Real Victims

Recently I came across this article. Read as you will, it’s a scathing evaluation of how the tech industry is affecting the city of San Francisco … from the perspective of an Irish white male tech editor.

I think gentrification is a real problem for a variety of reasons causing real pain and hurt to (real people)™ and I know as a 24-year-old Google employee making a good amount of money, also as an East coast transplant, also as someone who pays a pretty ridiculous sum to live in the (formerly working class & predominantly latino) mission district, I’ve become the spitting definition of a yuppie gentrifier since April 2015. And people are mad:


This rage is understandable. And I understand that to be an ally to suffering people you must not make issues about yourself but instead highlight what actual damage and hurt is happening so that change can take place and you can keep on sleeping with the bed chair pillow every day. Which is why I have such a problem with this article. It contains a set of speculative and subjective assessments and nothing of real substance. Its conclusion is that the stereotype of the gentrifiers (rich, tech-oriented, well-educated folks) are boring, and that’s the issue that matters in re gentrification. Oh, and that “artists, artisans, and tradespeople” are descriptive of who is being pushed out, never mind all the actual working / lower middle class people (drivers, cooks, teachers, store clerks, nurses, etc) who are actually being pushed out too, since they fit his description of “…responsible, hard-working people…quiet by 11pm.”

Surely the culture of a place matters but what people are most angry about is being driven out of their long-term homes and the communities (families) they have deep ties to. The murals are not for you or your boredom, Adrian Weckler. The murals were painted by and for the families that are being forced to leave: what’s sad isn’t the murals disappearing, it’s the people.

Attached to the link I found to this article was an appeal to SF residents:

All I ask of my friends who might read this and feel a slight twinge of recognition in themselves is please be conscious of the city’s legacy. Learn its history. Support its artists. Don’t abuse and exploit it. Go see its bands. Don’t be such an obvious part of the problem. I can barely walk through the neighborhood I’ve lived in 10 years without overhearing almost satirically self-entitled conversations. Help!!

For those that haven’t been here that long, let me explain: this vortex of reclaimed wood, cold-pressed juice, $6 toast, and cultural vacancy used to be different in a huge number of substantive ways. It’s so tragic; the rapid decline of the city I loved. The city that actually compelled me to leave LA because at the time, it seemed more interesting (imagine that!). I’m not a knee-jerk nostalgist, shaking my fist at progress. When I moved to my neighborhood, I was the “gentry.” But the monied intensity of the last 4-ish years is irrevocably harming one of the world’s greatest urban centers. A city whose cultural impact has reverberated through American history since the mid-19th century. And that city is dissolving under the weight of mass self-indulgence. It’s a genuine tragedy.

SO, if you’re not one of my friends who’s either already been kicked out, is fearing their impending eviciton, or generally struggling and are instead living comfortably because of an industry that pays you wildly disproportionate money to make ephemeral things that most people actually don’t need — just think. Get creative about what you can do to help

This response was well-intentioned but read as “yet another transplant misunderstanding the tragedy of gentrification.” It takes the real hurt by the people who live here and eliminates it, framing it from the gentry’s eyes: “this city is becoming more boring for me.” Unsurprisingly it was written by a white-male-former-tech-employee-turned-musician.

Empathy is important but it must be toward the right things, things that lead to action: seeing a city’s bands and spending money on art isn’t actually doing much to help hurting families. “Don’t abuse and exploit it” isn’t entirely actionable advice. “Don’t be such an obvious part of the problem” is similar and smells of an ironic double meaning.

The response also points to the emptiness of the original article. Since I don’t think it’s valid to criticize something without offering what I expected, here are a few points I think are important to understand.

Presenting… The Real Problems™ of Gentrification!

1. Rent

Rent is the problem driving most negative effects of gentrification.

UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti calculated that a single tech job typically produces five additional local-services jobs.

But in San Francisco, that spillover effect is much smaller. This is in no small part because so much of our incomes end up going toward housing costs. The city’s economist Ted Egan estimates that each San Francisco tech job likely creates somewhere slightly north of two extra jobs, not five.

The spectre haunting San Francisco, The Economist. April 16, 2014

The Weckler article glosses over causes of this rent problem and the real pain it causes for people at all levels (but especially the working class). The only quote about rent was by his rich friend who apparently pays $5000/mo for her apartment. Never mind that many recent transplants can’t even give back to the community economically in ways it would really help, because they’re living in share houses with a single bathroom for four people, and working class long-term residents have been resorting to similar. Never mind that not all those hard working young people are rich, or that some have graduated with six figures of college debt in a flawed educational system.

2. Suffering People

I will firmly admit that I don’t add too much to a city’s culture. I don’t sing, I don’t make things and I can’t really cook. I’m not a community event organiser. (I don’t even know many of my immediate neighbours.) I’m exactly like many of the people who have colonised San Francisco: safe but boring. And it’s exactly this type of demographic that, in over-abundance, sucks the buzz out of a community.

We have to stop making like the problem with gentrification is the disappearance of singers and painters. It’s the damage that’s being caused to their families and their long-term community roots.

Imagine your hometown becomes attractive to an entire set of people a magnitude more wealthy than you (doesn’t matter who you are, there’s always someone richer) with a culture you don’t entirely understand (whether you like it or not is something else). If it can coexist with your culture and you aren’t being forced out of your very home and you can still have your way of life and your community, it may still be sad to you that the dominant culture is changing, but this is something you can adapt to. This isn’t the tragedy; the tragedy is when grandma can’t afford a place within a 15 mile radius and is being evicted by a landlord who can no longer afford to ignore her $500/mo rent in a market where people are willing to pay $3000/mo. The landlord is willing to take the unit off the market for a whole year because it still makes sense given how much the unit will go for after a remodel. But poor Grandma just wants to be with her family. What does the family do? Do they squeeze four people into a 1-bedroom?

What does an elderly (80, 74 yrs old) Chinese American couple with a disabled daughter do when they’re being forced out of their home?