The natural disaster


I’m in New York for a bit, and whenever I’m in New York, I think about San Francisco. The people on the sidewalk here look so different; there are so many more of them! And this time, my reflection was additionally prompted by New York’s San Francisco package. (Chew on that phrase. New York’s… San Francisco… package?) It’s a bundle of short pieces; some are silly, others are snarky, at least one is scummy. Two are exemplary, and it’s those two that made me want to add a few thoughts of my own.

Emily Cooper

The two great pieces, by Daniel Alarcón and Mac McClelland, both read almost like dark fairy tales: there’s a troll at the door with a sack of gold; there’s a princess upstairs who’s not as nice as she looks. They are both stories about housing, which is the essential subject in San Francisco at this moment. Everything else—the culture, the money, the corporate buses—that’s just city life. Or it would be, if the housing situation didn’t tip it all over the edge into crisis.

For me, this is not theoretical.

My girlfriend and I left San Francisco for a short stint abroad about two years ago. This was, it turns out, precisely the wrong time to be leaving a lease behind. When we returned, only a few months later, everything had changed. Remember, this was two years ago: the rents I faced then, which appeared ludicrous, would now qualify as amazing deals. But faced with those figures at that time, I closed the tab on Craigslist San Francisco and switched immediately to the East Bay listings. Today, we live in a nice apartment on the border of Berkeley and Oakland. We joke about lurking here on the periphery, circling like vultures until the next bust, at which point, SWOOP! We will retake our rightful perch.

We’re going to be circling for a while.

I say that to establish some minor bona fides: I am one of the people who has been priced out by this housing market gone haywire.

Emily Cooper

But I have to confess: I’ve never been able to really muster any indignation at this. Wistfulness, sure—plenty. But no real sense of unfairness.

I’ve never believed that Things Should Continue As They Are. In fact, I believe the opposite: Things Must Change (Yes, Even the Good Things). To suppose otherwise prizes the present over the future and grants the old a permanent advantage over the young. I had my San Francisco apartment and I lost it. I relinquished my grip. Things Must Change.

But.

You read Mac McClelland’s piece

[T]here were other, uncounted cases [of eviction]. In ours, our new landlord, a hip-looking gal around my age who worked at Google, asked us if we would just leave. She said she just didn’t really feel like having tenants. Then she filed a lawsuit against us, alleging we were “causing substantial interference with the comfort, safety, and enjoyment” of others in the building. She said if we signed some papers and vacated, the lawsuit would go away. She called it a “dummy lawsuit”; it sounded so friendly.

—and you realize this is not just change. This is something truly corrosive. Here, nobody relinquished anything.

Emily Cooper

Daniel Alarcón’s piece shows the other side of this strange coin. It begins:

There’s a San Francisco story: One night, Mark Zuckerberg knocks on your door. He introduces himself but doesn’t ask your name. Instead, he asks if you own this house. Yes, you say. Terrific, he says. I’d like to pay you $10 million for it. You inhale sharply.

You really need to read the rest, because it only gets better: a more-or-less true story that has metastasized into a grim joke, complete with a punchline.

And it’s important, because it gets at the way in which the city’s housing market seems to be less of a market these days and more of a casino. I heard Daniel read a version of this piece at an event recently, and there, he added the most succinct description of San Francisco’s problem I’ve yet heard:

“People are afraid to move.”

Simple as that. All of this wailing and gnashing of teeth about culture and money and corporate buses—none of it would rise to the level of crisis if Daniel’s statement wasn’t true. But it is. This great influx of wealth has not made San Francisco nimble, lively, and exciting; it has made it static, grasping, and fearful. This is not the way a city should function. Or maybe a sharper phrasing is called for: a city cannot function this way.

I’m not an economist or an urban planner. I’m not even an activist or a rabble-rouser. I definitely do not have strong opinions re: What Should Be Done. Most people seem to think San Francisco simply needs more housing, and better laws to ease the construction of such. That sounds about right. It also sounds like it’s going to take a while.

In the meantime, we are suffering through a natural disaster.

Emily Cooper

It’s the other Big One. We spent decades reinforcing our foundations, only to find we had fixed them too firmly. The natural disaster finally came, and it wasn’t the one we were expecting.

Why do I say “natural disaster”? Oh, to have a little fun with it, mostly. But also because, what are we dealing with here if not slow-building forces far beyond our control? What are we dealing with if not an unfolding of events that truly hurts everyone? The activists and rabble-rousers might wrinkle their noses at that—“Oh, I wouldn’t say everyone”—but no; even the coldest investor, the coarsest techbro, would hear that a Mac McClelland was forced out of their city and think: Oh, no. No no no.

The images interspersed above are renderings by Emily Cooper, created way back in 2009 to accompany a novella of mine that unfolded in an alternate-reality San Francisco. Her assignment was to create a gallery of possibilities. Alas: back in 2009, imagining all these strange counter-cities, we failed to foresee the one we’d actually end up with.

I’m still not indignant, at least not on my own behalf. That’s because my story has a relatively natural rhythm to it; we did choose to leave, and we did choose to return. Things Must Change. But too many people never made a choice, cannot in fact make any choices right now. I’m speaking both of those who have been forced out and those who are stuck sheltering in place.

Stand in the door frame, cover your head: the whole city is shaking.

I think I would have preferred a real one.

Emily Cooper

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