(Editors Note: This is a speech delivered to a business conference on the “Mid-Market Transformation,” March 12, 2014)
By David Talbot
I want to talk about a very taboo, a very loaded topic today – one that even here in anything-goes San Francisco makes people squirm. And no, it’s not the battle over the right to bare your ass on the city’s streets. It’s even hotter than that. The taboo topic is class war.
San Francisco – a very confined, 7-by-7 area of prime real estate – has been the center of a raging turf war throughout its history. At the heart of this battle is a very simple but brutal question: who gets to live here?
One way or the other, that very provocative question has been at the heart of every big conflict that has torn apart the city, from the anti-Chinese riots of the 1870s to the civil wars over the influx of hippies and gays in the 1960s and ‘70s to the current storm over the colonization of San Francisco by the new tech elite.
In many ways, San Francisco is a product of these heated battles. As I write in my book “Season of the Witch,” so-called San Francisco values were not born with flowers in their hair – but howling, in blood and strife. It took decades of bitter – and often violent – struggle for San Francisco to become the beacon of enlightenment and social tolerance that it is today. These days we remember the social upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s in San Francisco as culture wars – battles over sexual freedom and creative expression, or “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” But we forget that there was an underlying economic component to many of these battles. (more after the jump)
Progressive champion George Moscone narrowly won victory as mayor in 1975 by challenging the entrenched power of the downtown banking and real estate interests and defending the beleaguered working families in the neighborhoods, who felt squeezed by soaring rents and by the erosion of the good, unionized, blue-collar jobs that had created the city’s middle class.
Harvey Milk – the city’s other leading progressive icon in the 1970s — was not just a crusader for gay rights. He had a broader vision of human liberation. Milk realized that much of the anti-gay backlash in the city came not just from die-hard homophobes, but from working families who were being displaced by gay gentrification in the Castro, Mission, Alamo Square and Duboce Triangle areas. Many of the gay newcomers were young white professionals with disposable income, while those they were squeezing out were poor and working-class and minorities. Harvey’s true greatness as a progressive leader came from the way that he brought together the gay struggle with the labor movement and the tenants right campaign and the battle for women’s liberation and racial justice. He understood that the imbalance in wealth and power – that never-ending battle between the have’s and have-nots – was the common thread that connected all these social struggles. And he dreamed of a grand coalition that would have the clout to bring power to the bargaining table – the way Longshoremen’s Union leader Harry Bridges brought management to its knees in the 1930s by coordinating the city’s labor unions.
The waves of hippies and gays that poured into San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s were indeed disruptive. But they brought a fresh infusion of progressive energy into the city, just as San Francisco’s labor movement was growing soft and bureaucratic. By absorbing this new human energy, the city became more creative, enlightened and even prosperous. San Francisco, in fact, became a social model for the world. After years of debate and turmoil, San Francisco innovations like gay marriage, legalized marijuana, a livable minimum wage, city-wide green programs and bike systems, and guaranteed health care – after all this, San Francisco – as the social laboratory for America — can quite legitimately take much of the credit for moving the country forward. God knows, the right wing has recognized how dangerous the city and its notorious “San Francisco” values are. For years, we’ve been the whipping boy for the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.
But now that San Francisco’s cultural revolution has been won, the city is facing a new crisis, one that again tests its very soul.
This war pits San Francisco’s bedrock progressive values – including a strong commitment to social diversity and the common good – against the defiantly individualistic, even solipsistic, world of digital capitalism.
Let me state right up front that I am no Luddite. As I wrote in my article for San Francisco magazine back in October 2012 – an article titled “How Much Tech Can One City Take?” which helped spark the current debate – I have benefited enormously from technology, not just as a consumer but as a journalist, author and media entrepreneur. I’m a strong believer in the power of technology to liberate the human spirit. And I’m very proud that San Francisco is a beehive of this kind of buzzing innovation.
I clearly could not have launched my own pioneering online publication — Salon — back in 1995 without the miraculous digital infrastructure built by the architects of the web. This new digital wizardry allowed me and my merry band of ink-stained wretches to bail out of a moribund newspaper industry and reinvent journalism. At Salon, I become very fond of the brilliant geeks who were constantly coming up with new ways for Salon to connect with our readers and stay one step ahead of financial disaster. Working closely together, the editorial staff and tech team at Salon proved that we could defy The Man, run our own shop, and break away from the numbing conventions of the mainstream news industry.
But over the years, the innovation bubbling up in the Bay Area has become much more market-oriented than socially driven. Vast fortunes have been created overnight by raiding the intellectual content that others have painstakingly built over the years. Other new empires have risen by convincing millions of people to give up their privacy and reveal their deepest thoughts and desires for free – a kind of Tom Sawyer business model based on persuading the public that it’s lots of fun to paint someone else’s fence.
Much of the new tech wealth is either built on this kind of shameless piracy – or on what I call the idiocy of ingenuity. You know — creating apps that are nothing more than solutions in search of problems. The fact that so much of this new wealth is based on either trivial or downright damaging human pursuits makes it doubly hard to stomach the arrogance and self-absorption of this new tech elite. These are men – and as we know, 98 percent of them ARE men – who sincerely believe that just because they came up with some new “friction-free” way of accessing people’s bank accounts, they are now entitled to run the world.
(Just a little aside — I love terms like “friction-free,” dreamed up in the world of tech-capitalism – language that romanticizes a brave new world where there is no human contact and where the very human consequences of innovation are hidden underneath layers of marketing hype. Another one of my favorite terms is “content aggregation” – which really means intellectual property theft. )
When they’re not busy trying to run the world, these men are turning San Francisco into their private playground. Technology tycoons like Larry Ellison of Oracle are not content to hijack whole blocks of downtown San Francisco to celebrate themselves and their latest product lines each year – shutting down entire streets and snarling traffic to stage their corporate orgies. No, it wasn’t enough for Ellison to take command of our city streets – now he owns the San Francisco Bay too.
Last year’s America’s Cup race gave Ellison the opportunity to turn the Bay into his own personal water park. The sailboat he entered in the race was so over-engineered and prohibitively expensive — it cost upwards of $100 million to build — that only one other sailing team, underwritten by an oil sultan, could afford to compete with him. And even though he overspent nearly near every competitor out of the race, Ellison’s team still felt it had to cheat in order to win.
Ellison, of course, promised that this spectacle of wretched excess would bring millions of dollars into the city. But the reality, as City Hall accountants finally revealed, was that San Francisco ended up subsidizing Ellison’s vanity water show. City taxpayers were stuck with a bill for the event that will total at least $5.5 million.
The tech elite seems more interested in what they can take from San Francisco than what they can give back. It took years of creative and social ferment for San Francisco to become what it is today — a magnet for young and ambitious people from all over the world, including many of the best and brightest digital workers. But instead of expressing gratitude to a city that has given them numerous competitive advantages, tech moguls demand more and more handouts from the city, in the form of tax subsidies and other public giveaways. Mayor Ed Lee has all but turned City Hall over to the tech industry, meeting with digital executives on a weekly basis to ask them what more he can do to make them happy. The mayor not only hands over entire sections of downtown for tech block parties, he has reserved a prime section of the city – the Mid-Market area – exclusively for the Twitterocracy.
The battle over the Mid-Market corridor – which runs through the heart of the city, along Market Street between Fifth and Nine Streets – is a battle for the city’s soul. For years, City Hall and community organizations have struggled for ways to revive this blighted urban zone. As the local newspaper keeps reminding us, the Mid-Market has long been a magnet for junkies and street criminals. But it’s also a home for immigrant families and the working poor, as well as people trying to get a foothold in the city after surviving bouts of hard luck, mental illness or addiction. Some urban activists and dreamers – like writer and visionary Dave Eggers — have proposed turning the Mid-Market area into a mixed-use haven for the poor, as well as artists and craftsmen who still work with their hands. But Mayor Lee decided to turn Mid-Market into an urban Silicon Valley, making it a tax haven for tech companies like Twitter, Zendesk, and Yammer.
To make Mid-Market squeaky clean enough for the young engineers and marketing managers now pouring into the new office buildings here, the mayor has ordered the police to sweep the homeless off the street. This amounts to sweeping the problem to other corners of the city – including the mayor’s own front yard. The mayor can now look out his window at City Hall and see roaming packs of scruffy street people with their shopping carts and pit bulls in tow. They congregate in Civic Center and they crash in the Main Library, turning these central public spaces into dumping bins for the city’s chronic homeless problem.
Meanwhile, as City Hall showers millions of dollars in tax giveaways on the tech companies, a new city study shows that for an extra $44 million in annual spending, the city could wipe out the homeless problem by building new supportive housing for people living on the streets. Despite all the uproar about the problem, San Francisco’s homeless numbers have remained relatively flat for the past 12 years. The city only needs to focus on getting about 3,500 people into housing.
Defenders of the new tech boom point to all the new jobs and tax revenue coming into the city. But somehow this new wealth has failed to trickle down to the people most in need. The rapid rise of tech wealth in San Francisco has actually INCREASED the already disturbing gap between the haves and have-nots in the city. A recent report by the Brookings Institution found that the wealth gap in San Francisco is the second largest among American cities. The top 5 percent of San Francisco households earn more than $353,000 per year, whereas the bottom 20 percent of households earn less than $21,000. And it’s important to note that his grand chasm between the top and bottom grew more QUICKLY in San Francisco than in any other city.
San Francisco is fast becoming a city of billionaires and beggars, with middle-class and working families priced out of the city. Everyone who lives here knows dozens of friends and family members who have been pushed out – schoolteachers, firefighters, nurses, restaurant cooks, writers, artists, retired dockworkers, people with deep roots in the city – people who helped make the city.
This brings up my next point: what is a city? It cannot be summed up simply in accounting ledgers, in the numbers spewed out by Ed Lee and Ron Conway, the tech investor who seems to pull the mayor’s strings.
If you have lived in a special city like San Francisco for any length of time, you develop a sense of what makes it unique. A great city is a delicate marriage of human enterprise and natural beauty. A great city possesses something like a soul – a fragile vessel of time, memory and civic spirit that can be shattered with remarkable speed. San Francisco is less than 200 years old. But within this torrent of history, from the gold rush to the tech boom, it has become a wonder of the world. The streets of San Francisco contain multitudes – waves of immigrants and social outcasts and creative visionaries.
Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte. Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia. The rugged 49er fortune-seekers who came from all over the world, and the tough Chinese immigrants searching for their own Gold Mountain. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana’s 49ers. The Jazz Renaissance that turned the Fillmore into the Harlem of the West. The cafes and the cheap North Beach railroad apartment where Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl.” The tough hippies who stood their ground with guns in the Haight-Ashbury to drive out the heroin dealers and the bad cops and save their neighborhood from the redevelopers’ wrecking balls. The aging Filipino tenants and young activists who stood their ground to save the residential I-Hotel on the edge of Chinatown. The young gay men and women who fled the boredom and persecution of their hometowns, turning San Francisco into a fabulous Emerald City. And the brave doctors, nurses and agitators who put their lives on the line to fight the AIDS epidemic. In the process, they truly made San Francisco the City of Saint Francis – a city that refused to abandon its sick and helpless and dying – no matter how untouchable they seemed.
I wrote about this turbulent and magical history that made San Francisco in “Season of the Witch.” And the city has embraced the book – it’s been on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list for over a year now. I think the success of the book is due to San Franciscans’ deep anxiety about what the city is becoming – a creeping sense that much of this urban wonderland can be wiped out in a single San Francisco earthquake, like the tech boom that is now rocking the city.
The tech cheerleaders prefer to call this type of boom, “creative destruction.” Now I know that many of the rank and file people who work in the tech industry are not disciples of Joseph Schumpeter and Ayn Rand – they are good, hard-working people who share our progressive San Francisco values. But the political ethos of the tech elite is far different. By and large, the new digital elite are selfish libertarians – the type of instant billionaires, three or four years out college, who feel that since they scraped and clawed their way to the top — with mom and dad’s and Kleiner Perkins’ help — they owe nothing and nobody in return.
Some of these baby billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg, have even joined political forces with older, very uncool fat cats – like the notorious Koch brothers, whose motto most certainly is “Be Evil.” Zuckerberg belongs to a corporate lobby that is working hard to roll back pro-labor and minimum wage legislation, climate change reform, and voter rights. But this very same Facebook billionaire feels quite comfortable building a dream mansion overlooking Dolores Park, in the heart of a city whose pleasant surroundings and genial mix of citizens were ensured by decades of progressive struggle and reform.
This is the type of selfish and greedy corporate behavior that empties out the heart of a city. And this is, of course, what is fueling the rage against the Google buses – those vast, sleek, wi-fi vehicles that have become symbols of San Francisco’s colonization by Silicon Valley. They represent one more way that the tech industry is feeding off the city’s public treasury, clogging the streets and municipal bus stops, and reminding everyone of the privileged bubble people who seem to be taking over our city.
The few, scattered protests that have broken out against these buses have sent Marie Antoinette-like shivers through the tech aristocracy. Silicon Valley billionaire investor Tom Perkins became so agitated by this rather mild outburst of democracy that he compared his fellow one-percenters to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust – which only underlined how out of touch with reality many of these bubble billionaires really are.
Of course San Francisco is also lucky enough to have a few sane and generous tech tycoons in our midst – people like Marc Benioff of Salesforce, who has not only bankrolled a new children’s hospital, but has contributed to San Francisco’s public schools, and is now pushing his fellow tech moguls to kick in to a fund for the city’s poor. “We don’t want to be the industry that looks like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ ” he told The San Francisco Chronicle. “We want to be more benevolent.
“We have to keep a light on this idea that if you come to San Francisco, you need to also be committed to giving back. You can’t just take from our city. You can’t just come here from another city, another state, another country, start a company, take advantage of all of our resources – and then leave with all of your money that you created.”
Benioff, whose family has lived in San Francisco since the 1800s, is trying to extend a great tradition of San Francisco philanthropy into the new tech generation. In the past, wealthy individuals like Warren Hellman, the Haas family, the Fisher family – even rock and roll showmen like Bill Graham – have contributed enormously to the museums and parks and clinics and music festivals that make a city worth living in. Now Benioff is reminding selfish rich kids like Zuckerberg that it’s time for his generation to step up and do the same.
But San Francisco can’t simply depend on a few good rich guys like Marc Benioff to make the difference. When a city or a society grows so distorted, so out of balance – as the entire country, but particularly San Francisco – has become, we need the powerful engine of government to intervene. On paper at least, we seem to have the political tools to push through this change. In Sacramento, we have a progressive governor and a legislature with a Democratic super majority. In City Hall, we have a mayor who was once a hard-core housing activist, fighting against greedy developers and landlords on behalf of poor immigrant Chinese families.
And yet for all his politically correct rhetoric, Ed Lee has done little to narrow the obscene wealth gap that is turning San Francisco into a tale of two cities. The former activist now wines and dines the tech elite and has staked his legacy on the glass palace that the Warriors want to erect on the waterfront.
San Francisco needs a different kind of leadership. We need a populist mayor who is deeply dedicated to saving the working and middle-class families that make this city run. We need a leader who will put the power of government fully behind a massive low-income housing construction program, job training programs, and tax policies that transfer wealth back to the people who have helped create it. We need, in other words, a leader who is not afraid of what a young Ed Lee once dared to call “class war.” That Ed Lee understood that class war in America is usually all about the UPPER class screwing the poor. But class war only gets screamed about by the Tom Perkins of the world when those who have been getting reamed for years finally begin to squirm.
Unfortunately, Ed Lee is no longer the crusading firebrand he once was – the man who helped engineer the first successful tenants strike, at a notorious public tenement in Chinatown. So these days San Francisco needs its own Bill de Blasio – the type of mayor who taps into the deep fear and pain of the city’s longtime residents and channels that into an overwhelming victory with a mandate for change. This type of urban revival campaign would bring together small business, labor unions, tenants rights, immigrant and homeless organizations, artists and craftspeople, parents and teachers who care about the future of local public education – in other words, all those who have a deep stake in San Francisco.
If we are to save San Francisco, then we have to make Tom Perkins’ worst fears come true. It’s time to take this city back from the arrogant tech moguls and timid city hall administrators who are killing San Francisco values.
My wife and I bought our house in the Bernal Heights neighborhood over 20 years ago. We raised our two sons there – and in fact, at ages 19 and 23, they are still living with us. Our house has become a kind of young artists commune, stuffed with kids who can’t afford to live — or eat — anywhere else. Our sons were educated at San Francisco’s School of the Arts – the excellent public school that turns out waves of talented, young filmmakers, musicians, dancers, artists and writers. My sons are aspiring filmmakers and they have already won awards from the San Francisco International Film Festival for their work.
They are now making a feature film called “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” – it’s based on the true story of their childhood friend Jimmy, a 19-year-old African-American born and raised in San Francisco, who does indeed often feel these days like the last black man in his home town. Jimmy lives with us these days. His family lost their home in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood – a beautiful Victorian built by his late grandfather, who was a minister. His family has been scattered – he’s one of the last ones left in the city. But Jimmy refuses to leave.
This is what Jimmy says in the film. “My grandfather left the Deep South because there was nothing there for him. He built his dream home in San Francisco. Now that it’s gone, they expect me to be gone too. But I’m not going anywhere. There ain’t nothing west of here but water. This is my home.”
Amen to that.
For more information about “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” contact Joseph Talbot: [email protected].
David Talbot is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon, and the author of “Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love.” [email protected].