There is so much cursory, crappy information circulating around every aspect of this discussion, and this article digs down into it all.
I think there's plenty of room for disagreement with its perspective and the author's biases, but if you have something to say about San Francisco and you don't at least address the points raised here, you're probably talking out of your ass.
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"Donnie, you're out of your element!"
"The world does not stop and start at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit."
I just realized that the exactly correct counterpoint to New York Times columnist and very serious thinker David Brooks is Walter Sobchak.
It is, as you might expect from her last outing (in which, you may remember, she claimed San Jose was the birthplace of the UFW), it's full of things that are not quite correct. No tech companies are members of the American Legislative Executive Council, since whatever else you can say about them, they're not legislators. Calling anyone associated with the Seasteading Institute a "lord" of Silicon Valley is...well, in their dreams, maybe.
And then there's this: "Edward Snowden’s revelations began to flow in June: Silicon Valley was sharing our private data with the National Security Agency. Many statements were made about how reluctantly it was done, how outraged the executives were, but all the relevant companies – Yahoo, Google, Facebook – complied without telling us."
Well yes, of course they complied without telling us. They were compelled to do so under federal law. This basic fact about the data sharing is widely enough known that this paragraph just looks less like an inaccuracy and more like a lie.
She also characterizes a group of protesters who blockaded a Google employee inside his Berkeley house as "hellraisers" - those scamps! - and takes anonymous posts on Twitter seriously. (Even while telling you that you can't take posts on Twitter seriously. I'm not making this up.) So, you know.
My favorite sentence in the article is this one: "The city somehow remained hospitable to those on the margins throughout its many incarnations, until now." This is a funny thing for someone styling herself an urban historian to say about San Francisco. She should maybe take a look at Paul Groth's excellent Living Downtown, or trouble herself to learn about the International Hotel, or the Western Addition, or, Jesus, like, anything. I seriously don't know where to start with this.
There are certainly unprecedented things about the forces transforming San Francisco at the moment. They are the forces that have been transforming America for the past thirty years. The massive decline in manufacturing employment, the shrinking prospects of service workers, the abandonment of the public sphere: for a long time San Francisco was relatively insulated from them. The greater Bay Area certainly wasn't - Vallejo turned into a ghost town during the 1990s, for instance - but San Francisco managed to delay this fate, mostly because, well, it's rich.
I know, right?
But she's settled on the us-versus-them narrative. She jumps through quite a few hoops to try to demonstrate that people in tech aren't echt San Franciscans. She's pretty shameless in her pandering: "The current boom is dislodging bookstores, bars, Latino businesses, black businesses, environmental and social-services groups, as well as longtime residents, many of them disabled and elderly." One wonders why she stopped there and didn't also list LGBT, the physically challenged, small children, and puppies.
Anyway, it's just more of the same shitshow. It's not even fun to read, it's just: half-truth, half-truth, false equivalency, unexamined privilege, more unexamined privilege, weak grasp of history and economics, more half-truths, well-poisoning, ignorance of urban planning principles, casuistry, disingenuousness, all the way through.
Here's a little lesson from the world of software engineering. I work with a guy named Vivek. Vivek is a really good programmer. I know this because he sends me his code to review all the time, and every time I do, I understand what he's doing perfectly. He builds things exactly the way I would build them. This is pretty interesting to me, actually; I read a lot of code, and I rarely see anything that's close to the obviously correct way that I solve problems.
Which is why I recently told Vivek that he probably shouldn't have me review his code. I understand it, and I agree with everything he's doing. But I'm not right about everything, and I know it.
To produce good code, code that isn't crippled by hidden flaws, he needs someone who doesn't think like he does to look it over and probe it for weakness. This is something good engineers know: If you listen only to people who agree with you, your work won't be something anyone should depend on.
Before I start: I do not speak for my employer here. Not in any way, shape, or form. And there's at least one subject that I'm not going to discuss in any detail at all because my opinions are very strongly at variance with theirs. But I don't feel compromised by this. And I certainly don't feel like my response to Solnit is motivated by self-interest. She's just lazy and wrong and needs to be called to account.
Solnit, you may remember, wrote an essay back in February for the London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n03/rebecca-solnit/diary) about how the Google Bus was the symbol of destructive change in San Francisco. She's a smart writer and good observer, and her version of this story is as good as you're likely to find.
