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How Much Tech Can One City Take?
David Talbot | Photo: Peter Belanger | October 2, 2012
Shaken by the latest digital gold rush, San Francisco struggles for its soul.
Tech entrepreneurs in search of a larger social role might find inspiration in Eggers, a whirlwind of bright ideas and good works. When he’s not writing bestselling books (his latest novel is A Hologram for the King) and screenplays (Where the Wild Things Are) and running a successful publishing house (McSweeney’s), Eggers helps incubate a future generation of writers through 826 Valencia, a beehive of education-can-be-fun activities in the Mission.
Now Eggers has a new mission: He wants to take over a mid-Market building near Twitter’s humming HQ and turn it into a showcase for artisans and craftspeople. He envisions a space filled with more than 100 producers of handmade wares, including shoes, skateboards, guitars, and clocks. “Things you can touch and hold,” he says. “I like the idea of having a place for the makers of physical things, as a hedge against a technology-only downtown corridor. The more we go digital, the more we hunger to get back in touch with real things and how they’re made.”
Eggers has pitched his idea for a Mid-Market Makers Mart to city hall officials, who have responded enthusiastically. Business development officials from the mayor’s office have taken him on tours of several vintage buildings in the area, including one pre–1906 earthquake landmark he particularly liked. But it’s a challenge to find an available and affordable building in the hot district, where landlords and developers have visions of installing the next Twitter, not cobblers and microbrewers. “Real estate people just don’t find clock makers as sexy as tech startups,” Eggers observes.
“The city agrees that should not be tech-only,” comments a member of the mayor’s staff. “And we love Dave’s vision. But he has to be realistic. In the end, Market Street might not work for him. But maybe the Tenderloin would.”
Eggers makes clear that he has no grudge against digital entrepreneurs, but he feels the city must avoid falling entirely under their thrall. “I would never judge a whole class of people. I have no idea what these people’s plans are or what’s in their hearts. But it’s important for San Francisco to pay attention to balance and to make sure that the city remains open to a broad range of people, not just the tech crowd. There’s a delicate equilibrium to all this.”
These days, when Eggers gazes out his storefront windows at Valencia Street, he sometimes sees the Google shuttle gliding by. Down the street, sleek-looking crowds pack into restaurants and bars like Locanda and Lot 9. All this in a neighborhood where Central American immigrant families still double- and triple-deck into firetrap buildings and gaunt, shabby-looking youths arrive with dreams of their first gallery opening or fashion line. But Eggers is taking all the changes in stride. “You know,” he muses, “Dolores Park is still Dolores Park. Young people still sprawl on the grass listening to music and watching the Mime Troupe. It’s still Woodstock every day. And that’s a good thing.”
There is still a “magical” dimension to San Francisco, as Ed Lee likes to point out. It’s the “open city” sensibility that allowed generation after generation of Asian immigrants to use Chinatown as a launching pad for their families’ dreams. He saw this firsthand as a young legal crusader when he lived on Pacific Avenue. “Chinatown remains strong because we connect the past with the future very fast,” he says. A family immigrates to Chinatown from a village in Toisan, unable to speak English. And a few years later, their children are having power lunches just blocks away at Harris’ Steakhouse.
But Chinatown only became a decent place to raise children, despite its harsh conditions, because of the tough activism of people like Lee. He fought against corporate lawyers with whom he had gone to law school, stopping their powerful clients from evicting poor tenants. As a young man, Lee called it “class struggle.” San Francisco could use some more of it these days.
Read more about the tech industry: Was That A Pop We Heard?
Check back Monday September 24 for Tech Confidential: 17 anonymous, no-holds-barred confessions from people inside the pressure cooker—and members of a new servant class that keeps them happy, limber, and extravagantly fed.
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Correction: This story has been amended online. The Mission Minyan congregation was not started by two young Jews who work in the tech sector, as was originally reported. The founders are both educators who have never been affiliated with the tech sector. Mission Minyan does not solely host a weekly Shabbat service, as was inferred; it also offers Shabbat morning services, holiday celebrations, classes, and social service events. San Francisco magazine regrets the errors.