In Silicon City, author Cary McClelland has constructed a neatly woven book of oral histories about the Bay Area and the acute problems it is facing. As tech money and employees have streamed into San Francisco, many long-time residents have been evicted, out-priced and forced to move further and further away, dispersing and destroying once deep-rooted communities.
Written in the words of activists, booksellers, cab drivers, musicians, public defenders, geographers, sex therapists, gay families, tech pioneers, and elite employees whose jobs have removed all of life’s daily worries, this book covers a lot of ground. San Francisco, once a gathering place for outsiders, has become a model city of inequality and a place where few working-class people can easily afford to live.
If you live here, you already know.
If you don’t, you’ve probably seen that bit on your local news about a decrepit San Francisco shack the size of a one-car garage with a caved-in roof that sold for over a million bucks. It’s crazy, and it’s true. This is now an entire region of million-plus-dollar homes and teacher shortages. We are living in a time when many of the people who do the important work that binds society together can’t afford to live anywhere near their jobs.
The awkwardness of the current situation is illustrated neatly in the story of Tony Sagrado, an advocate for change in the Juvenile Justice system. He’s effectively fought to change the system and keep troubled kids in their communities and out of jail. He does important work that has saved kids’ lives, but it doesn’t pay well. After his daughter was born with medical problems, the expenses piled up. He needed a job with better benefits and ended up working nights in a juvenile correctional facility—the very place that by day, he fights to save kids from. This is the price he pays to live here where he’s committed to fighting for the community.
On other pages, we read of mounting evictions and the very real issues that people who’ve lived their whole lives here, only to find themselves priced out, are facing. Maya Williams, an SF emergency room physician, explains that “you can displace all the people who have enough resources to move away and survive.” And then asks, what about the people who can’t afford to buy a car, who have to stay in the city and work lots of jobs? What about the homeless and the mentally ill? She points out the weird disparity between the wealthy people who can afford to live in San Francisco and the desperate people who can’t afford to “go anywhere else.”
San Francisco was once a bastion of diversity, but as tech money has flooded the region, the demographics have changed. Rob Gitkin, a counselor who started a program for homeless youth, explains: “Downtown has changed dramatically. When we first started working with homeless youth, maybe about 75% of the kids that we saw were white and then maybe a quarter black.” He goes on to describe how as the black population has shrunk, they’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of black homeless youth. “Thirty five years ago when San Francisco was 14% black, a sixteen year old black kid whose pseudo-nuclear home wasn’t working out—they had options.” There was a community of households they could depend on. This is no longer the case. As the cost of living has spiked, much of the black population has been priced out, leaving these kids to fend for themselves.
It’s a completely different story for those experiencing the latest gold rush of technology jobs. Alex Kaufman runs an experimental design team for Google and describes the way he’s lost touch with real life.