Are We Witnessing The Death Of San Francisco’s Revolutionary Spirit?

By Emma Bushnell

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Once on a flight home to San Francisco for a visit from college in Boston, I sat next to an anarchist couple in their sixties. They were dressed all in black with matching fedoras over long, grey hair, and came armed with giant sketchpads. They were warm, happy people, who spent the trip sketching and encouraging each other. When not drawing, they turned their attention to me, and we chatted, pleasantly exchanging conflicting political and artistic ideals. They told me they admired my studies; I said I admired their sketches. I don’t believe any of us were lying.

Ten years later, in the English class I now teach at Brooklyn College, we were discussing Colson Whitehead’s “City Limits.” The conversation was animated — New York natives and transplants alike connected to Whitehead’s meditation on the changeable nature of the five boroughs. As we considered the many ways in which the city was re-inventing itself now, one student, a native of Bed-Stuy, said her parents were selling their house. She added, with a bemused shrug, that “I guess now people want brownstones in Bed-Stuy.”

I remember having this reaction on the phone with a friend a few years after my interaction with my anarchist seatmates. Then, she had told me they were building condos in a squalid area of downtown that had been re-branded as “SOMA.”

“SOMA?!” we had both laughed in disbelief. Calling that stretch of empty warehouses, urban crime, and homelessness near the train depot by a trendy acronym seemed like nothing more than a crude marketing ploy. And yet, only a few short years later, those condos, like the Bed-Stuy brownstones, were selling for millions of dollars; the tech takeover of San Francisco had begun in earnest.

Unlike New York, San Francisco has a somewhat parochial history. Each new group entering the city can be singled out, and conclusions can be drawn about that population’s contribution to the texture of the city as a whole. To name but a few, there were ‘49ers in the gold rush, the beats, the hippies, the gays, and now the techies. And then, of course, there have been influxes of various ethnic and immigrant groups that have played a significant role in shaping the city.

Something many of these movements had in common was a flocking to a city where thought could be freer, conventions more challenged. One need only skim through the great chroniclers of San Francisco — John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, William Vollmann, Gary Kamiya, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Rebecca Solnit — to glean that the allure of San Francisco is not any one promise or movement in particular, but a revolutionary spirit that the city has always abided, one ideal after another.

It would take a much longer essay than this to really delve into the various transplant movements in San Francisco and how each was received and embedded in the city’s existing culture. But if we consider only a few of the most instantly recognizable ones, it’s easy to see how each vociferous counter-culture was able to change the city’s dialogue and image while remaining somewhat insular. Where were the hippies? The Haight. The gays? The Castro. The beats? North Beach.

I present this cordoning off as a mere fact — not to say that those challenging the status quo should keep themselves to themselves, but that one of the ways San Francisco has been repeatedly successful in accommodating strong-convicted and sometimes conflicting viewpoints is that each has been able to stake out its own little space without being forced to conform or compete with its neighbors.

In many ways, it makes a lot of sense that the tech movement has its roots in the Bay Area. Where else but San Francisco would a corporation take pride in thinking “different,” or bright young dropouts be accepted as pioneering geniuses instead of family screw-ups? On its face, startup culture seems a natural fit for the city’s other transplant movements — it claims to buck convention, be curious, and create a community of like-minded people.

But, as we know, the tech community has not “merely” gentrified “SOMA” and contributed its new voice to the larger conversation in San Francisco. With its attendant wealth and heady feelings of power, the tech boom is not-so-slowly colonizing the entire city, driving out whole communities and stamping out the possibility of pushback to its ideals from other populations. The harm of the tech takeover is not that this movement has turned out to be more square, nerdy, or moneyed than the city’s other revolutionary movements, but that under the guise of “improving” the city, it is literally bulldozing physical space for living, debate, and the exchange of ideas, thus ridding the city of its generations-long ability to support its local residents and receive non-conformers. The Tenderloin, a hub for cutting-edge social programming since single room occupancy hotels were established for family-less sex workers after the 1906 earthquake, is now the subject of myopic open letters accusing it of being a blight on the sort of San Francisco the tech industry desires.

The tech takeover is also fundamentally changing a city that, not so long ago, was considered an “island of diversity.” Startlingly, it’s projected that by 2040, San Francisco County will have a non-Hispanic white majority — jumping from 42% in 2013 to 52% in 25 years. The percentage of Asians is expected to fall from 34% to 28%, and the Latino population from 15% to 12%. The city’s already-declining African-American population, currently at just 6%, is expected to remain about the same. How will these shifting demographics further erode what once made the city great?

On a plane a few weeks ago from New York to San Francisco, I chatted with my seatmate, a nice woman from Long Island on her way to visit her son, who works in tech. By the time we had reached cruising altitude I knew about his education, his career goals, and the current housing hunt he and his fiancée were on for a place to accommodate their planned family of four.

This was a genuinely kind woman who spoke well of her son. A man who is, by her account, successful and in a happy relationship, and she is rightly proud of him. But our conversation introduced no viewpoint I had never encountered before, and was merely a way to idly pass time talking about nothing but the particulars of one’s own success. It brought in stark relief my experience 10 years ago, when the topics of conversation had been public funding for the arts, the difference between a democracy and a republic, and anecdotes about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The contrast makes me wonder how often in the future I will encounter fellow travelers like that couple, and be confronted with people who think differently than I do and talk about subjects I do not normally consider. Or if whether, someday soon, they’ll disappear from planes to San Francisco altogether, when there is no longer a single neighborhood at the flight’s destination willing to keep them around.

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Lead image: flickr/Ricardo Villar

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