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San Francisco Is Losing Its Edge

America’s bastion of liberal ideology is under attack from the forces of capitalism. That’s the picture George McIntire paints in a recent piece for for Salon. He describes the city’s progressive heritage:

The city of San Francisco holds a unique and storied place in liberal America. It’s the place where radically liberal ideas that never see the light of day in the rest of the county come to fruition. Ten years ago, the city became the first municipality in the country to issue same-sex marriage licenses. It has among the strongest tenants rights in the whole country, the highest minimum wage at $10.68, and universal healthcare. A list of banned items in the city include: happy meals, plastic bags, the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies, and the mixing of compostable trash with regular trash. It’s the home of the beat movement, the Summer of Love and Harvey Milk.

But goes on to point out that all is not well in the City by the Bay:

Now in the age of the Google bus, that cherished identity, and reputation as the beacon on the hill for liberalism, faces the possibility of being relegated to the past.

The city is currently experiencing a massive and swift demographic change like nothing it has ever seen in its history. Hundreds of families continue to leave the city due to eviction and huge rent hikes. The Mission District saw the price for the average apartment rental go up by $591/40 percent between 2011 and 2012, in the Western Addition neighborhood those numbers were $958/53 percent. The tech-fueled rise in the cost of living has had such an impact on the city, we now use the term “hyper-gentrification” to describe it. In a recent interview with Time magazine Mayor Ed Lee defined middle class as between $80,000 and $150,000. In addition, even with its high minimum wage, you would still need to work at least three full-time minimum wage jobs to afford to live in a two-bedroom apartment in any neighborhood in the city.

Big Tech is Big Business, and that’s bringing on Big Changes to the Bay Area. At its inception, Silicon Valley positioned itself as apart from corporate culture. Tech startups had their relaxed dress codes, while behemoths like Yahoo created campuses in place of monolithic office buildings, and Google publicized its “do no evil” credo.

But that’s all changing. Geek culture has become mainstream, much to the chagrin of many of its members (ask a scientist friend about their opinion of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory). More importantly, as the US transitions to an information economy, the tech industry’s clout is rising dramatically. Big Tech’s “other-ness” is being crushed under the weight of its economic importance.

As a result, we’re seeing a backlash against the Valley. It’s being played out in microcosm in San Francisco, where fights over techno-gentrification have made national headlines in recent weeks, but this feeling of betrayal isn’t limited to California. With a sense of inevitability, the Silicon Valley “peasants’ revolt” is underway.

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  • Boritz

    To demonstrate solidarity with the victims we could go to an exclusive high rent neighborhood in our own region and protest that the people who live there are keeping us down. If you’re not sure where to go in your area search Google and Google maps.

  • Fat_Man

    I repeat my previous comment on this subject:

    Peasants Revolt? I think not. Peasants are not Marxist radicals in the US. More
    likely the coddled children of the upper classes, terrified by the
    realization that they will be relegated them to downward mobility in the
    new order of the ages by their lack of technical skills and STEM
    education, and pissed off that their degrees in neo-colonial gender
    studies qualify them only to be barristas and janitors.

    • Fred

      I can’t say I disagree entirely. I certainly will second your contempt for “neo-colonial gender studies.” But I can’t help but detect more than a whiff of philistinism in your response. There are people who would use the existence of hyper-politicized, trivial, even silly courses like race or gender studies as an excuse to eliminate or ignore the humanities in favor of exclusively STEM education. Call me a romantic, but that, it seems to me, would result in an extremely impoverished intellectual existence. And there are those, like me, who have a humanities degree (PhD in English in my case) and are doing quite well for ourselves outside academia.

      • Fat_Man

        What is wrong with philistinism? It is far better than living in the sham world of modern artism or contemporary intellectualism.

        As for the liberal arts. You are more than a romantic, you are fantasist. The fact is that the liberal arts are the proverbial dead horse. Stop trying to ride it. It is going nowhere.

        The problem is that there is no liberal arts anymore and hasn’t been for a while. Once consequence is that there is no one in academia under the age of 60, who has any knowledge of the liberal arts. Therefor, there is no one who can teach the liberal arts.

    • free_agent

      You’re right that a considerable number of people who live in down-rent but very interesting urban districts are quasi-Marxist children of the upper classes. What annoys them, though, is that they’re being evicted from their communities of like-minded people. That’s understandable, though of course, one doesn’t own the right to insist that neighborhoods don’t change.

      In regard to a “peasant’s revolt”, I expect it to be as successful as any other peasant’s revolt.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Not true…janitors require a serious work ethic, and none of these precious snowflakes have that…

      • Fat_Man

        I said qualified, not holding down.

  • Jim__L

    If you pack everyone into a “densified” city, landlords get rich and everyone else gets screwed. How hard is this to understand? Suburbia is not the enemy, it is the solution.

    (On another note, count me with the guys who miss the days when Big Bang Theory was about the physics.)

    • Thirdsyphon

      Suburbia is only a solution where (and while) energy prices are low and water is plentiful. The bounty of natural gas and other petrochemicals released by fracking have kept the first of these conditions in place, temporarily; but once the infrastructure is fully in place to export these resources to the global market, U.S. energy prices will equalize with global energy prices and resume their inexorable ascent.

      • Jim__L

        So the suburbs grow where water is plentiful, and instead of driving to an ever more over-bloated city, suburbanites telecommute or use distributed office spaces. That’s the vast majority of the problem solved, right there.

        As I said, packing everyone into a densified city helps no one but rentier landlords.

