[HPN] Property Struggle in SF -Pt I

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salon.com > News Oct. 28, 1999 URL:

How the Internet ruined San Francisco

The dot-com invasion -- call them twerps with 'tude -- is destroying
everything that made San Francisco weird and wonderful.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I had the misfortune to live in Manhattan during the '80s, when all
conversations turned ineluctably to real estate and the shops and people
that made New York interesting were being wiped out by a boom economy.
Then, you'd see a slightly faded kosher butcher shop replaced by an
Italian fusion restaurant, what was the rehearsal space for a dance
troupe become a lawyer loft.

Now in late-'90s San Francisco, you can have all the Manhattan
greed-is-good bull-economy moments you like. Freed, Teller and Freed,
the oldest coffee and tea seller in the city (established 1899, its
handcrank cash register in use until the end) survived all --
earthquakes, the Depression, Starbucks -- but it couldn't survive the
Internetting of San Francisco: It closed Oct. 15, its building to become
condos. You can stand on Sixth Street smack in the middle of SOMA (where
Wired got its start) and the flow of traffic now evokes Sixth Avenue in
Manhattan. Parking is bad all over the city, the gratuitous kindness
from strangers and service personnel I always so pleasantly contrasted
with New York is fading fast, and it's beginning to be all too clear
that people have no slack in their lives.

Commercial real-estate prices have gone up 42 percent since 1997 in San
Francisco's Mission District, a formerly working-class, affordable,
largely Latino neighborhood where in the old days auslanders only
ventured to get burritos at Taqueria La Cumbre and sex toys at Good
Vibrations. Now it's the scene of some of the most bitter class
struggles in the city, the Yuppie Eradication Project (let's key those
SUVs!) vs. sleek dot-com people, who look like nothing so much as the
slickers I cowered from in the '80s, who lived on Manhattan's Upper East
Side and commuted to Wall Street. On happening Valencia Street, where
druggies and minimum-wage immigrants walk past their economic superiors,
a fenced-in parking lot has appeared, where a white-coated valet
protects a phalanx of Mercedes and Lexus SUVs from the neighborhood. By
1998 two-thirds of the people living in the Mission were new arrivals --
mostly from Wharton or MIT, not Honduras, you may be sure.

The median price of a San Francisco condo was $410,000 in August 1999,
more than a 40-percent increase from August 1998. The median rental
price for a two-bedroom apartment was $2,000. Avalon Towers, the first
high-rise apartment to go up in San Francisco in more than a decade, has
had no trouble attracting tenants who pay rents ranging from $2,400 to
$4,000 a month. Eighty-five percent of them earn more than $100,000 per
year, 60 percent are under 40, and two-thirds are new to the city. Good
bet these aren't the bad poets, malcontents, and fruits and nuts looking
for a new start that the city has always attracted.

Evictions, legal or illegal, are at an all-time high -- and 70 percent
of those evicted leave the city. Ted Gullickson, office manager for the
San Francisco Tenants Union, says his nonprofit's business, that of
protecting renters' rights, more than doubled in 1995-96, and has
increased by 25 percent every year since. He has watched the
Internet-induced housing crisis (astronomic prices, abysmal vacancy
rates, economic exclusion) move north up the Peninsula through Santa
Clara and San Mateo counties into San Francisco as the Way New Economy
has overtaken the Bay Area. Silicon Valley creates nine new jobs for
every new housing unit: What does it mean for San Francisco to become a
suburb of Palo Alto?

In San Francisco, he says it's now the case of "the richer gentrifying
the rich," meaning renters in the most whitebread and affluent
neighborhoods in the city -- the Marina and Pacific Heights -- are also
being evicted or forced out.

According to state income-tax returns, the gap between rich and poor in
San Francisco increased 40 percent between 1994 and 1996 -- just about
the time the new parking enclosures started happening and the Net
started making investors very, very happy.

So what's the big deal? Isn't the dot-com invasion just the latest
example of gentrification -- a phenomenon that started in the go-go
'80s? In a sense, yes -- but the speed, libertarian ethos, irritating
hipster pose and chilling finality of this invasion put it in a
different league from earlier ones. Sure, San Francisco in the Reagan
years also had its share of Jay McInerney types in suits hitting the
clubs. But in those days the city had temporarily ceded its status as
financial center of the West to L.A., so some of those corporate
sharpies had to have been here for at least some reasons beyond revenue
and career-enhancement. Now San Francisco has become a city of
22-year-old Barbie-bunny marketing girls who don't realize the Web is
not the Internet, and guys who have come to San Francisco because the
dot-com version of Dutch tulip-mania offers better odds of instant
wealth than making partner at Merrill Lynch. The result is a city whose
unique history and sensibility is being swamped by twerps with 'tude.

