The Google bus has become a powerful symbol for people outraged by the tech industry’s encroachment on San Francisco. The sleek buses embody a two-tiered system where wealthy interlopers ride in their tinted buses rather than investing in the public infrastructure that benefits and unites communities. The controversy has hit a nerve as the wider tragedy of this country’s income gap sits in the national consciousness.
As this outrage boils over, it raises interesting questions about how to respond to this seemingly inevitable influx, whom to hold accountable, and how we create or maintain the cities we want to live in.
Rebecca Solnit, an author with deep ties to the city and creative ways of chronicling its intersecting cultures and history, has been writing about the impact of the tech companies’ influence on the people:
A Latino who has been an important cultural figure for forty years is being evicted while his wife undergoes chemotherapy. One of San Francisco’s most distinguished poets, a recent candidate for the city’s poet laureate, is being evicted after 35 years in his apartment and his whole adult life here: whether he will claw his way onto a much humbler perch or be exiled to another town remains to be seen, as does the fate of a city that poets can’t afford. His building, full of renters for most or all of the past century, including a notable documentary filmmaker, will be turned into flats for sale. A few miles away, friends of friends were evicted after twenty years in their home by two Google attorneys, a gay couple who moved into two separate units in order to maximise their owner-move-in rights. Rental prices rose between 10 and 135 per cent over the past year in San Francisco’s various neighbourhoods, though thanks to rent control a lot of San Franciscans were paying far below market rates even before the boom – which makes adjusting to the new market rate even harder. Two much-loved used bookstores are also being evicted by landlords looking for more money; 16 restaurants opened last year in their vicinity. On the waterfront, Larry Ellison, the owner of Oracle and the world’s sixth richest man, has been allowed to take control of three city piers for 75 years in return for fixing them up in time for the 2013 America’s Cup; he will evict dozens of small waterfront businesses as part of the deal.
If activists want to stem the tide, we must know what it is we want and how to get there.
The questions of how has sparked a great deal of heated debate. The series of protests blocking the Google buses has passionate advocates and detractors. It’s clear at least that the actions have increased awareness of the problem and enhanced the sense of urgency around addressing the problem.
The theory of change, or how to get action X leads to result Y, becomes more questionable looking at actions the like the recent one at the home of a Google employee. Natasha Lennard at Salon defends the action, seeing it as a means of chipping away at Google’s squeaky-clean image, and following in the footsteps of animal rights activists who warned investors, “We’re coming for you next.” Other than contributing to the publicity maelstrom, it’s hard to see how this is likely to impact a company with people waiting in line to work there, and risks alienating a public that is sympathetic to the cause.
An even bigger question is what specific change these actions are meant to bring about. San Francisco transportation officials approved a pilot to regulate and charge fees to the private buses, a victory for many activists but one that won’t extinguish the simmering outrage or keep people from being evicted if they can’t afford a $4,000/month rent check.
Google’s not going anywhere. How do massive tech companies coexist with vibrant cities? How do we make sure the people who made our communities what they are can afford to stay there? There are no easy answers, but as I reflect on these questions I look forward to seeing what the smart, thoughtful people engaging on this issue bring forth, and hope we come out with something better on the other side.