and ‘elitism’ abound. Nevertheless, since we have all taken to using the term ‘job-creator’, I will use a similar term for these people: ‘culture-creator’.

To start, a single question: Why do people want to move here?

San Francisco, unlike London and New York and Paris, is not large. I mean this on the scale of square mileage as well as the scale of production and activity. Plenty of social and ethnic groups are represented, but politically, culturally, the city is more homogenous than most of the big worldly cities. It was founded on and has been repeatedly rejuvenated by counterculture, first of the 1850s, later of the turn of the century, and even later of the 60s. In the really big cities, where commerce has always held greater sway; where, likewise, there exist more pockets, and pockets within pockets, for culture-creators to find solace and cheap(er) rents, this current monied migration has been both magnified and mitigated, to differing degrees. One of the reasons it is so painful to see in San Francisco, and has proved so painful to native San Franciscans, is because of this smaller scale. There are few places to hide once it hits.

Moreover: in New York or London or Shanghai, a global business might want to have an office. They are centers of the finance world. It would be impossible to get certain things done in a cost efficient manner if your company and your employees were not located there. Those cities have long histories of being at the forefront of the financial trades. They have similar demographic problems, but these cannot be solved by reversing course. The same goes for cities that are the center of any market. The market players need to be there. San Francisco is not the center of the dot-com world. Silicon Valley is. There is no pressing need for an internet company to base themselves out of San Francisco. The airport is not closer, Stanford U is not closer, their business parks (which they, unsurprisingly, call ‘campuses’) are not closer. (San Jose, for example, would have been a much more reasonable choice if you need a bonafide city). Their employees do not want to live in SF because it is more convenient, companies do not want to relocate because their CEOs think they will attract more investments, make more deals, or make things run more efficiently. San Francisco offers one thing, the only thing that attracts this new demographic: Culture.

But wait, Coastal Lit, you might say, isn’t Silicon Valley a legit counterculture, and thus comfortably within the tradition of past migrations to San Francisco?

In a sense, yes. There’s a reason the kids that go to Stanford do so instead of to Harvard or Yale. But they are still of a type, and it has little to do with culture. It is big business, corporate lifestyle, MBA’s and electrical engineers and entrepreneur CEOs, none of whom would ever be considered bastions of counterculture or culture-creators (they are, as is said, job-creators). They make programs, apps, products, platforms, hardware. We make fashion, food, corner-stores, cafes, art.

The problem becomes something sabotaging. The job-creators move in and displace the culture-creators, whose activity and production are (were) the sole reason the job-creators desired to work/live in this particular city. With no culture-creators left, the city becomes homogenized with the very population whose pursuit of cultural living has ended up destroying the cultural life of the city. A mythicized version solidifies and ‘San Francisco’ becomes a bland, boring shell of what it once was, frozen in time and slowly melting, kept alive at a depreciating rate by those exiled who for a short time commute into the city they once called home to continue to run their headshops and cafes and cornerstores for an increasingly unrecognizable population. On top of everything, there is created a newly transplanted citizenry with all the frustration and anxiety of a desire unfulfilled. This is where we are now.

There are, of course, plenty of ‘cultural’ ventures that have moved in, but these are imports, the same brand of haute-cuisine eateries and high-minded art galleries and all manner of activities for the rich found in any wealthy city in America. The neighborhood communities in SF have always been fairly close. Each section of the city is served directly by a county Supervisor, who is a local resident, many of whom in the past have supported local small-time business concerns over larger or more corporate business and monied interests. These tight communities have kept out unwanted development from the quieter neighborhoods of the city. A direct result of this is the way SF neighborhoods feel ‘quaint’, ‘cozy’, and pleasingly foreign to many of the tourists who love to visit them. They have allowed for each stretch of hill or valley to keep its individual character, culture, style of living. I’d have claimed ten years ago that SF was the most diverse while being the most affordable/least-controlled-by-money city in the country. That is and has been for a long time its claim to fame.

Why then, should we, I mean anyone, support this? (And this has been going on for years, it is not new). Of course, it’s expected that the Mayor’s office and big business support it. But we, everyone else, including you employees who so desperately want to spend your (what, three/four hours?) down time in a ‘cool’ neighborhood with a cool bar down the street from your cool Victorian, whose architecture and history don’t really engage you, whose historic cultural hallmarks don’t enter your daily routine of shuttle bus down to and back from work, devising the next great app to sell to Facespace for millions of dollars–why support it?

Because, you see, they do mean something to us. Us writers, painters, musicians, city-historians, urban planners, inner-city workers, local business owners (the ones who opened that corner store down the street from their Victorian, the one they used to live in and walk to work until forced out to re-rent it for five times the price), multi-generational families, kids who grew up here and consider it not a ‘cultural center’ but a home. We do not make a lot of money, we never have, but we thrive off of our environment. We are not sheltered from but desire to work within our environment, to feed off its energy just as you might feed off the energy of your elaborately-cubicled colorful campus spaces, and the high intelligence of your co-workers. We need this for what we do. And we are happy to share it with you, on weekends and visits from down the peninsula where you (should) live and work. That way we keep producing, you keep consuming, and you don’t kill the thing you love, and we don’t resent you for it, and everyone gets along and moves amicably through life like a pair of polar-opposite but well-meaning brothers.

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