I usually take my sweet time to write, but today I’m writing a fairly hasty response to an article I just read online by Gary Kamiya for San Francisco Magazine/Modern Luxury: San Francisco is Dead. Long Live San Francisco. Gary is a longtime resident of the city and while he’s both a former tenant and landlord, and feels strongly about the current plight faced by the fading middle class, the poor, the disabled, artists, activists, mentors and anyone else who can’t afford $3,000/month studio apartment. He doesn’t see the argument as black and white and writes intelligently about the many issues at play here now, and feels very strongly about the city’s ethnic diversity and maverick progressive tradition. He even wrote a book about it (Cool Gray City of Love.)
As do I, Gary does not approach the argument monolithically, which isn’t realistic and hardly useful in the end, I agree. Yes things have heated up to an extreme; it’s easy these days for politicians, activists and corporations to all engage in street theatre designed to attract ultimate media attention. And with a few proud exceptions, it’s hard to rely on the media to provide you with a sensible examination of all the issues. Kamiya’s article is thought provoking, well written, and attempts to suggest that the current “cultural, political and class war that has erupted in San Francisco – call it The Change – strikes me as wrongheaded to the point of surreality.” He argues that more of that surreality comes from the left, that there is no enemy and that there is confusion in making the argument about hi-tech companies and employees, new construction and city policies when the reality is about capitalism, pure and simple.
For the record I was part of the dot-com boom, an employee of high tech companies that collapsed when the first tech bubble collapsed in 2001 and was laid off twice. I became unemployed, then disabled, then broke. The circumstances then were not nearly this extreme, but still, many residents didn’t appreciate the new tech workers and their high salaries. That lack of appreciation was palpable and I didn’t like it. Today I rely on Social Security and am semi-retired, a transformed struggling artist and writer trying to survive and feeling very blessed to still be living in the city in my tiny and too expensive rent-controlled studio apartment. So like, Gary, I can see and relate to both sides too. Certain aspects of “The Change,” are about undeniable economic forces that are at play and may not be able to be stopped. And I agree it’s wrong to blankly blame or attack anyone, in this case tech workers, for being the sole cause of the problem. But I think that’s where I stop agreeing with him.
I don’t agree that that city elected officials can’t do anything to navigate and regulate this issue. To say only that “City Hall is in the business of stoking new business, welcoming new people and attracting new capital.” While Kamiya is also right to have us remember what an economic slump the city was in just a few years ago, and that we should appreciate the influx of new business and investment, I think that City Hall is in, or should be in, the business of a lot more than that. City Hall also enacts laws to protect its residents, to control development and to preserve culture here. While most cities do take the “Chamber of Commerce” approach to welcoming any business or investment at almost any cost, this is San Francisco, and the writer says he knows that.
I don’t think anyone knows at this point how all of this will play out. The city has enacted an affordable housing plan to build 30,000 new homes in a few years – we need more like 100,000 and that seems unlikely. As it has always been, city activism has it’s place, as do “we” artists, writers, activists, mentors, middle-class or low-income residents. As do many residents who grew up here and have been here longer than I, I agree that not only is city preservation important, and so is sound planning and development, sufficient affordable housing. San Francisco should continue to be a supporter and voice for diversity, the disenfranchised, low and middle income residents. I don’t want to see more artists forced out of the city. Including me. Now I’m going to continue to think about it all, and write about it some more.