How to get from blocking buses to saving communities?

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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.

5 responses to “How to get from blocking buses to saving communities?

  1. When I think about this, I consistently come back to two core ideas. First, nobody has a “right” to remain in a particular neighborhood as the neighborhood changes. Yes, it’s sad to be displaced as a long-time renter. But we all know the risks of renting, and this is one of them. Another way to phrase it is “the only thing that’s constant is change.” Second, a city’s identity is determined by its residents. When all the “cool” people who made San Francisco what it is eventually relocate elsewhere due to housing costs, all that will be left are tech workers and other privileged people of means. I couldn’t imagine a less inspiring place to live. These new residents will undoubtedly pass laws that force the homeless population out of the city, further stripping the city of its former identity and history. You know, people like Greg Gopman. http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2013/12/11/real-tech-worker-says-sf-homeless-grotesque-degenerates-trash

    San Francisco is changing. If you don’t like what’s happening, consider if there’s anything you can do to stop it. If you determine that further change in the same direction is inevitable (as I have), I suggest getting out of SF as quickly as possible. I suggest relocating to a burgeoning community with culture, potential and affordable rents. Maybe you can even afford to buy a home there if you really like it. Then you can watch SF’s character implode from the comfort of your new community as the wealthy posers consume unscrupulously and destroy the planet, all the while thinking they’re liberals simply because they live in SF…and use their Kleen Kanteens…and do yoga…eff ‘em. One day they will wake up and everyone will be gone and SF will be just another boring stuffy place for people with means like the upper east side of Manhattan.

    • It does make me wonder what SF will look like in several years. Solnit hits on what you’re talking about in another piece on the Google bus blowback on resisting monoculture http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/rebecca-solnit-resisting-monoculture/

      As you say, it seems somewhat inevitable that things are going to change to a degree. The protests offer an outlet for anger that has been brewing for a long time, but I haven’t seen many ideas about the bigger question of resisting the changes and maintaining the things longtime residents love about the city. People may have creative solutions on the table that I haven’t yet come across, and I’d love to hear them if they do.

      I live in Oakland, which is where I think a lot of people who want a vibrant, diverse place to live are heading, but as Solnit point out in the piece, the cost of living is high on this side of the bay as well so we could see the same trends playing out over time.

  2. Hey Rebecca, I agree with you. I apologize for the negative energy but I’ve struggled with this and I’m at a loss. I appreciate that a solution where the old and new can coexist peacefully is preferable but I don’t see it on the horizon. As far as I can tell, the bottom line is that money talks. Until that changes, I fear the trend of displacement will continue.

    I lived in SF from 2000-2010 and now live in Oakland. Yes, it’s getting more costly here, too. The lack of sustainability is palatable and it saddens me.

    • No need to apologize–the frustration is understandable. That’s the biggest thing that these protests bring up for me. It’s encouraging that there is more discussion and focus on these issues, but it is hard to see those real solutions on the horizon. I would like to still think there are people out there with creative ideas that I haven’t heard yet. That’s always the hard part about organizing for change on a challenging issue like this.

  3. Pingback: Gentrification is not inevitable | Of Means and Ends

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