Now Solnit has been discovered by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, or whatever it's calling itself these days, which is doing the yeoman journalist's work of spotting a new trend and finding someone who's been in it from early on to explain it to the general reader. The result is a long interview (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-12-31/are-the-techno-riche-really-ruining-san-francisco-yes-says-rebecca-solnit) that is so full of foolishness that it pretty much demands a point-by-point rebuttal.
"...[I]t’s privatizing public transit. In another era, the captains of industry would have said, 'OK, our workers live here, our factory is there; let’s encourage, enforce, and subsidize the improvement of public transit.'"
In that other era, Rebecca Solnit would be at the forefront of those attacking the captains of industry for building out public transit for their own benefit. The public transit system she is calling for here is called BART. It was built by captains of industry (notably Stephen D. Bechtel) exactly to serve the purpose she describes. It is BART that enabled what used to be called the Manhattanization of San Francisco, back when that was the trend that was ruining everything. It's BART that destroyed the integrity of neighborhoods throughout the East Bay. It's BART that runs to this day as an ungovernable and unaccountable region-wide behemoth. She claims to want more of this?
"Caltrain does run down there. We could have beefed up that system and had a tremendously efficient train system, with trains leaving every 15 minutes or so for the peninsula—and it would be so much more environmental, too. Instead we have these luxury coaches picking people up at public bus stops in such a way that they’re displacing the city buses."
There is no "tremendously efficient train system" anywhere in America, because running one requires governmental involvement at a level to which Americans are utterly ideologically opposed to.
The cost of "beefing up" a rail system is tremendous. Just extending Caltrain to the Transbay Terminal is projected to cost $2.5 billion.
Additionally, even if Caltrain could magically handle triple its current ridership, the realities of mass transit would still apply to it. To commute from 24th and Valencia to the Google campus would require a trip to downtown SF, a train ride to Mountain View, and then a trip to Google. This would require considerable investment in SF public transit, and again solely for the benefit of the employers of Silicon Valley.
Also, it wouldn't work. Solnit should maybe talk to mass transit planners to find out what happens to ridership when a trip requires two mode changes.
What would happen instead is what was happening before the companies of Silicon Valley started deploying shuttles: a vast increase in the number of automobiles on the road in San Francisco.
"It represents our era of privatization—that rather than making a better system for everyone, they’ll just continue to argue for paying no taxes. Mostly, it’s that they really do represent what expensive bottled water does in a town with polluted municipal water, or private schools in a city with underfunded public schools: They’re gated communities on wheels."
Well, first off, taking a large number of cars off of public streets is making a better system for everyone.
You will note that nowhere in her discussion of this does Solnit name any particular people who are arguing for paying no taxes. There's a reason for this. (She's alluding to Twitter, here, which struck a deal with the city where it would get a tax break in exchange for developing property downtown, but of course since it's putting offices downtown, Twitter isn't running shuttles down to Silicon Valley. This kind of elision is common in Solnit's argumentation, as we will see.)
"I met a guy who lives at 24th and Valencia [Street]. He says the Wi-Fi signal on the buses is so powerful that when the Google bus pulls up in front of his house, it uses all the broadband and his Wi-Fi signal crashes. And that’s like a tiny thing that happens to one guy, but it signifies, 'We are so mighty, we are crushing your reality.'"
Well, no. It saturates the channel that his router is set to, maybe. He could just set his router to a different channel and the problem would go away, the way you do when the guy downstairs gets a new router and you start getting knocked offline all the time.
Or, you know, you can throw your hands up in the air and blame your problem on a symbol.
Now, it's possible that this guy's already tried this, and that the shuttles that pass his apartment every day are all using different channels so he gets knocked offline once or twice a day no matter what. I'd kind of like to know about this, because is strikes me as a problem that can actually be solved.
"First, they should pay to use public bus stops. Then they should stop using those transit stops in a way that makes public transit less safe, punctual, and convenient (a one-door Google bus takes a long time to load and unload, and a municipal bus can get stuck behind it). Second, those fees should be pumped into upgrading existing transit, including Caltrain."
During all of the time I have been commuting from San Francisco to Mountain View, I have never ridden on or seen a Google bus with only one door.
And even though my bus is apparently knocking that poor guy at 24th and Valencia off his WiFi - and yes, it does pick me up in a Muni stop - I have never once seen it interfere with the Muni buses that stop there. Indeed, while I travelled on Muni in San Francisco for years before going to work in Mountain View, I never once had an experience where the bus I was on was inconvenienced by a Google bus.
I'm not saying that doesn't happen. But I would certainly like to see evidence that the shuttles have made Muni less punctual, convenient, or safe.
