By Julia Carrie Wong
An anonymous millionaire known only by the twitter handle @hiddencash has turned San Francisco into a real-life treasure hunt and incited a media frenzy not seen in the city since the first Google bus blockade. But while the tech shuttle protestors have become an icon for the contentious conflict over the tech industry’s role in gentrification and displacement, our new city-wide obsession is supposedly all in good fun.
Starting early morning on Friday, the mystery donor has been on a tour of the city, hiding about 40 envelopes full of cash (usually around $100) in various locations. Each “drop” is followed by a tweet with a photograph, a clue, or both. The envelopes are signed “With Love, @hiddencash,” and include a note requesting the lucky finder to tweet a photograph to the handle to memorialize the occasion.
Up until today, the fun was confined to San Francisco (except for one envelope at the Lake Merritt BART station in Oakland.) But according to the twitter feed, Hidden Cash is going nationwide, starting with a tour of San Jose on Wednesday.
While the man behind the handle has so far remained anonymous (one finder claims to have seen “the guy” hide the envelope in the pool table at Phone Booth but did not respond to a request for more details), he’s provided basic details to the press from the beginning – when he tipped off the Bold Italic to his intentions. The donor told the publication that he made his money in the Bay Area real estate market: “I just made half a million dollars flipping one house.”
The Bold Italic describes the donor as “concerned with the huge wealth inequality in the Bay Area” and his giveaways as “a way to playfully experiment with changing that.” It quotes him: “I’ve made millions of dollars the last few years, more than I ever imagined, and yet many friends of mine, and people who work for me, cannot afford to buy a modest home in the Bay Area. This has caused me quite a bit of reflection. I am determined to give away some of the money I make, and in addition to charity, to do it in fun, creative ways like this.”
In an interview with People Magazine, the donor further revealed that he’s between 35 and 45 years old and is planning to give hundreds of thousands of dollars away.
Hidden Cash’s twitter bio calls this strange, performative philanthropy “an anonymous social experiment for good.” It’s a description I can’t help but deconstruct. Whether he will maintain anonymity is an open question (he’s certainly providing potential doxxers with a lot of access and clues). What question this experiment is posing is entirely unclear (is there any doubt that people will look for money if they’re told where it is?). And whether this is “for good?” The supposed virtue of this exercise does not stand up to scrutiny.
Wherever one might stand on the role tech workers and the tech industry have played in contributing to unaffordable prices in San Francisco’s housing market, I think everyone agrees that real estate speculators are intentionally exacerbating the problem in order to increase their profits. While tech workers might serve as the market for exorbitantly expensive housing, the real estate speculators are the ones doing the dirty work of buying buildings with long-term, rent-controlled residents, evicting the tenants through legal or extra-legal means, and putting the units back on the market at a higher rent or as TICs.
This is called flipping, and as Hidden Cash apparently knows from experience, it’s a lucrative business. (The donor did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Speculators enjoy the profits of flipping. Evicted or displaced tenants experience the cost.
Last September, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project released its first map, showing Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco since 1997. The visualization (focusing on just one of the types of evictions used by real estate flippers) has been crucial in helping us see the damage that such predatory practices have wrought on the city. Each eviction is animated as a black and red circle bursting on the screen before receding into an angry blotch on the map of the city. Watching the accelerating progression of evictions feels like watching video-game gunfire. When we reach the present day, we’re left with the image of a city splattered with wounds.
Yesterday, the mapping collective released a new map, this time a crowd-sourced platform for the collection of “Narratives of Displacement and Loss.” The map adds a new dimension to previous data visualizations by providing space at each location for personal stories. Each exploding red dot comes into focus as an individual or a family. Video and audio recordings of interviews with San Francisco residents are linked to the places they used to call home.
The map has already been populated with 19 stories, but the platform is open for anyone to contribute. Erin McElroy, a leader of the project, told me that the map will hopefully become a site for people to record “changes that people are noticing in neighborhoods and anything that anyone wants to memorialize around gentrification and displacement.”
After listening to some of the interviews on the new narrative map, I decided to make a map of my own – of Hidden Cash’s envelope locations.
Compared with the magnitude of the Ellis Act map or the intimacy of the Narrative map, the Hidden Cash map is laughably minor. As much as they might make an individual’s day, scattering a few dozen envelopes containing a hundred bucks each won’t expiate the sin of extracting millions of dollars from a community through expert manipulation of the housing market.
I asked McElroy why her group has chosen to use maps as a tool in the fight against eviction. “Maps are tools of a colonial project with violent implications,” she said. “This is a kind of counter-project. If you look at the earliest colonist, either of the Americas or the Global South, maps have been a tool to define, to name, and to own land bodies, and create state. They are a way to justify ownership and colonization of land.”
For McElroy, using maps to fight back against displacement follows in the tradition of reclaiming and repurposing the weapons used by one’s enemies. “The people being colonized or evicted don’t often have a say in how dominance portrays them,” she said. “Part of our project is to counter that and provide tools that speak a very different narrative than what the real estate industry or tech industry might put forward.”
The Hidden Cash map is my first contribution to this project of using visual tools to counter an inaccurate narrative. Call it a portrait of inadequacy.