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How Much Tech Can One City Take?

Shaken by the latest digital gold rush, San Francisco struggles for its soul.

 Photo Illustration by Peter Belanger

I find myself torn about the current economic tides rolling through San Francisco. It would be hard for me to entirely reject the idea of technological progress. As a refugee from the moribund newspaper industry, I founded the pioneering online publication Salon in 1995, and suddenly I found myself at the center of the city’s first dot-com explosion. The new digital wizardry gave me and my fellow ink-stained wretches a way to realize our dream: publishing unfettered journalism, free from the grip of corporate overseers, and dull-minded newsroom hacks.

No techie myself, I learned to love the quirky and deeply individualistic geek culture. Engineers were my comrades-in-arms in the revolution against top-down, corporate communications. The ones who made a difference at Salon—like Chad Dickerson, our crack webmaster and now CEO of Etsy, and investor John Warnock, who also cofounded Adobe—had artistic souls. They were deeply concerned about the direction of the country and believed that Salon’s voice needed to be heard.

There was a sense of missionary purpose to San Francisco’s first dot-com uprising. But it soon developed an ugly side. Greed will do that. At some point, the young journalists and coders seeking jobs at Salon began asking about stock-option packages before they inquired about the company’s creative opportunities. And then idiotic startup ideas began to eclipse ingenious ones. (Raise your hand if you remember the company that promised to transmit aromas through your computer.) Signs of stupid wealth were everywhere. IPO millionaires rolled their Range Rovers onto sidewalks outside the hottest restaurants and left them there to accrue parking tickets.

That first San Francisco tech bubble popped more than a decade ago. But the new one, despite the recent dips of Facebook and Zynga shares, promises to be even fatter—and potentially more damaging to the soul of the city. Once you start to look around, the warning signs are everywhere.

 

I’m sitting at a table outside the new Precita Park café in Bernal Heights, a gourmet sandwich shop that’s one sign of the changing times. When I moved to this neighborhood in 1993, just before the first dot-com boom, I avoided taking my two toddlers to the playground across the street from the café, because local gangs sometimes stashed their guns in the sand. And yet, despite gunfire from the old Army Street projects that often shattered the neighborhood’s sleep, Bernal Heights in those years was a glorious urban mix of deeply rooted blue-collar families, underground artists, radical activists, and lesbian settlers. The neighborhood had a funky character as well as a history. The famed cartoonist R. Crumb once hung his hat there, and his old Zap Comics sidekick, the brilliant Spain Rodriguez, still does.

But at some point the new tech boom began to make its presence felt in Bernal Heights, whose sunny hills are close to not only SoMa startups but also the Highway 101 shuttle line to Silicon Valley. Nowadays, you see Lexus SUVs parked in the driveways on Precita Avenue. Young masters of the universe in Ivy League sweatshirts buy yogurt and organic peaches at the corner stores where Cuervo flasks and cans of Colt 45 were once the most popular items.

“We cleaned up this neighborhood—stopped the violence in the projects—but now we can’t afford to live here anymore,” says Buck Bagot who has been a Bernal Heights community organizer and housing activist since 1976. “When I moved here, every house on my block had a different ethnicity. There were Latinos, blacks, American Indians, Samoans, Filipinos. They had good union jobs, and they could raise their families here. Now they’re all gone.” These days Bagot fights to block home foreclosures as the cofounder of Occupy Bernal, engaged in a battle to preserve the neighborhood’s diverse character that he admits often feels futile.

Sitting outside the café, I’m joined by another longtime Bernal resident, a 47-year-old San Francisco public school librarian. She moved to the neighborhood in 1994 with her partner, a public school teacher, when many of their lesbian friends were settling here, attracted by the relatively cheap rents. “There were a lot of us—we were young, politically active, and underpaid, but we could afford to live here in those days,” she says. “But now that we have kids, we’re being priced out.” The librarian—who asks that her name not be used because she’s concerned that any notoriety will hurt her chances of entering the tight housing market—says that she and her partner have bid on five houses this year. But they lost each time to buyers who could afford to put up tens of thousands of dollars over the sellers’ asking price—and all in cash. “Who are these people, with that kind of money?” she asks.

The librarian and her partner dread the idea of moving out of the city. San Francisco is in their souls: They fell in love here, they took to the streets here as young dyke activists, and they have a combination of 22 years seniority in the public school system. They can’t imagine moving their family to some remote suburb, where their kids would likely be the only ones with two moms. But it’s getting harder each day to hold on. To make ends meet, they have begun to moonlight as dog trainers “I don’t want to blame young tech workers,” says the librarian. “I’d hate to sound like some grumpy ‘get off my lawn’ type. I mean, I love technology. I’m an early adopter. But if people like us, who helped make San Francisco what it is, get pushed out of the city, who’s going to teach the next generation of kids? Who’s going to take care of them in the hospital?”

Under the Teacher Next Door program, the city does offer public school employees financial assistance to buy first homes in San Francisco. And Mayor Lee recently won approval from the Board of Supervisors to put a measure on the November ballot that he hopes will further address the affordable-housing crisis. If approved by voters, the measure will expand a Housing Trust Fund that will bankroll 9,000 low-income housing units and provide middle-income residents with up to $100,000 in down-payment assistance.