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Rebecca Solnit: Resisting Monoculture

January 7, 2014

A response to Grist: It's not about the buses, or, why San Franciscans don't love Silicon Valley.


Entries from San Francisco artist Stephanie Syjuco's 'Bedazzle a Tech Bus' project.

By Rebecca Solnit

When people have to misrepresent you or focus on trivial details to score points against you, you know your main argument actually is doing just fine. But it was dismaying to be attacked in Grist, a site I like and hitherto admired (and where my work from Tomdispatch.com has occasionally been reposted). In Ben Adler’s “Hey Protester, Leave Those Google Buses Alone” the site published an awful piece—not because it’s hating on me while distorting what I wrote in the London Review of Books last February, but because it’s grossly misrepresenting the situation in San Francisco—the growing class divide fueled largely by an influx of wealthy Silicon Valley workers and the crises of space and housing it’s creating—and San Franciscans’ response to it. And because in it, a site that’s supposed to be environmental is loving up a bunch of corporations with terrible environmental impacts.

That Adler’s spewing fiction and distortion is clear from his opening:

“If you hear the words ‘luxury travel,’ what comes to your mind? A private jet, perhaps? A massive, gas-guzzling SUV, like a Lincoln Navigator? A chauffeured limo? Whatever it is, I bet it’s not a bus. And yet, remarkably enough, that humble, shared mode of transportation has become a locus of class antagonism. To add further to the irony, the people complaining about the buses—private buses that take employees of tech companies to suburban campuses—are the residents of San Francisco, an unusually rich city. The techies are said to be destroying the city with their lame, materialistic ways. And it’s all the fault of the buses rented by their employers.”

First, the buses in question are in no way humble. Most of them are sleek, tinted-window, Wi-Fi-equipped gleaming white private coaches, and at times they’re crowding actual funky public city buses out of the public bus stops. And the denizens complaining about them—and recently, blockading them, and demonstrating against evictions and against evicting landlords—do live in a rich city, but that doesn’t make them rich people. By eliding the two Adler is pretending that the protestors are rich people with no environmental sensitivity who hate carpools and public transit. Actually the not-so-rich people I know value public transit, but hate what these private luxury coaches represent: the increasing class divides globally and locally, here in San Francisco the squeezing out of people at all levels below extremely affluent, and the threat of transforming a once-radical and diverse city into a bedroom community for employees of technology corporations.

And thus come the well-paid engineers to San Francisco, and thus go the longtime activists, idealists, artists, teachers, plumbers, all the less-well-paid people.

Most people (including Adler at one point in his all-over-the-place piece) wonder why people who work 40 miles away should travel those 80 miles daily down and back one of the more congested freeways around. The buses encourage them to pursue this geographical ridiculousness. And thus come the well-paid engineers to San Francisco, and thus go the longtime activists, idealists, artists, teachers, plumbers, all the less-well-paid people.

On the surface, perhaps, any ride-sharing program may seem green and community-building, but the effects of the Google bus on the ecosystem of San Francisco are complicated. One of the organizers of the Google bus blockade last month just wrote me, in response to Adler’s piece, “The idea that all of the techies would choose to live in SF and drive to Silicon Valley if not for the buses is a total exaggeration. Half the techies surveyed by the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency said they wouldn’t drive by themselves (only 3% would carpool) & 31% said they wouldn’t be able to make the trip at all according to info I found in SFMTA’s Private Commuter Shuttles Policy Draft Proposal. The proposal also notes the ‘Google’ buses’ average dwell time [at bus stops] is 3x that of the Muni.” So the buses aren’t creating greener transit for people who’d live here anyway. They’re also enabling long-distance commuters who wouldn’t live here otherwise.

For many of the kind of modest-income radicals who surrounded the Google bus in a peaceful blockade a month ago, San Francisco has been their home for decades or all their life, but they see no future here. Evictions are exploding, of the old, the poor, the frail, the long-term tenants who’ve given their lives over to idealistic pursuits rather than lucrative ones. I am watching many of my friends and acquaintances—urban farmers, musicians, teachers, muralists, historians, children’s rights advocates—be evicted or live with the knowledge they’re one eviction away from being banished from their hometown. The evicted are replaced with people who can pay exorbitant sums: about $4000 for a two-bedroom is normal now.

Communities have been disbanded. Many of the displaced are moving to Oakland, where they then displace others. Rents are rising all over the region. It’s creating real suffering and hardship—and fear—for a lot of people at every level below upper-middle class (and maybe there: the two doctors I’m close to had trouble finding housing last year too).

We’re becoming akin to a mining boomtown: a place overwhelmed by an influx of mostly young, mostly male people from elsewhere who are not committed to this place and don’t know it well and are transforming its culture to suit themselves.

I’m seeing the town that gave birth to the Sierra Club and Rainforest Action Network and seminal movements for human rights, a town that produced great insurrection and antiwar activism and idealism and new social ideas, become a place where you can’t afford to live unless you’re doing something incredibly lucrative and time-consuming—and probably involving technology corporations. A young human rights activist is not so likely to be able to afford to live here, or a nurse’s aide, or a baker, and so the biodiversity of the city is being laid waste, and in its place springs up a monocrop of technology workers. If this continues, the contributions San Francisco has given the world will not be given any more.

People who like green transit need to consider that when a place becomes the economic equivalent of a luxury resort, the urban equivalent of Jackson Hole, the laborers who really keep the place running—the people who clean and cook and drive and build and care for the old, the young, the frail—need to come in from far away. And no luxury coaches come to fetch the home healthcare worker from Richmond or the construction worker from Tracy. It’s unhealthy when firefighters and teachers can’t afford to live in the community they care for, and San Francisco was already tough that way: it’s now, thanks to the Silicon Valley incursion, getting a lot worse.

(In 2000, during the last big boom, the mayor of San Carlos in Silicon Valley resigned to move to Sacramento, where he and his schoolteacher wife could afford to buy a home: the boom had created a town too expensive for its own mayor to afford to live there. That’s an urbanist autoimmune disorder.)

Manhattan is not exactly a Shangri-la of affordable housing.

As I said in the London Review of Books piece that Adler decided to attack, we’re becoming akin to a mining boomtown: a place overwhelmed by an influx of mostly young, mostly male people from elsewhere who are not committed to this place and don’t know it well and are transforming its culture to suit themselves. Monocultures aren’t healthy in nature; they’re not healthy in culture, either. And booms, when they go bust, leave a vacuum behind. It’s not about hating “techies”; there are two delightful computer engineers in my immediate family, and software people are everywhere now, including the Sierra Club online and Tomdispatch.com, my main online outlet, and Anonymous and Wikileaks. It’s about disliking this monoculture and its impacts on the city’s many other cultures.

The Brooklyn-based Adler’s proposals for “fixing” San Francisco are not apparently drawn from local knowledge—or reality. “To house more people, which is what San Francisco must do to accommodate the new tech workers and the lower-income immigrant families and artists who live there now, it must build upward.” He blames San Francisco for not being as dense as Manhattan, the densest major urban area in the country. San Francisco is actually pretty dense, more so than any other major city in the West and most cities in the US—and it’s already pretty fully developed: you can’t erase most of what’s there and start over. There’s no practical way to turn it into a land of mega-highrises anytime soon when the unparallelled transit, water, power, and other systems that run under Manhattan would also have to be developed to accommodate such a boom. Finally, a nanosecond of reflection might reveal that Manhattan is not exactly a Shangri-la of affordable housing. Most of the island is exorbitantly expensive.

And the mechanism whereby excellent new housing will be built here for lower-income families? I think it’s called socialism. I’m for it, but it’s not on the horizon, and it’s not what a corporate boom is bringing, especially not one headed by libertarians with little sympathy for the poor. By the way, the Homeless Youth Alliance, which served 5000 needy kids a year for a dozen years, was evicted over the holidays, so the landlord could rent to a richer customer. No newly minted billionaires stepped forth to pay to rehouse this vital service for young people on the streets.

And what is Silicon Valley, the former land of vast apricot and plum orchards to the south? Adler, who lives about 3000 miles away, apparently seems to think it’s just one green lovefest we should all fall in line with down there. He never questions what is happening in Silicon Valley, at the other end of what he imagines as his green, green carpools. Five minutes of web searches can shed some light on how Silicon Valley affects the region and the larger world:

Here’s Forest Ethics on Facebook’s CEO’s new political action committee last spring:

“Zuckerberg’s FWD.us emerged on the scene a few weeks ago, then shocked many of us when it paid for a TV ad criticizing President Obama for failing to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Soon, ads appeared, endorsing the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, and expanding oil drilling across the country.”

Here’s US News and World Report on Google:

“It may be time to pronounce Google’s famous ‘Don’t Be Evil’ motto dead, the victim of political cynicism.Today, Google is promoting a prominent speech by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who denies the reality of climate change and held the government hostage for weeks in a failed attempt to kill universal health care. Cruz, who has received $12,500 in campaign funding from Google, is the main attraction at this year’s American Legislative Exchange Council summit in Washington, D.C. The council, known as ALEC, is a shadowy lobbying group that helps companies and conservative foundations write model bills for Republican state legislators. The summit agenda this year includes efforts to fight EPA limits on greenhouse pollution, to roll back the Seventeenth Amendment, to block food-origin labeling and to eliminate public unions.”

Google just joined ALEC, perhaps the greatest enemy of climate-change activism and legislation this country has. Has Grist been covering ALEC’s new endeavor to charge fees to homeowners with solar panels and label them “freeloaders” in order to keep us all on fossil fuels? I know nice people work at some of these corporations, including Google, but people who choose to work for corporations that attack the environment bear some responsibility for those attacks. Maybe they’re organizing from within; I hope so, but there’s no sign of it.

Here’s The Guardian on Apple:

“Apple has come bottom of the most comprehensive green league table of technology companies because of its heavy reliance on ‘dirty data’ centres. The list, which is compiled by Greenpeace and released in San Francisco on Thursday, shows that the company relies heavily on highly polluting coal power at the sites that house its banks of servers.”

Apple seems to be cleaning up, but the only green that counts in much of Silicon Valley is the color of money.

Casey Harrell, a former technology-and-toxcis analyst at Greenpeace cautions me that these flashy transgressions above are not the biggest environmental problems with Silicon Valley; he says those problems include “how they build their hardware—toxics, labor and energy issues galore, how their power their cloud—energy choice as many are still sourcing with coal/nukes, taxpayer giveaways from tax-depressed states to build large data centers, and finally how they dispose of their e-waste (horrific, largest source of hazardous waste worldwide).”

The things that the tech boom’s golden boys said last year—said about the city in particular—are examples of privilege at its most reprehensible.

I don’t like Silicon Valley. You can go to Mother Jones to see how dismal its race and gender proportions are. You can go to Edward Snowden to see how blasé they are about our privacy and how much they are merging with the worst of the government into one Big Brotherly entity. You can look at the trail of antitrust lawsuits to see Google’s Godzilla footprints and total-information-control ambitions1. You can go to a toxic-waste map to see what the first generation of Silicon Valley firms gave the Valley: the largest collection of Superfund sites in the country. (Now all that dirty work is done overseas, so the toxins stay there but the profit comes winging back.)

The culture of Silicon Valley is undoubtedly varied, but the face it often shows is hostile and arrogant. The things that the tech boom’s golden boys said last year—said about the city in particular—are examples of privilege at its most reprehensible. In August, Peter Shih at Celery, a credit-card processing startup, posted “Ten Things I Hate About San Francisco.” I hate how the weather here is like a woman who is constantly PMSing.” He hates “49ers” too. “No, not the football team, they’re great. I’m referring to all the girls who are obviously 4’s and behave like they are 9’s. Just because San Francisco has the worst Female to Male ratio in the known universe doesn’t give you the right to be a bitch all the time.”2 (This isn’t isolated: things techies say can be so loopy there’s a Facebook page devoted to them called “Dispatches from Entitlementistan.”) Shih then went on to hate on bicyclists and homeless people.

In December, Greg Gopman, whose company organizes hackathons, raged: “The difference is in other cosmopolitan cities, the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realize it’s a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s okay. 
In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city.” He apparently thinks people like him are too good to even have to see “the lower part of society.” That’s not the sound of democracy. Or compassion. Or insight. Or the best future for San Francisco, the city named after the saint who devoted himself to the poor and the outcast.

Dear Grist, I hope you go back to publishing splendid and brilliant well-thought-out articles. And I hope what’s valuable to a lot of us in San Francisco survives this siege.

Best regards,

Rebecca

1The critics of Google are legion. Here’s a recent one: “If you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s not hard to see that Silicon Valley is heavily engaged in for-profit surveillance, and that it dwarfs anything being run by the NSA. I recently wrote about Google’s Street View program [7], and how after a series of investigations in the US and Europe, we learned that Google had used its Street View cars to carry out a covert—and certainly illegal—espionage operation on a global scale, siphoning loads of personally identifiable data from people’s Wi-Fi connections all across the world. Emails, medical records, love notes, passwords, the whole works— anything that wasn’t encrypted was fair game. It was all part of the original program design: Google had equipped its Street View cars with surveillance gear designed to intercept and vacuum up all the wireless network communication data that crossed their path. An FCC investigation showing that the company knowingly deployed Street View’s surveillance program, and then had analyzed and integrated the data that it had intercepted. Most disturbingly, when its Street View surveillance program was uncovered by regulators, Google pulled every crisis management trick in the book to confuse investors, dodge questions, avoid scrutiny, and prevent the public from finding out the truth. The company’s behavior got so bad that the FCC fined it for obstruction of justice.

2Actually San Francisco is 49.1% female, according to the census, and a lot of the males here are not girl-chasers, to say the least. Shih’s apparent bad luck may be due to other factors.

Rebecca Solnit has lived in San Francisco since 1980 and the Bay Area since kindergarten and is the author of 15 books, including Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

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28 comments for Rebecca Solnit: Resisting Monoculture

  1. Comment by Dana McCallum on January 7, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    Hi Rebecca, sympathetic software engineer here. I’m basically with you but I do want to make just a few comments about some of your finer points. In particular Peter Shih is anything but one of “the tech boom’s golden boys.” Shih is universally reviled even within tech circles, and nobody had even heard of his startup before his ridiculous Medium post. As for our industry’s dismal gender and race proportions, we’re not fans of that either, and there are tons of initiatives both internally at the larger tech companies and externally in the community to correct this (Black Girls Code, Women Who Code, several programs run by the Institute of International Education and sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and so on).

    Lastly as a trans woman I just want to say that I too feel strongly about preserving the things that make San Francisco unique. I moved here four years after being recruited by a tech company, and the decision to relocate was an easy one: I left a place rife with bigotry for one of the most accepting hotbeds of queerness the world has ever seen. It would break my heart if that were to change.

    Again, I’m with you in the large. San Francisco has big class problems that are only getting worse. And the tech industry certainly has more than our fair share of myopia and unchecked privilege. But you can also find many powerful allies among our ranks—people who are champing at the bit to contribute to solutions but aren’t sure how to do so or even what those solutions might be.

  2. Comment by Floris Koot on January 8, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    What you describe is a global pattern. This is what it comes down to: artists and activists are the worst paid project developers in the world. These are the people that live in fringe neighborhoods. They make them fun to live, bring color and activity. Then the white collars want to live there too. They pay more, thus the real project developers walk in. Thus the prices go up. And who has to leave? Yes the people who brought color and fun, unless of course the grew in fame and made money on it.

    The question is, how can city councils value better the importance of these people? How can these people protect themselves better or be the ones that make the money on the value creation they made happen in these neighborhoods?

  3. Comment by hmmm on January 8, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Hey Rebecca –
    I don’t like what these “private coaches represent” any more than you do, but the buses are NOT the problem. To suggest that without the buses that rich techies would just live on the Peninsula is a fantasy. Sophisticated, educated people want to live in the city, not the burbs, and if they have to drive to their jobs to do so, they will. So decrying the shuttle service is a very missplaced and counterproductive angst. The fact that the employees are handsomely paid means that they have all the means to buy and drive cars. And they will if the shuttles don’t provide the service. And that would be the worst outcome of all.
    That protesters are not out blocking Hwy 101 on-ramps in the MIssion to prevent rich techies from driving their cars from SF to Silicon Valley only underscores the point that they haven’t thought through the issue. Buses are the evil and not city-wrecking freeways and the folks driving cars? A private bus with 50 people on it is still better than 50 cars with one person in each. Unless we sever all transportation ties to Silicon Valley — tear down Hwys 101 and 280 and rip out Caltrain, there is going to be a way for people to make that commute. I would prefer they all take Caltrain and that Google, Apple, etc pour their riches into improving transit connections from their campuses to Caltrain stations. Hopefully we’ll get there. But as it stands, that hasn’t happened, and Caltrain is also full-up with riders as it is, so those 15,000 people commuting by shuttle would have no option but to drive — which is what they’ll do if there are no shuttles.

  4. Comment by Anonymous on January 8, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    Good article. I work in tech, and this stuff bounces off almost everyone I’ve spoken to. In fact, the refusal to hear is delivered in the same tones that I heard a large company owner used when dismissing the roots of the occupy movement: “What are they complaining about?” It’s forcing me to re-think my industry and colleagues. Disclosure (of sorts) SF native, relocated to Oakland.

  5. Comment by anadromy on January 8, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Here here! Keep at it Rebecca!

    These are odious companies and they have completely captured our political system. I’ll never forget the first time I came downstairs and saw one of these white luxury liners idling in the bus stop in front of my friend’s apartment building while the MUNI bus double parked out in traffic so that its passengers could board. I was astounded. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The audacity of it. I called 311 to report the violation and was told by the operator that they had received numerous complaints. And yet, every morning, the buses have continued to block the stop and hundreds of others. Now, three years later, the city has imposed a nominal, ass-covering “fee” that will probably not even cover the costs of administering it. Shameful.

    I always ask people who defend the shuttles to perform a thought experiment: what if Bank of America or Bechtel or Chevron had suddenly dispatched hundreds of gleaming luxury buses throughout the city to give their executives and upper managers a lift to work? How would people have reacted to that? Outrage, of course.

  6. Comment by Techie girl on January 8, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    It might help if you make some friends with some of those tech people. They are not that different from you and I assure you they want much the same things. Get to know the people before you spread hate on them.

  7. Comment by Ben Adler on January 8, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    I’m an admirer of Rebecca Solnit’s writing. In particular I loved her recent piece in Harper’s about the Louisiana Leprosy Home. I enjoyed her article in the London Review of Books about gentrification in San Francisco, even though I disagreed with parts of it.

    And so it saddens me to see that Solnit has responded to my article in Grist on San Francisco’s tech bus protests with overblown anger, personal nastiness, and inaccurate and intellectually dishonest presentations of my arguments. My piece strove to be a balanced examination of the issues in San Francisco. I interviewed an organizer of the protests. I described the protesters’ complaints about the influx of tech workers and their buses, and I acknowledged the validity of their complaints. Solnit has responded with personal invective so misleading it makes me question whether anyone editing her piece actually read mine before publishing her screed. Here are some of the specific misrepresentations:

    -Solnit writes twice that I “attack” her piece. I did no such thing. I briefly quoted Solnit’s article, but my piece was not entirely about hers, much less an “attack” on it. She writes that my article was “an awful piece—not because it’s hating on me while distorting what I wrote in the London Review of Books last February, but because it’s grossly misrepresenting the situation in San Francisco.” Hating? Where in my piece does anything remotely hateful of Solnit’s piece–much less Solnit personally–appear? It is simply inaccurate to describe my piece as “hating on” Solnit. I referred to her piece as a “widely read takedown.” This is objectively not hateful. Throughout my piece, I wrote nothing derogatory about her, I merely took issue with some of the specific points she makes. Her name appears three times in my piece, whereas mine appears eight times in hers. I called her anti-bus posture “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.” This is a rejoinder, not an attack, and a mild one at that. I also wrote that her specific complaint that Google bus riders are too important to drive themselves is “backward and nonsensical.” I write about climate change for a living. I don’t want more cars on the road. I think it is more elitist and self-important to travel in one own’s car than a company bus. For what it’s worth, Solnit does not even actually defend the claim I criticized–that it would be better for society and more humble of Google employees to drive themselves than to take a company bus. We can disagree on the substance, but I did not hate on Solnit. That Solnit and Guernica claim otherwise is factually false and journalistically unethical.

    -Solnit goes on at length excoriating the technology industry. This was not the subject of my piece, and I am not interested in arguing over whether Google is a progressive company by every possible metric. But I am offended by Solnit’s embarrassing, deceptive laziness in the following passage: “Google just joined ALEC, perhaps the greatest enemy of climate-change activism and legislation this country has. Has Grist been covering ALEC’s new endeavor to charge fees to homeowners with solar panels and label them ‘freeloaders’ in order to keep us all on fossil fuels?” Why does Solnit pose a rhetorical question instead of finding the answer to it? To suggest that Grist has not been covering this topic? Well, I went to Grist.org and typed “Google” and “ALEC” into the search engine. The first result? The same exact story from the Guardian that Solnit links to, reprinted on Grist through the Climate Desk collaboration. Solnit and Guernica should be ashamed.

    -Solnit writes that I am “spewing fiction and distortion,” because I refer to the buses as a “humble, shared mode of transportation.” She writes, “the buses in question are in no way humble. Most of them are sleek, tinted-window, Wi-Fi-equipped gleaming white private [emphasis in original] coaches, and at times they’re crowding actual funky public city buses out of the public bus stops. And the denizens complaining about them—and recently, blockading them, and demonstrating against evictions and against evicting landlords—do live in a rich city, but that doesn’t make them rich people. By eliding the two Adler is pretending that the protestors are rich people with no environmental sensitivity who hate carpools and public transit.” I never claimed the buses were public, as Solnit implies. Private or not, they are, in fact, buses. Per person, they are much cheaper than private cars, wifi notwithstanding. These are facts. On the other hand, what she depicts as a matter of fact–the humbleness of Google buses–is a matter of opinion. I maintain that the fanciest private bus is more humble than a private automobile. She can disagree. Environmentally, though, I’m objectively right that buses are more efficient. In any case, I’m not “spewing fiction” just because Solnit harbors an illiberal affection for drivers alone in private cars.

    I never suggested–as Solnit falsely alleges–that the protesters “are rich people with no environmental sensitivity who hate carpools and public transit.” I challenge Solnit and Guernica to point to where in my piece I made such a ridiculous assertion. As far as San Franciscans being rich goes: according to the Census, in 2012 San Francisco’s median household income was $73,802. In 2000 it was $55,221, which is $76,095 in 2012 dollars. My point, therefore, is merely that the implication that San Francisco was not rich before the arrival of the techies is false.

    -Solnit writes, “The Brooklyn-based Adler’s proposals for ‘fixing’ San Francisco are not apparently drawn from local knowledge—or reality.” Why does Solnit put the word “fixing” in quotes? Why does her editor at Guernica allow her to do so? The word “fix” or any variation on it does not appear in my piece. I never claimed to have a plan for “fixing” San Francisco’s problems of escalating housing costs and displacement. Solnit and Guernica should not be fabricate quotes–claiming I wrote something I did not–to construct a straw man. I offered suggestions that could ameliorate the problems. I don’t know if my suggestions would stop completely halt rising rents in San Francisco. I would guess they almost certainly wouldn’t, and I never claimed that they would. The U.S. has a terrible imbalance between the supply of and demand for walkable urban housing stock. As more and more rich people pour into San Francisco, it may be impossible for supply to keep up with demand. I suggest that San Francisco try, even if it only helps to slow the rate of increase in housing costs. I suggest this in part for ecological reasons. Those living in cities have a lower carbon footprint than those living in the suburbs. Those living in the Bay Area have a lower carbon footprint than residents of other regions, thanks to San Francisco’s mild weather. The more dense San Francisco becomes, the greater its ecological advantage will be.

    -Solnit writes, “He blames San Francisco for not being as dense as Manhattan… a nanosecond of reflection might reveal that Manhattan is not exactly a Shangri-la of affordable housing. Most of the island is exorbitantly expensive.” Actually, I wrote, “San Francisco is often compared to Manhattan — similarly rich in money and culture — but it is one-quarter as dense. It is only half as dense as Brooklyn.” Why does Solnit only discuss Manhattan when I also raised Brooklyn as an example? Perhaps because only Manhattan could help bolster her point. It is dishonest of her to imply that I only mentioned Manhattan. Every New York City borough except Staten Island is denser than San Francisco. New York City’s median household income of $50,895 is significantly lower than San Francisco’s. Manhattan’s is $66,739 and Brooklyn’s is $44,850. Have the poor been displaced from Manhattan below 96th St and the northwestern quadrant of Brooklyn, much like the poor of San Francisco? Yes, but large portions of the outer-boroughs are cheaper and more socio-economically diverse. Anyway, the question is not “how much does it cost to live in Manhattan?” It is “how much would it cost to live in Manhattan if it had imposed height restrictions similar to those in San Francisco?”

    Like it or not, if more rich people want to move to San Francisco, they cannot be stopped. And so I recommend doing what you can to mitigate the ecological and economic impacts of their arrival, from letting them takes buses instead of driving to work to allowing more housing construction to taxing them to pay for low-income housing subsidies.

    Solnit has no actual proposals for protecting San Francisco from the techies–unless you think whining about their uncoolness in the pages of a British publication will somehow prevent them from renting apartments–only contempt for mine. Fine, but she should at least present my proposals honestly. Solnit only references the densification component of my proposal, not the fact that I also endorse higher progressive taxes to pay for low-income housing subsidies. (I later realized that cities in California cannot levy income taxes, but one could devise progressively structured taxes, such as sales taxes on luxury goods.) I’d even be amenable to construction of more public housing, as I’ve written previously. I’ve never argued, as Solnit implies, that more market-rate housing alone will meet the needs of all inner-city low-income families for affordable housing. I’ve explicitly argued the opposite. Solnit actually agrees with me, sort of, when she writes, “And the mechanism whereby excellent new housing will be built here for lower-income families? I think it’s called socialism. I’m for it, but it’s not on the horizon, and it’s not what a corporate boom is bringing, especially not one headed by libertarians with little sympathy for the poor.” I did not write that the techies are bringing socialism. I disagree that only socialism can provide affordable housing. I think liberalism might suffice. I advocate expanded Section 8 vouchers and public housing projects, and taxing the rich to pay for it. I’d expect Solnit to agree with this, were she not so blinded by rage and inexplicable hostility towards me.

    Solnit seems to think anything other than a polemic that is in total agreement with her is an inherently invalid exercise. She describes my piece as “all-over-the-place.” As a writer who esteems Solnit’s style, this characterization hurts me. But she does not explain what is “all over the place” about it. In the context of her jeremiad, it seems as if acknowledging the strength of arguments on both sides of an issue strikes her as unfocused, whereas most journalists might consider it fair-minded. I disagreed respectfully with Solnit, and I am dismayed that she did not extend me the same courtesy. I remain a fan of Solnit’s writing, but this experience has left me far less impressed with the quality of her journalism, and Guernica’s

  8. Comment by Rich on January 8, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    What’s the word for prejudice against a person on the basis of profession?

    When was the last time identity politics did something good for a community?

    How does antagonizing a class of people improve the character of a community?

    Where is the demographic data that corroborates the existence of an actual monoculture?

    Do you intend to establish a causal relationship between tech companies and tenant displacement or are you going to assume one exists based on circumstantial correlation?

    Please educate yourself on the real source of the problem:

    https://medium.com/changing-city/6788daa20942

  9. Comment by JR on January 8, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Rebecca:

    Enough with the generalities, lets be specific. I’ll volunteer myself as a test case.

    How and where would you propose I exist in the bay area?

    I live in SF. I work at Genentech, which is based in South SF. Currently I get to work via Genentech corporate shuttle (45% of my total 2013 commutes), my car (45%), and Caltrain (10%).

    Can you please apply the arguments in your piece, and propose a constructive scenario where a) my place of residence and b) method of commuting to work is acceptable to you? And please, be specific.

    Rather than point out the problem ad nauseum, I’d love to hear a realistic solution that I can implement this year to make things better.

  10. Comment by chelsea on January 8, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    JR – the obvious answer would be for you to live in South SF, near your place of work. You would rent an apartment there or buy property – hopefully not displacing an evicted resident.

    You would take either local public transportation to work, ride a bicycle, walk or drive (the distance of driving would be MUCH shorter than your current commute). If you walk or drive you would get a good work out, you might even save money on your gym membership. You would certainly save money on gas, you could use this money for yourself or donate it to a local charity (tax-deductable of course). Or you could use the money to decorate your new place and buy some art from a local artist. Or buy a gift for a friend/partner from a local artisan. There are many options.

    You would shop at your local grocery store, coffee shop or eat at a local restaurant and support your new community. Hopefully your money would make a positive impact in this community without displacing it’s long-term residents. If more people were to do this, community improvements would be spread more evenly across the Bay Area. Communities could benefit from your money being spent there, whereas in SF, the community is both benefiting but also deterioating from this unsustainable model (i.e. long distance commuting to work, pushing out low-middle income classes, creating a monoculture as discussed in this article).

    If you respond with the exact location of your work I would be happy to look up properties for you. But I’m sure you already know how to do this as you work in the tech industry.
    -Chelsea

  11. Comment by voltairesmistress on January 8, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    We need to accept that cities’ populations change over time, sometimes very quickly and in ways that are disorienting to current residents or the recently displaced. Population shifts inevitably change the cultural feel of a place. This is evident in neighborhoods especially. Case in point: San Francisco’s population changed to include a great deal more women after the Transcontinental Railroad was built; a lot more African Americans and a lot fewer Japanese Americans during World War II; a lot fewer white families from the late 1960s onward; a lot more gay and lesbian persons from World War II, and the 1970s onward; a lot more artists but a lot fewer blue collar workers from the 1970s onward. Solnit’s monoculture argument is simply reactionary — to the latest change of faces, places, and cultures. It is sentimental, not logical to try to keep the Mission predominantly Latin. Before that, the Mission was Irish and German. I still remember buying my raisen rolls there from a lady with a thick Irish accent and my beer at the Italian owned liquor store. I miss the lesbian cafe and bookstore and the Cambodian run grocery on Valencia. I will miss acutely the Mexican-run groceries I frequent now. But neighborhoods and cities change. The new residents of the Mission have a great deal to offer. Maybe the newcomers’ innovations are not always relevant or appealing to me or longer term residents. But they have their own vibrancy, engagement, and social practices from which I might learn a thing or two.

    Instead of bemoaning cultural change, let’s focus instead on allocating a greater percentage of housing for rent subsidies, building higher density housing where transit is thick, and laying out a truly world class public transportation system for the city and the bay area as a whole. We need to connect up the region so that people can live where they can afford to but have easy transit commutes to where the jobs are. This requires massive investment in infrastructure, not the continuing lamenting of cultural change in the City, Bay Area, or California.

  12. Comment by Sven on January 9, 2014 at 1:45 am

    JR,

    The other obvious option for you if you prefer to keep your San Francisco residence is to do what I did when I worked on Oyster Point Blvd, not too far from Genentech: take BART to South SF (15 minutes from 24th St), and from there either ride your bike (20 minutes, easy level ride) or take the commuter shuttle (10 minutes) that runs every 15 minutes to the Genentech campus.

  13. Comment by erika lopez on January 9, 2014 at 10:52 am

    rebecca! thank you for what you’re doing. you’re elegant and killer. they tried to slam cornell west in the press and that’s like kicking black santa. so it’s gonna come in waves. i’m getting ready for the revolution, girl. still hanging on here in the mission, now fighting for the part time minimum wage jobs left here with everyone else.

    la la la…

    such interesting times. and they get more interesting the less you’ve got to lose.

    x

  14. Comment by JR on January 9, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Hi Chelsea – thanks for the response. I do almost all of what you said, in my current neighborhood in SF, which 10 years ago was relatively abandoned. Whatever discretionary income I have left, goes back to the neighborhood as much as possible.

    What I don’t understand is the suggestion to live close to my place of work. My salary and spending habits would not change, so would this not have the effect of just shifting my incremental gentrification to another city? If my behavior/habitation in SF is truly part of the problem, per Rebecca’s article, then simply moving to South SF just makes it someone else’s “problem”. Can you imagine if all 7000+ Genentech workers suddenly moved to South SF? (And to you other question, the exact location of my work is 1 DNA Way, 94080)

    Hi Sven, yes, the commute you just described is one I take from time to time. My 2013 commute breakdown was 45% genentech shuttle from SF, 45% drive, 10% caltrain/bart.

  15. Comment by Meryl on January 9, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    What should be mentioned also is that San Francisco, unlike Manhattan, cannot build too far up because of Earthquakes.

  16. Comment by tech worker on January 9, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    I agree with a lot of the assesments here, but take umbrage with the idea that all tech workers are rich or uncaring. A few of us even came from working class roots. My parents sacrificied a lot so I could have the life I lead, in a white-collar knowledge job. I am not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination and many of the “techies” that are currently hated are not wealthy, they are normal office workers. Google execs are certainly not taking the googl ebus. The image is that everyone in the industry is sleeping on a pile of cash is false.

  17. Comment by Barbara Saunders on January 9, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    I’m not seeing a reasonable solution in this, and I’m also seeing a bunch of different ideas blurred together. Is what’s being proposed here that San Francisco should just make the commute so hellish that well-paid engineers choose to live in Mountain View instead?

    And what’s with all the Othering?

    It is disingenuous to draw such sharp lines between “artists” (who used to live in San Francisco) and “techies” (young men from somewhere else). I know several people my age (40s) who once worked in a nonprofits, did art and a day job, etc., have lived in the city all along, and now work at tech companies. Believe it or not, some people take those jobs because they enjoy them, not just because they’re “sell-outs.”

    What the heck does ALEC have to do with whether an individual who happens to work for a tech company lives in San Francisco? Ditto whether tech companies are green or not? For that matter, how do the attitudes of one offensive loudmouth come to reflect upon tens of thousands of people who just want to get to work. Last I heard, a city can’t close its borders for any reason, let alone to demand “cool cred.” And while I completely agree that the buses should pay, I cannot imagine any desirable way to legally prevent companies from giving its employees the perk of rides to work.

    For the record, I’m a priced-out past San Francisco who lives in the East Bay. I’ve worked for nonprofits. I do freelance writing. I’ve worked for tech companies in SF, the East Bay, and Seattle – including start-ups that did not have buses or pay the majority of their employees, more than mid-level professionals at other kinds of companies. ( I did not grow up in San Francisco. Does that lower my cred? Does simply living in a city give a person the right to *dictate* who else gets to live there, what kinds of businesses operate there, and what rents are for that person’s lifetime?)

  18. Comment by Sotwr98 on January 13, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Rebecca – you are trying to set San Francisco in amber, as you happen to have experienced it. As one of the commenters noted, the Mission used to be Irish/German. Similarly, the Marina, the Haight and Eureka Valley used to be working-class neighborhoods. (“Eureka Valley”? The name was changed to the Castro after all those dreadful people moved in from out of town, completely changed the character of the area, and drove out the existing residents)..

    The problem, as has been widely noted, is one of supply and demand. Two big contributors to this imbalance are SF’s aversion to building housing, and rent control. This latter is especially pernicious as it is a failure of political will masquerading as a measure to help lower-income households. If this city really wanted to make living here affordable, they would tax appropriately and provide a means-tested housing subsidy. This would make sure the funds went to those who actually needed it, and not place the burden on randomly penalized landlords, as rent control does.

    Rent control does benefit some of the people it is intended to help, of course. It also allows people who can well afford to pay market rates to have cheap housing. For example, I know a couple who pay half market rate for an apartment in SF, simply because they have been there for 15 years. Yes, she is a teacher, but he is – a neurosurgeon. Similarly, I know of another person who makes close to six figures but pays one-third market rate for an apartment in the Panhandle. His case exemplifies the other side of rent control, as his landlord is a widow who relies on the rent for her income. Since her tenant has been there so long, she is receiving a fraction of the income that the landlord of an adjacent, identical apartment is receiving, simply because she has the misfortune to have a longstanding wealthy tenant who is protected by rent control. This is insane, and why – per some estimates – about 10,000 housing units in the city are off the rental market and unoccupied.

