Hollow City

Run for your lives! The dot-coms are coming! As computer money flows into San Francisco, the quirkiness and creativity drain out.

| January/February 2001 Issue

Booming San Francisco shows that wealth can ravage a place even more than poverty.

Saturday night a new bar called Fly opens on Divisadero Street in San Francisco’s once working-class Western Addition neighborhood, and it immediately becomes a magnet for prosperous white kids. Sunday evening, the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church a few blocks down the boulevard holds a benefit to raise money to help it find a new home after 29 years in a neighborhood storefront. And this isn’t even the part of town that’s changing most rapidly. What’s happening in the Western Addition is just the spillover from the wild mutation of the formerly industrial South of Market area and the formerly Latino and affordable Mission District. These are the neighborhoods most affected by San Francisco’s emergence as a center of global Internet culture.

For most of its history, San Francisco has been a refuge for free spirits and maverick minds. Soon this will no longer be true. Gentrification is transforming the city by driving out the poor, including those who have chosen to give their lives to unlucrative pursuits such as art, activism, social experimentation, or social service. But gentrification is just the fin above water. Below you’ll find the rest of the shark: a new American economy in which many of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous, and more closely controlled. Despite the volatility in this new economy from day to day, its long-term impact seems destined to change the cultural and political life of cities and perhaps the whole nation. The technology boom and the accompanying housing crisis have fast-forwarded San Francisco well into the 21st century; Seattle, New York, Boston, Austin, Denver, Portland, and other booming cities are not far behind. A decade ago, Los Angeles looked like the future of urban life: decay, segregation, open warfare. But the new future looks like the new San Francisco: a frenzy of financial speculation, covert coercions, overt erasures, a barrage of novelty-item restaurants, the despair of unemployment replaced by the numbness of incessant work hours and the anxiety of destabilized jobs, homes, and neighborhoods.

The Bay Area is home to 35 percent of the venture capital in this country, and 30 percent of the multimedia/Internet businesses. The broadest effect of this boom is a runaway real estate inflation. Small businesses and nonprofit groups often receive "economic evictions" when their new leases rise as much as 600 percent. Because San Francisco has rent control but not vacancy control, home evictions are at an all-time high. Seventy percent of those getting the boot leave the city. All over San Francisco, buildings are being torn down and replaced with bigger ones, long-vacant lots are being filled in, condos built and sold, old industrial buildings and former nonprofit offices turned into dot-com headquarters and upscale lofts. The many new business startups have in turn generated new boutiques, restaurants, and bars that displace existing businesses, particularly arts and social service organizations.

The influx of high-tech money has inflated real estate prices to the point that the people who hold the Bay Area together can’t afford to live there. "The brutality," writes Jeff Goodell about the region in Rolling Stone, "is apparent not just to newcomers who arrive here to seek their fortune but also to anyone who is so unwise as to choose a field of work for love, not money. Schoolteachers, cops, construction workers, nurses, even doctors and lawyers—as the tide of wealth rises around them, many are finding it harder to stay afloat."

Cities traditionally are both the administrative hub from which order, control, and hierarchy emanate and the place where that order is subverted. This subversion rises out of the free space of the city where people and ideas circulate, and bohemia is the freest space of all, a place where the poor, the radical, the marginal, and the creative overlap. Bohemia is not so much a population as a condition, a condition of urbanism to which the young go to invent themselves and from which cultural innovation and insurrection arise. As that free space contracts, the poor and individual artists will go elsewhere, but bohemia may well go away altogether, here and in cities across the country. (I use the word bohemian to mean all the participants in the undivided spectrum of radical politics and artistic culture, a spectrum that includes Marxists who look down on the arts and artists who don’t notice politics until it evicts them.)

There’s a cruel irony here. The white middle class fled America’s cities over the past 50 years, spawning the crises of disinvestment and poverty that plagued most cities from the ’60s through the ’90s, and still affects many. But the poor and the bohemians stuck with urban life, often creating a lively culture amid all the problems. Now the privileged are coming back from the suburbs, setting off a new kind of crisis. As the new economy arrives in San Francisco, it is laying waste to the city’s existing culture—in the sense both of cultural diversity and of creative artistic or political activity. It may turn out that wealth can ravage a city’s vitality even more than poverty.

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