San Francisco: Residents vs. Techies
Both sides are losing.
Much has been said about the negative side-effects of San Francisco’s latest tech boom: rising housing prices, evictions, gentrification… all regularly recurring topics in local media and blogs.
And now, this war of words is reaching a boiling point: on December 9th, 2013, a group of anti-eviction protesters blocked a “Google Bus” — the gentrification symbol-du-jour — at a MUNI stop while chanting and distributing anti-gentrification literature. It was the most tangible expression of pent-up frustration since Mission residents smashed a Google Bus piñata in May.
And then, a few days later, AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman added fuel to the fire with a lengthy, entitled, and incredibly elitist diatribe on San Francisco’s homeless population. In the fine tradition of Peter Shih, Mr. Gopman reinforced the callous and privileged techie stereotype, giving displaced locals even more reason to rage at tech.
But all this back-and-forth begs the question: if gentrified communities are losing the battle, are tech workers truly winning?
San Franciscans have long had a strained relationship with outsiders who’ve come to the City, en masse, in search of fulfillment. Whether such fulfillment is economic (be it gold in 1848 or an IPO in 2013) or emotional (such as the beatniks and hippies in the 50s and 60s), the City by the Bay has always lured outsiders by promising them a dream: something bigger and better.
Sometimes, this creates conflict with existing San Francisco residents, whether they’re natives, or recently moved there with the last wave of transplants. Some of this friction comes from cultural differences and shifts, and some from rising housing costs. Gentrification happens when boom money trumps neighborhoods and culture, and the current tech boom has turned gentrification up to 11.
Nobody likes being displaced — or change in general — which is understandable, even predictable… but we’ve been here before. Ever since the Gold Rush, the City’s lived on a gut-wrenching boom-and-bust cycle.
That being said, no two booms are exactly the same. And this new boom’s scale and seemingly permanent nature, as well as the backlash’s intensity, seems new.
Sympathy for the Devil
Like the last tech boom, the “natives vs. transplants” discussion is being framed with existing residents as natives (as long as they pre-date the current boom), and tech workers as transplants. But no matter which side of the fence you claim, there are sympathetic characters — and people at fault — on both sides.
Inside the Bubble
It’s hard to feel sorry for Silicon Valley. The tech industry exists in a bubble (both literal and figurative) that blinds it to not only problems throughout the world (for which the solution is always technology), but also to problems in its own backyard.
Indeed, as much as we may scoff at Willie Brown for wagging his finger at the tech industry, he has a point — inequality, displacement and loss of culture are real issues, affecting real people, and lead to some ugly places. Social unrest, instability, violence… if it sounds outlandish, it isn’t. In fact, it’s already happened.
The rank-and-file tech workers, derisively called “techies,” receive the brunt of residents’ animosity. And while they do have a reputation for being arrogant, crass and oblivious to the communities they’re transforming, the real problem stems from the industry’s top brass, and the local and state governments that enable them. But the low-level tech workers we all love to rag on are simply more visible.
Alas, I doubt Silicon Valley executives will personally experience as much vitriol as their foot soldiers have.
Outside the Bubble
On the flip side, when an elderly Chinese couple is pushed out of their apartment—one in which they’d lived in for decades—it’s hard not to feel for them. Or a Mexican chef. Or an artist. These are people who’ve laid a claim to the city long before the current tech boom, and the rate at which they’re getting evicted is unjust in the extreme.
But some people, acting and speaking for everyone else, are squandering this goodwill by acting incredibly foolishly and shortsightedly. For example, this week’s Google Bus protest was, in and of itself, a fairly standard and harmless (albeit inconvenient for those on board) move. And it brought up some good points: why do Google Buses get to use MUNI stops without paying for them, when everyone else would get fined? And what is their role in creating a two-tier transit system here?
But then, Max Bell Alper, a vocal Oakland activist, tossed that all aside by staging— without prior notification — a confrontation between a protester and a fake, laughably stereotypical, hyper-libertarian Google employee. As soon as the media outed Alper, people’s focus turned from a potentially meaningful conversation between techies and residents to condemnation of his stunt.
He’s right to catch so much flack: not only did he waste a valuable opportunity for both groups to engage on these contentious issues, he’s damaged the anti-gentrification/displacement movement’s credibility. Even those without ties to Alper will now face more scrutiny. Deception never, ever begets allies.
Ironically, once the protest wound down, the people I felt the most sympathy for were the techies, trapped on the bus as they watched it all unfold. It so existentially symbolized their position — trapped between their employers’ actions and their neighbors’ reactions — that Franz Kafka could’ve penned it had he lived in the Internet Age.
No Winners. Only Losers.
Let’s face it: the people winning this debate are safely out of its reach. While techies and their neighbors go at it on Twitter and on the streets, Silicon Valley’s elite and their loyal politicians are laughing their way to your Ellis Act-ed apartment.
In fact, for all their differences, new techies and old residents have a lot in common: despite popular belief, they’re both just trying to get by, they’re both caught up in forces beyond their control, and they’re both fighting — instead of engaging — each other.
Whether it’s a young tech worker getting harassed on the street, or an elderly woman trying to keep her apartment, they’re both suffering this crisis’ detriments, while the people who actually created it reap all the benefits.
Finding a Solution
So what can frustrated residents and confused tech workers do about it?
The first thing they must do is talk constructively with each other. For techies, this means no more entitled rants. For residents, it’s no more name calling. And for Max Alper, no more deception! Honest conversations must take place about the eviction crises’ real causes, and then about viable solutions.
Once both sides realize that they’re all pawns in this big game, they can start formulating a workable solution for everyone — and then pressure City Hall to adopt it. That’s not to say that it’ll be easy: there’s a big gap to bridge, and finding a solution will take time, energy and compromise from both sides.
But people can actually affect change — and hopefully stem the displacement crisis — only after having these conversations.