The G-Words

In my last post, I mentioned that I think that it’s unlikely that San Francisco will continue to be the cultural engine of the Bay Area, due to unusual economic factors and the “G-Words”. The G-Words are (1) “Google Bus” — a generic term for the luxury coaches that shuttle tech employees between San Francisco-area residences and South Bay tech workplaces — and (2) “Gentrification”.

These G-words are emblematic of an emerging economic force that is displacing a lot of people, in many cases tearing apart communities, and also, in my observation, suffocating the cultural fermentation that has historically made San Francisco one of the most interesting cities in the world. Because the “Google Buses” are such visible symbols of these changes — and also because, frankly, they’re kind of eerie, when they roll through the city streets — they’ve attracted a lot of attention including protests and vandalism. Several of my friends who live elsewhere have asked me why the buses are the subject of ire in a progressive city. After all, they’re a form of mass transit, and why would people protest that?

Of course, the protests, and what I see as the likely coming cultural enervation of the city, are not at their core about transit. Instead, these narratives come from an emerging awareness that San Francisco, which for a century and a half has functioned as an independent, exciting metropolis, is perhaps being co-opted for a new, and very dull, purpose.

The underlying force is this: the megacompanies of Silicon Valley — Facebook, Apple, Google, et al. — and their economic ecosystem seem to have grown into an enormous employment engine; analagous to the biggest urban concentrations of factories in the Industrial Age. However, these companies’ campuses are located in the leafy suburban municipalities of the Peninsula, a hour to two hours south of San Francisco.

These municipalities are tightly legislated low-rise, low-density burghs, with residential real estate values that have ascended into the stratosphere as Silicon Valley became more important over the decades. Now, people who’ve paid a million or two million for their 3-bedroom 1960’s tract home are not likely to embrace zoning changes that would allow more housing to be built, as that would greatly dilute the value of their property, as well as changing the kind of suburb they’ve paid so much money to live in.

As a result, these municipalities reap the benefits of having enormous employment centers, and those benefits are then divided among a small number of residents. But the companies themselves have no place to house their workers. Thus, they created the Google Buses, luxury coaches replete with wi-fi and other amenities, deployed to expand the radius in which a Silicon Valley tech worker can practically live.

These private bus routes are concentrated most heavily in the Mission District of San Francisco, a highly dense neighborhood which historically has housed large numbers of working-class people and families, first Italian and Irish and more recently largely Latino. For various reasons related to cost, density and geography — and because Mission residents are less politically powerful than those of other neighborhoods — this district provided a perfect place for tech companies to house their $100K+/year knowledge workers.

This innovative housing system has mostly worked, at least for the tech companies, and it has expanded to other neighborhoods, methodically. What happens to these neighborhoods when the buses arrive is staggering: renting a modest one-bedroom apartment in the Mission is now a $4,000/month proposition. And, because San Francisco is a rent-controlled city, an identical apartment next door might be rented to a longtime resident for $500/month.

This situation of course leads to plenty of human tragedy. With such a stark profit motive, the forces of capital find ways — often through liberal application of the Ellis Act — to evict longtime residents and attract high-paying newbies. Families on fixed incomes, 95-year-old pensioners, disabled people are torn from their communities and support networks, and left to fend for themselves in a market where a median apartment rental requires at least a $60/hour job. It’s a sorry state of affairs that has no business existing in any community.

Because the human cost of this situation is so visible and painful, a second dynamic goes far less examined. Which is that we are witnessing what seems to be the first occurrence of a thriving, world-class city being converted into a wealthy bedroom community. Quote-unquote San Franciscans — people who, to a large degree, live, work, and connect within the city itself — are being replaced en masse with ultra-high-income commuters who use the urban infrastructure only for sleeping and some amount of nighttime entertainment.

And here’s the thing about wealthy bedroom communities: they are the dullest places in America. Kids who grow up in them, if they manage to avoid crashing their cars or developing hard drug problems out of sheer boredom, move to places like San Francisco when they grow up, just to experience something that doesn’t suck.

There exist economic reasons that wealthy bedroom communities are so uninteresting. Commercial rents are sky-high because they provide access to so many rich people; in order to pay these high rents businesses have to cater to the largest number of residents as possible, eschewing risks or innovations for the security of mass appeal. That high-earning populations might tend to have more conservative tastes only accelerates the race to the middle of the road.

This is the direction that San Francisco, through no fault of its own, appears to be headed. New businesses, paying through the nose for square footage surrounded by highly compensated meritocrats, have to snare as many of those meritocrats’ dollars as possible. The typical new restaurant, for instance, no matter how edgy its name or hip its decor, is operating in a context most akin to a TGI Friday’s in a suburban mall. That context will tend to make the experience of going to that restaurant akin to going to Friday’s, as well.

I’m not saying these challenges can’t or won’t be overcome by talented individuals who are committed to contributing cultural value to the city. Those people exist, and they’ll do it. But, in aggregate, it looks like the engine that has been driving San Francisco’s dynamic culture, is being more and more starved of fuel.

One more thing about all these forces: they cause a chain reaction that affects every community in the Bay Area. People who seek a life independent from automobile culture but make less than the $150K/year per household it takes to live in San Francisco if you don’t have a rent-controlled apartment already, fan out around the commuter train stations in the area. The communities surrounding these stations, such as West Oakland, or Fruitvale where Katie and I have chosen to live, have long been places where working people could afford to stay in the neighborhood where they grew up, and where immigrants could find housing next to others from their culture. And, these are neighborhoods where, due to the low cost of entry, innovative artists and businesses have found footholds and contributed to the culture of the city. Now these communities are in turn threatened by the displaced masses from San Francisco — many of whom earn enough that they would be considered rich in most of the country, but who in the Bay Area can’t afford to live anywhere near their jobs.

In my opinion, there are villains here, even if those villains aren’t on the big white buses. Instead, the primary culprits are the municipalities who are hosting tens of thousands of workers and their companies, but who use zoning rules to prevent the possibility that those employees be housed in their cities. As a result, all this will continue until the state or region steps in, and forces suburban districts, if not to actually build housing, to at least allow adequate housing to be built to accommodate the workers they host.