Remembrance of things past: Part 1

When I lived in Potrero Hill in the 1980s, my landlord was my next-door
neighbor, the kind of kindly, eccentric bohemian this historically
most-lefty-in-the-city nabe had always attracted. The Slovenian union
hall is situated here. Traditionally, journalists and low-rent
architects and artists were drawn here, in part because of the cheap
rents and good light. Joe's grandparents had owned a cattle ranch on
what is now part of the greenbelt surrounding Stanford University; Joe
got a degree in theater arts from San Francisco State, had lived in
Paris and North Beach in the '50s, in a loft in the Haight in the '60s,
and for years made his living making architectural models. He also owns
a 1949 Ford truck, which he always kept parked near the intersection we
lived on -- not an issue in a neighborhood where there is lots of
on-street parking.

Joe isn't running a meth lab, nor routinely scheduling raves, nor
kenneling yappy dogs, nor, unlike my next-door neighbors in Santa Cruz,
running an illegal car repair and refinishing business out of his house.
He rides his bike far more than he drives. He's lived in that
sun-drenched flat for close to 20 years, and been a good neighbor to
all. Yet someone, starting about three years ago, began phoning into the
Department of Parking and Traffic, complaining about his abandoned
eyesore truck -- and they succeeded in getting it towed if he didn't
move it often. Why live in Potrero Hill -- a neighborhood that abuts a
light-industrial area, where Anchor Steam beer is still made and until
only a few years ago you could smell the Hills Brothers' coffee roasting
that always made the entrance to the Bay Bridge smell like toast --
unless you can appreciate the beauty of a museum-quality mid-century
truck? We both suspect that if it were an SUV parked in front of his
house, and not his trusty steed of 40-plus years, the anonymous informer
would never have acted. Joe, whose duplex with smashing views is long
paid off, tells me he feels like he's being forced out by the dot-com

Artists and arts organizations have been and continue to be economically
harassed out of the city -- a trend exacerbated by the new gold rush.
With no rent control on commercial property (modest 1,200-square-foot
spaces now routinely rent for $3,000 a month), all kinds of rehearsal
spaces and performance spaces and exhibition spaces and true live/work
spaces (not the slapdash gimcrack monstrosities being thrown up by
powerful contractor Joe O'Donoghue's Residential Builders Association,
where chief technology officers live for their work) are in jeopardy. To
take just one example: Artists' Television Access, a Mission District
exhibition space where the best and worst of non-commercial films have
been shown for years, is in jeopardy.

As Carren Shagley, a San Francisco realtor, asks, "What artist can pay
$650,000 for a live-work space?" Still, these tenements of tomorrow
would make a techno-libertarian proud: They don't pay into the city's
public-school taxes, and their developers are not required, as they
would be with other kinds of developments, to make any of them
affordable housing. Ah, the beauties of the free market and the freedom
from despised regulation.

Creating work that you hope might have value beyond a Webweek, or not
intended to be monetized on the Web, requires time and space enough to
be able to live at least at subsistence level while you rehearse or
paint or go against City Hall as a skateboard activist.

But the Internet culture that celebrates all work all the time doesn't
accord value to anything that isn't easily monetized -- or corporatized.
The importance of leisure time, of being able to support yourself with a
day job to pursue other ends, to rehearse and canvass and organize and
noodle and reflect, is totally at odds with the
all-connected-all-the-time upside-potential lifestyle of the dot-com

Gabriel Metcalf, deputy director of San Francisco Planning and Urban
Research Association (SPUR), says that the newcomers to the city are
"much less politically active; don't join neighborhood associations."

Well, sure. Unlike traditional émigres to San Francisco, who came for
the landscape or to live in a human-scale, cosmopolitan, liberal city or
to explore whatever personal desires, strange art forms and political
activism they couldn't in their own hometown, the dot-com people are
coming mostly for the money -- whatever San Francisco has been
historically or culturally is beside the point. San Francisco is a
collection of distinctive villages with their own microclimates and
strong community feeling, from North Beach to Noe Valley to the Haight
to Bernal Heights, but that's not why it's become the top destination
for graduating MBAs. Dot-com people just need a place to crash after
they work 15 hours a day -- sleep is for the weak and sickly. They
haven't lived here long enough to know or care about civic issues, for
the most part --- and for those who subscribe to the prevailing
high-tech orthodoxy of libertarianism, there's not much reason for them
to care.

Larry Rothstein, a San Francisco plaintiff's attorney for 20 years,
talks about the "I've got mine so screw you" attitude of the dot-com
folks he has been running into "in the last couple of years" on San
Francisco juries. "They're just here to make a buck and quickly leapfrog
up the corporate ladder," he says. "They grew up under Reagan-Bush and
parrot the line about how frivolous lawsuits are bad for business and
how nothing must interfere with profit flow of a company. They're under-
and un-educated -- they've only ever worked in high tech, can't imagine
what it's like to not have insurance, not be able to afford a car, not
be able to get a job. They have sick pay, they have a safety net, they
have money, and can't understand that there are people who don't. They
have a total lack of spirituality or soul. They're a new generation of

This in San Francisco, the city that all the world likes to deride for
the silliness of its political correctness? Truly, these are end times.

A friend who's an exec at a high-tech P.R. firm commented to me on what
he called "the voracious sense of entitlement" he runs into in the
dot-com kids he employs, fickle creatures with no loyalty. Yet we both
know that while he and I came of age during the era of guys with Ph.D.s
in economics driving cabs and stagflation, the dot-coms have never known
anything but a bull market.

I don't want to demonize the entire dot-com world. Long before the Net
boom, many liberal-arts flakes ended up working in computing because in
the Bay Area, that's where the jobs were. And it's a good thing that
former English majors from Cal can go on to become productive members of
society working as sys-admins. There are carpetbaggers, yes, but there
are also plenty of newcomers who both live and work in the city, and
proudly so. Take bike riding, an important measure of good urban
citizenship: The Net start-ups are much more bike-friendly (and thus,
sensitive to the stressed city infrastructure they are located in) than
more established companies. CNet, for example, has space for about
one-third of its employees to commute by bike.

But the good dot-com citizens, at least at this point, seem to be in the
minority. Take politics. The in-flow of new people into the political
process is what a city relies on to keep it vital. But San Francisco's
newest arrivals seem utterly disengaged. Admittedly, the city's current
mayoral race, an embarrassing three-way battle between a corrupt, out of
touch, master-of-machine-politics mayor, a scary, slimy political
consultant and a well-meaning anti-charismatic former mayor/cop, doesn't
inspire much passion -- nor does the who's-a-bigger-victim identity
politics that have dominated much of San Francisco civic discussion for
the past decades. But there's a lot more to politics here than that.
Besides, what has San Francisco always been but the place where, if you
didn't like the politics, you could go out and make some of your own?
The late Harvey Milk may have been the first out gay supervisor, but he
was a supe for all the city. Jello Biafra was a mayoral candidate.

Remembrance of things past: Part 2

Back in 1981, I attended something called the "Bad Attitude in the Woods
Picnic," a get-together in a state-owned redwood grove just north of San
Francisco for folks interested in Processed World, a goofball
anarcho-situationist publication that was the mother of all zines,
focussed on though not limited to critiques of information technology,
and whose commentaries on computers, sex, work and play still ring true
today. There I met Chris Carlsson, PW's chief instigator, a sly wit of
pastiche and a subversive of the best kind. Chris has gone on to be a
ringleader for Critical Mass and of "Shaping San Francisco," a sort of
collaborative people's multimedia history of San Francisco, and was
co-editor for the City Lights anthology "Reclaiming San Francisco,"
which contains essays on everything from the lost natural history of the
city to the origins of its foodie culture. In other words, Chris is just
the sort of home-grown home-brew rebel-creator who embodies the good
wackitude of the city.

Anyway, Chris has just gone through the breakup of his long-term
relationship (a child and a mortgage are involved) -- and not only has
he had a hard time finding a place to rent, he has no idea where he
might be able to buy. He told me he's on a list of potential candidates
to get in on a true (as opposed to a product marketing manager's garage
with a view) live-work space at Project Artaud, a long-established
alternative arts enclave. Only he told me the list of candidates for
this affordable space is about 70 people long --- and he was worried
that his needed credentials for artist-hood weren't pure enough, never
mind how influential his way-early mocking, appropriating, pomo, visual
P.W. satires were. Chris made it sound like getting in was about as
difficult as getting into one of those co-ops on the Upper East Side of
Manhattan (no Jews, entertainers or new money, please). He's a local
hero, and he no longer belongs here.

San Francisco was where California cuisine, which kicked off the entire
U.S. craze for the fresh, the regional, the free-range, the organic and
the eclectic, got started. But the people who can afford to support this
are driving it into the ground. Patricia Unterman, longtime food critic
and owner of the long-lived and much-loved Hayes Street Grill, wrote in
the Examiner that "cooks who have spent $30,000 and three years on a
culinary education can't afford to make $10 to $15 hour on a cooking
line, which is all most restaurants can pay ... The pool of labor for
traditional restaurant jobs gets smaller and smaller as rents escalate.
Newcomers to San Francisco are lucky to find a room, even if they are
willing to rough it. But what if a cook, a good cook, has been working
10 years in a good restaurant, and he or she wants to start a family?"
The result, Unterman writes, is that "cooks rightfully begin to question
their future in the profession. They leave cooking because it doesn't
pay enough, or they move way out of town or they take another job to
supplement their income. Pretty soon, the other job ... designing Web
pages, becomes the main job." Demoralized by making less money than
almost all of the people they serve, Unterman writes, skilled cooks quit
and are replaced by beginners -- and your food isn't as good.

Remembrance of things past: Part 3

My best friend who died of AIDS moved to San Francisco in 1976. It was
through his then-girlfriend that I met him back in Wisconsin, for he was
still living as straight. He moved to San Francisco in part because I
was around --- and in part, I now realize, because he needed to come
out, and San Francisco was where he knew he'd be able to do it. I
remember the day we were trying to decide which apartment on Russian
Hill he should pick -- the studio or the one-bedroom with the views of
Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge and the kitchen with the
black-and-white tiles, for the slightly more expensive price of $300 per
month. We had time to decide; I urged him to go for the beauty one. And
until he moved back to Madison to die there he remained, in the place
where he could sit in his director's chair and brood out the window for
hours, drink bad white wine and, when the spirit moved him, paint good
pictures and make room-enhancing sculptures. All supported through
groveling at tables less than 30 hours a week, which gave him the free
time to explore San Francisco --- which in his case meant both its art
worlds (he took me to the first performance piece where I saw people
wearing black) and its gay worlds (it was at a diner in the Haight where
over dinner he finally came out to me because he had finally toppled for

But the dot-com revolution has threatened to destroy the gay community.
As Brian Bouldrey wrote in the Bay Guardian, a local alternative paper,
"Young people can no longer move to San Francisco to be queer anymore,
not unless they have a college education and know how to design a Web
site ... The fantasy of San Francisco as a gay paradise is over ... How
much does the Web affect the vitality of the gay and lesbian community?
... Face it, gays and lesbians are abandoning 'the community.'"

It's true. A friend who belongs to an organization of gay journalists
tells me it can't seem to engage the interest of the younger writers who
have jobs with online publications -- they have no political or cultural
gay identity and are only interested in their stock options and

It's worth quoting Bouldrey again, because his observations about the
corrosive effect of the dot-com lifestyle apply not just to the gay
community but to San Francisco as a whole. "Take a head count of all
your queer friends who were struggling artists in the late '80s and
early '90s. How many of them have adopted the Silicon Valley lifestyle?
And have you noticed that the nature of the Silicon Valley lifestyle is
perfectly suburban: decentralized, commutable, compartmentalized.
Disintermediation ... Getting rid of the go-between describes the
success of the Internet. It brings the book to your door so you don't
have to walk all the way down the street to search the shelves ... and
to talk to a real person.

"A guy walks into A Different Light bookstore [a famous gay bookstore]
with a big list of high-end books ... and asked our clerks to help find
them. We were happy to oblige, and when he was finished looking at a
dozen or so books, he put them away and the clerk asked, 'So can I help
you with a purchase?' The guy said no, he just wanted to look at the
books before he bought them from Amazon. We've got news for you, buster:
Keep doing that and you aren't going to have any bookstores where you
can paw the books."

So what can San Francisco mean, if it's not a place where you can be
arty or subversive or living in genteel socialist poverty? Yes, there
have always been rich people in San Francisco -- hell, robber barons
made San Francisco -- but the point is, there was always room for the
rest of us. You could have the backyard, suburban pleasures that are
possible in a city that's not built to bulk, a city where well-to-do
people lived right next door to people of modest means. Gross class
stratifications weren't there. But not anymore. The San Francisco of
Sierra Club founder John Muir and Ambrose Bierce; of Kenneth Rexroth,
impresario of the alternative without whom there would have been no Beat
scene in San Francisco; of the Tubes and the Jefferson Airplane; of R.
Crumb and Bruce Connor; the place where Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg
arguably created their best work; the great beautiful last-chance
saloon, the last best hope for those who can't fit in anywhere else --

Gentrification is a story that's been told many times in many locales --
but the difference is, it happened so fast in San Francisco. Yes,
boomtown Silicon Valley means money is pouring into the city -- but the
city that remains is not San Francisco.

So that's what the Internet has done to San Francisco: given it the
devil-or-the-deep-blue-sea choice of becoming either Carmel (its
architectural heritage and physical beauty preserved like a dollhouse
for the exclusive use of the touristic or the rich) or Hong Kong
(economic development above all) or most likely, some hellish
convergence of the twain. Or maybe, more accurately, it's becoming the
place that seems to be the techno-libertarian idea of the good polis:
Singapore with better movies. Business couldn't be better. And real soon
now, there will be nothing troubling on the streets, nothing at all.
salon.com | Oct. 28, 1999

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About the writer Paulina Borsook is the author of the forthcoming
"Cyberselfish: A critical romp through the terribly libertarian culture
of high-tech" (Spring 2000/Public Affairs).

Copyright © 2000 Salon.com All rights reserved.


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