Silicon City

San Francisco has become a model city for inequality.

by Nik Bresnick

The story of San Francisco is that it’s a boomtown. And boomtowns are never particularly good places to live. Those of us who came here for an alternative to that, we’re in the minority now. San Francisco was always–at least rhetorically, and sometimes in action–a kind of community unto itself. Maybe it still is. But if San Francisco no longer represents an idea of humanism and freedom from the treadmill, then where do we fit in? What’s our role? 

Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights Books, p. 57

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.

“My job is to make things for people, and I can’t do it. It’s easier for me to understand a dolphin than it is to understand a person. Because my worst day is like, the traffic was bad in my chauffeured bus.”

Kaufman imagines writing resignation letters to Google, in which he explains that in the process of their removing all the friction from his life, he’s been made incapable of doing his job. Simultaneously, the tech boom for him has meant that every time he really wants to leave, someone offers him a great deal of money to stay.

Saul Griffin runs Otherlabs and designs moonshot technologies to protect the environment. He questions the idea that people will be employed in the future when the “mandate of technology” is job displacement. He understands wanting to have less work and more time for his family, yet acknowledges how recent advances are not resulting in any shared labor benefits for society. Griffin notes that he knows only two types of people, the “over employed and the under employed,” and neither of these groups have the right balance for civic engagement. He pokes holes in the claim that most tech companies have actually invented anything useful and notes how they “are leveraging government investments in technology to do economic and social disruption”. The really exciting innovations (the internet, GPS) were all funded by the US government.

In Silicon City, McClelland has smartly curated an impressive set of stories that paint a vivid sense of the mess we’re in—in San Francisco and beyond. This review barely touches the surface. The author conducted over one hundred and fifty interviews and artfully compiled the best of them to craft a comprehensive and nuanced perspective that strongly resonates with the experience of living in the Bay. These stories, written in the narrators’ own words, are powerful. Who better to set the scene than its inhabitants?

Still, it’s hard to want to devote more time to reading and thinking about this region’s problems and promise when every day a new tent village pops up in your neighborhood, rents continue to climb, and our shared infrastructure of trains and bridges declines. Half of the people I know plan to leave. It’s a magical, socially-progressive place. There are beaches and hills. The weather is mild year-round, meanwhile San Francisco has a special team to clean human poop off the sidewalk–this is how bad it is. A friend jokes that we have Scandinavian values on top of Moscow realities.

Yet McClelland ends the book with a sense of possibility. One of my favorite stories is in the near-to-last section: A Sixth Sense of Right and Wrong. It’s the story of Oliver and Allen. They joked they were Mexicans trapped in gringo bodies because of their love of Latin America. A couple for 40 years, they live in the Castro and tell the heartwarming story of inviting their Peruvian friend, Teresa, to live with them after she had a baby in San Francisco. Together the three of them raised her daughter and became a family. Allen even got married to Teresa so she could bring her older daughter to live with them in the United States. This is the San Francisco I love to read about. The story of the families we make, however unexpected they turn out to be. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the direction the city is going.

Even if the book ends on an optimistic note, I’m not sure.

I found myself siding with Saul Griffith, the environmentalist and inventor featured earlier in the book. He put it perfectly:

I wish I could paint you a narrative: There is an easy pathway to a beautiful world. We have more great technology than ever before to do more great things. Everything works. We all work less. We live amongst gardens. There is every reason to hope. But I am a little dark these days.

Saul Griffith, p. 183 ♦

Nik Bresnick, a regular contributor to the magazine, paints, draws, and designs pre-construction software. Before moving to the Bay to pursue a career in Product Design, she spent fifteen years in Portland as a waitress, women’s-health worker, and letterpress printer.