  19. Comment by sjg on January 13, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Sotwr98-

    Which “dreadful” people are you referring to that moved into Eureka Valley?
    If it’s the gay community you are referring to, you may want to actually learn the history of that neighborhood. The reality is that the Eureka Valley neighborhood was already experiencing a decline from the exodus of families to suburbia that was common in the 1970’s. Castro Street businesses were shutting down and the entire neighborhood was in a state of decay.
    Seeking inexpensive places to live, we “dreadful” people started to rent and buy property. The current residents were eager to sell off their properties to also get out of the city.
    We “dreadfuls” didn’t drive anyone out…they wanted out.

    P.S. – You are a homophobe

  20. Comment by sotwr98 on January 13, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    sjg,

    Oh dear, I should have known it was a mistake to use irony in an online post. Sorry you didn’t get my point – I was adopting a pose to mock the attitude of people nowadays about the latest batch of newcomers.

  21. Comment by tom kenstowicz on January 14, 2014 at 2:41 am

    i have fond memories of rock concerts at Winterland, and 49er games at kezar stadium in golden gate park.both have been torn down, not because of tech folks, they just were. i hope these folks can find a way to get along together. a fun night in san francisco is a FUN NIGHT!! some folks are moving to detroit, buying a house for five hundred bucks, starting their own organic urban farming, so things move in cycles. god bless all of you on all sides of this issue tom

  22. Comment by DfE on January 14, 2014 at 3:32 am

    I’m the founder/editor of Dispatches from Entitlementistan. Many thanks for the mention in your article. I cannot express how flattered I am. I’ve been working on an illustrated series that explores the vanishing culture and beauty of SF, so I haven’t been moderating/contributing as heavily. This has just caught my attention.

    You absolutely hit on a point I think I have been trying to make with my blog: there is a vapid vacuum that has yawned open in the soul of the city. Never before in SF would a place such as the Homeless Youth Alliance go evicted and defunded. The lack of accompanying philanthropy that traditionally balanced great wealth seems to have been lost on this generation. Bill Gates is perhaps a dying breed. There’s a tinge of sociopathy creeping into the city that was once such a sheltering place for those of us different enough to be chased here by the bullying hordes of Docker-clad homogenaughts.

    Not everyone can ignore the white elephant in the room.

    Xo

  23. Comment by Pat on January 14, 2014 at 5:12 am

    If tech people ran the city, more of the city’s problems would be solved.

    The tech companies are growing too fast for the city’s government bureaucrats to handle.

    If Caltrain and Bart weren’t jokes, you wouldn’t need the private shuttle fleets. Look to Japan to learn how to run a train system that is very fast, on time, and convenient.

  24. Comment by sjg on January 14, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Thanks for the explanation. I probably overreacted a bit
    The part actually that really got to me is not the “undesirables” part but the narrative that the gay community forced out the residents there at the time. That’s simply not true.
    I see many comments on blogs using the Castro as an example of peopl e being forced out because of the gay invasion. I hate when facts get altered to make a point.

  25. Comment by Andrew on January 15, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Reminds me a lot of the immigration debate.

    People fear different cultures, especially the vulnerable.

  26. Comment by Anonymous South Bay Guy on January 20, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    Hi! I’m one of those darned techies, recently moved to the region from the East Coast, but not to San Francisco proper. I think I may be able to shed a bit of light on the matter.

    First off, the buses are roughly as nice as any inter-city bus. They have outlets and WiFi, kind of like a Greyhound bus does. (Newer Greyhound buses are also “sleek” and, in my experience, “gleam” from being regularly washed.) I don’t think you’re making the point you think you’re making. More generally, sharing space with the Muni buses was never the point; there are agreements and regulations now, which were in progress before the protests kicked up. This has not made people happier, because the buses aren’t the root of their anger.

    In New York City, the Googlers don’t ride “gleaming white private coaches”; they ride the subway, like everyone else in the city. But New York City has high rents, as you point out. I traveled to Dublin recently; nobody runs private buses there, even though tech companies in the city employ thousands of workers. The same goes for Chicago, even though it’s less dense than San Francisco. The problem isn’t that techies have brought in a destructive culture; the problem is that the culture that was here already is broken and destructive; the NIMBYism, the car culture and the Orange County tax revolt didn’t originate with the techies, and won’t be fixed by demonizing them.

    The root problem is, and has been, the housing shortage. San Francisco’s housing problems date back to at least the late 1990s. The causes of the housing shortage are part of that unique San Francisco culture: strong neighborhood associations which hamper the pace and density of development, car culture which insists that everyone should be able to drive to work and easily park their cars, and the Orange County tax revolts of the 1970s which permanently hamstrung any attempts at a sane property tax structure. None of these things came to San Francisco with the techies.

    Neighborhood associations would never allow the build-out of a twenty thousand employee complex in the middle of San Francisco. The Orange County set would never allow the implementation of local income taxes or reasonable property taxes. And the car culture would never allow the proper funding of transit infrastructure. The techies exacerbate these problems, but they are not the cause. If a bunch of wealthy professionals bringing their money to your city breaks your city, I submit that your city is poorly run.

  27. Comment by boo on January 21, 2014 at 5:12 am

    Rebecca, you sold your old apartment to a Google engineer. You didn’t sell it under-market value to an artist. You didn’t give it away. You took that money and bought an apartment in the Mission.

    You are a hypocrite and in denial of your role in the economy you helped create.

  28. Comment by Edward Hasbrouck on February 6, 2014 at 11:03 am

    “Have travelers lost the class war?”

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