I'm also not saying that the companies that run shuttles out of San Francisco shouldn't be paying Muni for the use of their stops. Which, well, they've been trying to do for a while now. Solnit should look into that.
"But if you work 60 hours a week, you don’t have a lot of time for civic engagement. That’s part of what I object to with Silicon Valley. The people who work there have lots of money, but no time."
I can't speak for other Silicon Valley employers, but if you're an engineer at Google and you're regularly working 60-hour weeks, something is very wrong. Google can't, and doesn't, survive on burning out its engineers.
It's true that, for me, having a full-time job definitely cuts into my time for civic engagement. But that's a function of having a full-time job, not of working in Silicon Valley.
"On the one hand, they’re kind of lords of the earth economically because they’re paid better overall than any other industry. On the other hand, they’re working like field hands or coal miners."
Jesus Christ, really? Really? _Field hands_? Coal miners? That's so offensive to the history of labor in the United States that I don't even know how to speak to it. This is the worst kind of concern trolling.
"Meanwhile, there’s an old San Francisco of people who didn’t have lots of money, but who had lots of time to devote to activism and social services. People who worked a little on the side to make a living, and then devoted themselves to idealistic jobs. In an economy where everyone has to pay $4,000 a month minimum for housing, that doesn’t exist."
Like the one-door Google Bus, this "old San Francisco" is a thing of fable. It would be useful to see some evidence of its existence, and further evidence of its decline, so that we can analyze what is actually happening here.
I'm sorry to be bringing this up so late in this discussion, but Solnit's view of San Francisco is deeply provincial. San Francisco has had very few periods of decline in its 175-year history; for the most part, it has moved from boom to boom. The steady state of San Francisco is a move towards gentrification.
It is a great luxury that San Francisco has the problems that Solnit is staking out as her territory as a pundit. These problems are real enough, but they don't compare with the problems of St. Louis, or Cleveland, or Camden, New Jersey, or any of the other cities of industrial America that have been hollowed out with no post-industrial development to keep them on their feet.
If you want there to be cities with cheap places to live, where it's possible for people with idealistic jobs to afford their rent, well, they're everywhere you look outside of San Francisco.
"We’re losing bars. Beloved bars are gentrifying."
It's true. Nap's III, the beloved bar across the street from my apartment, has become Virgil's in the last year. With it has gone the frequent street fights that were a source of entertainment on Saturday nights. And I'm almost beginning to miss the sound of drunken people singing "Creep" along to the karaoke machine.
On the other hand, AA meetings are just as downscale as ever. By the way, those are a great place to go if you want to find out how the poor people in San Francisco are actually getting by instead of just speculating about it.
"In San Francisco, tenants are very well-protected from no-fault evictions. You have to screw up badly to get evicted, except for two major loopholes. One is an owner move-in eviction. The other is an Ellis Act eviction where the property owner has to take the property off the market—to go out of the rental business. And that sounds perfectly innocuous, and you can understand why someone might want to get out of the rental business. But it wasn’t made for what it’s being used for now, which is speculation."
Oh my God, is this it? Is this where Solnit is finally going to start to talk about the class struggle in San Francisco?
Because there is one. It is not, as Solnit has been positing, a struggle between better-paid middle-class workers and less-paid middle-class workers. That's a thing, but it's not the thing. _The_ thing is the divide between the people who own property and the people who don't.
The people who own property are the true beneficiaries of the Google Bus. (By "Google Bus," by the way, I mean the shuttles run by Google, Apple, EA, Genentech, Facebook, and all of the other companies that it is convenient to lump under the name "Google" when you're making superficial arguments about San Francisco.)
The property owners of San Francisco jealously guard their privileges. San Francisco housing is less dense today than it was in the 1950s, and it's because the people who own property benefit from its scarcity. This is a long-standing problem and one you would think that someone like Solnit would be all up on. (Like, she should at least look at the web site for SPUR: http://www.spur.org/blog/2013-10-29/whats-next-housing-sf)
But no, don't get too excited. Rebecca Solnit doesn't want more housing in San Francisco. She wants fewer people.
Really, that's the core of her argument.
But it's not a very pleasant core, because there's really only one sure-fire way to reduce the population of a city, and that's through hardship.
I'm kind of exhausted at this point, but I have to press on, because there's more disingenuousness ahead.