    • Kavanna

      “… about the physics.”

      I love you, man.

  • Andrew Allison

    The politics and polemics of envy are not a pretty sight, and the The Economist article linked to is both a prime example and a disgrace to the publication.
    What’s the difference between the techno-gentrification of San Francisco, the financial-gentrification of Manhattan, the entertainment-gentrification of Beverly Hills, the blue-collar gentrification of N. Dakota, etc? Could it be that in SF the gentrifiers are young, and the fact that they make their living in high-tech a convenient proxy?

    • rheddles

      Andrew, this is not really about envy. I left the Bay Area 10 years ago after 25 years. It was clear then where things are going. And we aren’t done yet. It was clear then that the BA was becoming a bi-modal society with no middle class. Because the middle class can’t afford to live there. There are real quality of life implications for everyone when teachers, policemen and firemen can’t be hired because they can’t afford to live within commuting distance. California will look more and more like a third world country. There will be political ramifications. Note that Beverly Hills is also in California and New York City has just elected a radical left mayor who was not elected by the financial gentrifiers, though some of them do seem to have a death wish.

      • mgoodfel

        If you want to keep a middle class, drop real estate prices.

        To do that, you need to build more housing — a lot more. But people who live in the Bay Area already don’t want prices to drop. They want to get rich off their real estate. So they support zoning and endless planning regulations that keep new housing out.

        This isn’t a class conflict per se. It’s the usual conflict between insiders (who already own real estate) and outsiders who don’t.

        • rheddles

          You’re wrong about the motivation but correct about the effect.

          In any case, this problem is minor compared to the big one, and it’s coming.

          • Kavanna

            The immediate cause is supply and demand, of course. But what mgoodfel is saying is about supply: it’s artificially restricted and has been for decades. Anyone who’s lived in coastal CA in the last 40 years knows what I’m talking about.

            The disappearance of the middle class has been going on for 20+ years. It is similar to NYC, but not in that the poor are revolting against the elite. Rather, the core of the “blue” constituencies — the public employee unions, which support a pseudo-middle class of government workers and contractors — are desperately trying to preserve the “blue” model even after that model has become unaffordable.

            Everyone else is just looking to get out, before the inevitable sovereign bankruptcy on all levels throws the situation into chaos. The poor have nothing to do with it — they’re too indifferent and disorganized.

        • Andrew Allison

          Nope, it’s about too much money chasing too few houses. The only thing which will moderate real estate prices is more supply, which is not an option for San Francisco.

        • Jim__L

          The problem with the SF Bay Area (and the California housing market in general) is that employers don’t want to move inland.

          There’s plenty of room in the Central Valley. Heck, there’s even quite a bit of room in the smaller inland valleys (Livermore / Pleasanton, or Gilroy / Hollister, for example). But it’s like pulling teeth to get employers to locate there, to allow their employees a decent quality of life. No, the sales forces have to have their “wining and dining” opportunities in The City, or business just can’t get done. Luxury oriented rather than family oriented — Is there a surer sign of decadence and incipient decline?

          Inland California has some of the worst unemployment in the country, while the coasts are stuffing more and more people into smaller and smaller spaces at lousier and lousier prices with bigger and bigger leverage.

          This is not a healthy situation, and Jerry Brown does nothing about it except make the problem worse, with his HSR plans that will be of dubious benefit to the coastal cities, and nothing but a nuisance to the rest of the state.

          • mgoodfel

            There is a clustering effect where businesses and their suppliers and employees all want to live in the same area. Still, there’s plenty of real estate left in the bay area. Without zoning that makes it impossible, a lot of the older houses would get razed and turned into apartment complexes. I think they’ve done some of that in San Diego.

            And that’s without even touching the hillsides which have been zoned off limits. If it weren’t for the California Coastal Commission regulations, San Francisco would extend down the coast towards Pacifica. As it is, it’s really a very small city.

      • Andrew Allison

        I left the Bay Area 23 years ago after 22 years, and I largely agree with your assessment. However, the subject here is the City of San Francisco which “is currently experiencing a massive and swift demographic change like nothing it has ever seen in its history. “The initial tech-driven explosion in the cost of housing occurred in the greater Bay Area while we lived there as employment rose faster than the housing stock. Although it was moderated somewhat by the availability of room to grow, there was a middle-class exodus. There is no way to increase the housing stock in San Francisco, hence the “hyper-gentrification”. My point was, and is, that it’s a simple matter of supply and demand, and the “tech” polemics are inappropriate. As the quote has it, “Big Tech’s “other-ness” is being crushed under the weight of its economic importance.”

  • meyerkev

    So I must call out 1 piece of BS in that quoted article.

    “Afford a 2BR apartment” means “Spend no more than 30% of your pay on a 2BR apartment”, not “If spend all money on rent”.

    Not that that’s any better, but when your rent is $3K/month, not even the techies can “afford” an apartment in SF.

  • Anthony

    Perhaps, socio-economic changes referenced in Frisco reflects in microcosm past 30 years of a nation increasingly divided by economic patterns (market forces, inter alia).

  • Kavanna

    An interesting story, especially for those of us who used to live in SF. But it’s of limited relevance to the rest of the country. California is where the future once happened, but no more. That ended 20+ years ago, when the middle class started to leave for other points in the West, or to Texas. Texas and Florida are much more relevant to the future of the US.

    Actually, I am a scientist and like Big Bang Theory, at least the first few seasons. Eventually, all TV series become melodrama anyway.

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