BY: MIROSLAV TOMOSKI
There was a time when this toy box of a city couldn’t pry itself from the image of a bohemian paradise – and perhaps it still hasn’t. After all, no one comes to San Francisco to see where their apps were made. They come to Fort Point for a foggy view of the Golden Gate Bridge and to Columbus Ave. to see the wailing wall of Beatdom: City Lights. But there are far more people crowding the city’s parks today in search Niantic’s Pokémon than there are poetry enthusiasts reading Howl. The reputation and free-loving spirit lent to San Francisco by the generation of Ginsberg and Kerouac still endures, but the Bay Area no longer belongs to that generation and it hasn’t for decades.
Modern San Francisco belongs to tech. We all use the apps and hardware developed here and have helped to fuel the city’s next great transformation with its rising startups and the flight of artists. But with tech workers now looking to move elsewhere and the cost of housing finally beginning to fall, how do the people who have been called, “Tech 2.0 oppressors” feel about their role in a wildly successful yet equally loathed industry?
“San Francisco is one of the only cities I know of where it is easier to get a job than to find housing.” Says Ryan, an engineer who recently moved to the Bay Area from Boston and has experienced the housing market in cities across the country. He’s lived in Philadelphia, Chicago, Phoenix and Seattle, but has never seen a crazed economic environment like that of America’s tech capital.
“I have tried to move to San Francisco several times over the last few years,” he says. “Every time I would look on CraigsList or PadMapper or any of those sites, it was so overwhelming. The stories I’d heard of people showing up to open houses with briefcases full of six months’ rent sounded insane and are, unfortunately, true.”
For tech workers, this means that the easiest option is to enlist the help of friends in the industry leaving new arrivals with limited connections to local residents. While companies like Google and Facebook provide annual diversity reports breaking down their workforce by gender and ethnicity, they do not include the percentage of employees that are local or out of state hires.
“I don’t really have any native Bay Area friends” Says Will, who noticed during the course of this interview that most of the people he works with come from out of state. “Given that I have enough friends who live here, I haven’t sought out new ones.”
For others in the city, the frenzied high-stakes market has been unforgiving. In 2015, the San Francisco Arts Commission released a report showing that 70 percent of artists had been or were being evicted from their studios and homes.
“In a way we tech workers are cultural carpetbaggers.” Says Matt, using a term which often describes politicians who exploit places they have no local connection to. “I do not intend to gentrify the area, but my presence here necessarily represents gentrification and all of the things that follow.”
“I honestly don’t know what it feels like to be an average person looking for housing in this city, which I imagine is very difficult,” says Will, who used to live in and co-managed a community and art space in Seattle’s Capitol Hill before moving to San Francisco.
He remembers his old neighbourhood going through the same changes he’s now a part of in the Bay Area. Will’s job at one of the largest tech companies in the world has allowed him to define his own standard of living while also adding to the housing crisis, which he admits to feeling conflicted about.
“I’ve seen how gentrification has made the neighbourhood less interesting, more expensive, and less liveable for artists, and it sucks. If my old DIY house hadn’t been evicted after I left, it probably would have shut down anyway because the rent would have gone up dramatically.”
San Francisco’s infrastructure is also struggling to keep up with the influx of new residents. The public transportation system, known as BART, has become notorious for its delays.
For tech workers, the industry has come up with its own solution providing busses that exclusively shuttle employees from companies like Google and Facebook to and from work.
“They solve a problem,” Ryan says of the busses which have been the subject of protests, “but they don’t address the bigger problem which is that we need truly comprehensive reform of our transit system. Everyone should be able to take an easy ride to work every day. Not just those who can afford it.”
The busses have become a physical representation of the housing crisis and the income gap between tech workers and other residents, but Ryan still believes that the tech industry can work with the community to develop solutions.
“Anger towards tech people raising the [housing] rates of the city to untenable heights is not entirely justified,” he says. “The current boom is just another segment for an industry that has been here for decades. The trick is getting tech people and non-tech people to work together to solve their issues.”
Will, Ryan and Matt chose to become engineers knowing that there were career opportunities in tech. Their choices have given them high paying jobs and separated them from the image of the debt-laden, hopeless millennials. But their industry has also turned them into villains as the rest of the economy struggles to catch up.
“I’ve certainly noticed some resentment.” Matt agrees, “In fact, I harbour an internal struggle over this very thing; on one hand I am pursuing a career in an exceptional area with top class opportunities, on the other I recognise how unbelievably expensive it is to live here and the more that other talent moves to this area the more folks are pushed out.”
“All of us have learned an unspoken rule, don’t mention or advertise your connection to tech in public around people you don’t know unless you’re ready for antagonism,” Will says, recalling the time when a friend of his was confronted by a stranger and told to, “go fuck himself,” for wearing a Google shirt. “I’ve seen enough flyers in the Mission that say something like ‘Dear tech bros: watch out, this is war. We are coming for you,’ to know that there are very, very angry people,” he adds.
For that reason, Will doesn’t advertise his employment in public creating another barrier to communication and a greater disconnect between tech workers and the community.
“I see a little bit of the anger directed towards tech workers as the old tactic of capitalists dividing the middle and working classes from their common interests.” Ryan says, “I don’t see tech wages as insanely high. I see everyone else’s as insanely low.”
Ryan believes that a possible solution to the housing problem is convincing the industry to share the wealth. “When we have documents showing that Apple is shirking its taxes – even if it’s 100% totally legal – then we as an industry will continue to build distrust.” He insists, referring to reports that Apple has been avoiding taxes for its international sales.
Some major tech companies have recently made an effort to repair their reputations in the Bay Area. In July, Facebook announced that it would build 1,500 apartments in Menlo Park, California with 15 percent going to low income families. It’s part of a larger plan from the social media behemoth to invest $15 million back into the community.
The city of San Francisco has also attempted to set up a mechanism to even the playing field. According to the New York Times, a proposal was introduced to city council which would require the city’s tech firms to pay a 1.5 percent payroll tax going toward programs for the homeless.
But not everyone in the tech industry is working toward the greater good. Some, according to Ryan, are just working.
“I would say that only 10% of the companies here are providing any sort of real value. The rest are building apps to distract people from living their lives. Or as a good friend of mine said, “Most of these companies are just building apps to replace their moms.”
On the other hand, Matt points out that a culture of change has always been a part of San Francisco’s history. The city may have gained an international reputation in the ’60s, but it hasn’t always belonged to the Beat generation.
“Do artists who used to move here for the social movements in the ’60s have any more right to the land than we do?” He asks, “Since that population didn’t typically bring money, no corporations catered to them, but they certainly changed the landscape in other material ways.”
Artists are not the only ones who have a claim to the city and they’re certainly not the only ones affected by gentrification. The Presidio and Mission are some of the oldest areas founded by Spanish settlers just as America was becoming a country. For a city that is considered a sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, its Latino population has been in steady decline with one study showing that the Mission’s Latino population will be cut in half by 2025.
From the Native Americans, to the Spanish, the eastern settlers of the gold rush, the beat generation, and the first tech boom, there have been many who have called this place home before the tech bros came to gentrify it. In other words, San Francisco never belonged to the poets, it belongs to change.
(The names of interviewees have been altered to preserve their identities)