"...I think that some of these megacorporations with so much power and so little accountability should either be broken up or become public trusts governed by—I don’t know exactly who or what by, off the top of my head, but not governed by a handful of hubristic young libertarian billionaires with overt amorality. Look at Google’s membership in [the American Legislative Exchange Council] or Mark Zuckerberg’s taking out an ad to push the Keystone XL pipeline not because he believes in it, but because it’s quid pro quo for getting a conservative politician to sponsor immigration laws that make it easier for him to hire cheap engineers from overseas."
This is quite a job of elision here. It's lunacy to describe the executive leadership of Google as "hubristic young libertarian billionaires with overt amorality," for instance. They may be a little too in love with the idea that what's good for their company is good for the US, and vice versa, but hell, so was the CEO of General Motors, back in the day. They're probably not very wrong.
I would like to challenge Solnit to consider this notion: if Google has so much power and so little accountability, why does it treat with ALEC? I think this is a question that an independent journalist and social observer is much better positioned to investigate than I am.
"There is a sense for me that some of this is a bubble. Apple makes hardware. Almost everyone else makes products supported by advertising. Is that a good model where lots of people start using Adblock software like I do? Will the global recession mean there’s just not that much ad revenue out there?"
These are rhetorical questions that there's plenty of data available to answer. Solnit should maybe look into it.
"I keep teasing my friends who are economically vulnerable that maybe they should go to Vallejo or Stockton, which are in economic crisis, and create a great, thriving bohemia there."
Doesn't she sound like she's fun at parties?
There's so much unexamined privilege in that statement it makes my head spin. I was already annoyed by Solnit's provincialism and self-centeredness before coming across this little nugget of entitlement. The worst thing about the changes that an economic boom bring to a city like San Francisco is that it might force Solnit and her friends to move to Vallejo like peasants or black people.
Solnit needs to spend a little time with Sarah Kendzior. Rebecca - may I call you Rebecca? - in case your vanity Googling leads you to this little critique, I strongly recommend that you look into her work. http://www.policymic.com/articles/48829/why-you-should-never-have-taken-that-prestigious-internship is a good taste of it.
You might also want to read some Thomas Frank. Or Mike Davis, who would never, ever tease someone about having to move to Fontana.
But please, enough with the handwringing. Stop proposing fake solutions to hard problems. Examine the issue of housing density, both in San Francisco and on the Peninsula. Stop buying into the idea that the class divide runs through the middle.
And please, I beg of you, don't refer to tech workers as field hands ever again.
"I weathered the dot-com boom of the late 1990s as an observer, but I sold my apartment to a Google engineer last year and ventured out into both the rental market (for the short term) and home buying market (for the long term) with confidence that my long standing in this city and respectable finances would open a path. That confidence got crushed fast."
After a longish aside into the horrors others have suffered in this crisis, she then tells the sorry tale of looking at a house for sale that was occupied, and how pathetic it was that someone (not her!) would buy this house and put the family's (grimy) possessions out on the street:
“Last summer, I went to look at a house for sale whose listing hadn’t mentioned that the house was inhabited. I looked in dismay at the pretty old house where a family’s possessions had settled like silt over the decades: drum set, Bibles, faded framed portraits, furniture grimed with the years, cookware, toys.”
Next up in the saga of Rebecca Looking for a Home:
"I saw the same thing happen in the building next door to the rental I eventually found through word of mouth after failing to compete in the open market. These families are not going to live like that again, in pleasant homes in the city center."
So the rental she found (thorough her connections, ahem 'word of mouth,' though by god she tried to compete!) was apparently not occupied by someone who wished to remain where they were. And alas, even though those families will never again live in “pleasant homes in the city center,” I bet Ms. Solnit will.
Unfortunately, we never hear the end of Rebecca's story—at least not from her. I have found reference in a few other places (blog comments, mostly) that she now owns an apartment (TIC?) in the Mission, from which she no doubt has a front row seat on the tragedy of upper-middle-class whites moving onto that vibrant Latino neighborhood. (The irony of this situation is so shameless I hesitate to mention it; but there it is.)
A few questions come to mind. How much did Ms. Solnit's apartment appreciate in value in the years she owned it? If she made a profit off of the sale of her previous apartment, did she perhaps make a (generous) donation to an agency or group that supports affordable housing? If not, does she see her profit as her due for simply sitting on her SF real estate while it went stratospheric, and if so is hypocrite too strong a word for her?
Was the apartment that she purchased already a market-rate housing unit? If not, she should turn in her badge immediately and leave town.
Is it common for SF freelance writers' finances be "respectable" enough to buy property in the city? And who uses a euphemism like "respectable" to mean "not poor" any more?
I’m tired of the bullshit too.
This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. 'Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.' And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, 'But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.'-- James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson