The Homogenization of San Francisco
It hit me while watching that viral video of local stereotypes, “Shit San Franciscans Say,” that there’s currently a great divide between the ideas and values of new and old-school SF. I saw the humor in the parody’s astute observations of modern city life, the vignettes about the Dolores Park brown-bag picnic, the hour long waits for mediocre brunch, and the over-hyped fanaticism for food trucks. However, when one of the caricatures quipped, “Oh ... I don’t go to the Avenues,” a sense of anger and dismay came over me. The neighborhood of my childhood was being mocked as if it wasn’t a critical part of the city. Sure, the video was a passing meme filled with over-the-top satire, but at that moment I saw only the disparity between the memories of the city I desperately cling to and a vision of the modern urban utopia that many accept. Not only was my old neighborhood at odds with their concept of this city, but my concept of a culturally rich and diverse San Francisco didn’t seem to match the reality of what it’s actually becoming: an exclusive urban resort for a generation of affluent new arrivals.
Much has been written about the effects of gentrification, from both economic and the social standpoints. It comes as no surprise that many families and long-time residents have been priced out of the city by a high-demand rental market that lies out of reach for most low to middle-income residents. I’ve lost count as to the number of friends and family who have fled to the distant land of reasonable housing called Oakland, those who can no longer afford to live in the communities they serve as teachers, police, and administrators. However, aside from the loss of social and economic diversity, we’re also experiencing a startling loss of the cultural diversity that has long defined San Francisco.
As a child, I experienced the city as a vibrant mix of communities. From the Avenues east, San Francisco boasted a rich mix of not only artists and free spirits, but also second and third generation families who had built lives for themselves among the distinctive and self-contained neighborhoods.
It wasn’t until the now infamous rise of the dot-com economy in the 1990s and the subsequent job market it spawned that I started noticing neighborhoods losing their unique character. While the influx of new capital was seen by many as a positive economic boon for business and skilled tech workers, for many working-class families and the businesses they frequented, it spelled the beginning of a long road of displacement. Neighborhoods like SOMA and Polk Gulch, which were largely undeveloped and served as refuge for underground music clubs and gay bars, were co-opted by investors hungry to expand their empire and exploit the tech set’s insatiable demand for chic ultra lounges, tapas joints, and wine bars city-wide.
In the Mission, which once served as a refuge for working-class families and those on the fringes of society, a relatively affluent generation of SF transplants began moving in and changing the face of long-standing communities. Under the guise of neighborhood improvements, beautification, or even crime-reduction, neighborhood and merchant associations formed to push for changes in zoning regulations and civic ordinances to support their efforts to cleanse the streets around them of elements they deemed undesirable. Latino-owned auto repair shops, book stores, and funky cafés all fell victim to this economically driven scourge.
Over the course of the last 10 years, the efforts of these groups has had the desired effect of promoting one culturally accepted vision for the neighborhood while ignoring another. Where were the beautification/improvement projects when these communities were predominantly minority-owned?
Take a walk down Valencia Street today and you’ll find yourself waiting in line at a Disneyland of pop-culture opulence. Oblivious of the stark irony, graphic designers and marketing managers frequent $50/seat old-time barbershops and shop at retail boutiques obsessed with the rugged appeal of working-class fashion. Simultaneously, the actual businesses and experiences the proprietors are emulating are unable to compete in the increased rental market. What we’re left with are stage props and costumes in an increasingly detached culture of disingenuous, blue-collar nostalgia.
These opportunistic businesses lean heavily on the ideals and values most would eagerly support: sustainable, locally sourced materials, detailed craftsmanship, and a commitment to quality. However, in the rush to join this lucrative and fast-growing movement, many overlook the greater implications of market-driven conformity on the overall diversity of a community. Rather than cater to neighbors and the existing communities they join, they seem intent on attracting patrons from outside the neighborhood, primarily those with the resources and cravings for their upscale offerings. The result is a negative feedback loop, wherein each successive wave of new business attracts an increasingly homogenous population who in turn demand more experiences suited for their specific cultural palate. And this pattern is occurring rapidly in neighborhoods like my own Western Addition, as well as in Bernal Heights and as far south as the Bayview. Measures are now being discussed in City Hall about how to temper this trend due to the speed and ferocity with which it’s been occurring.
Sadly, the very diversity that attracts people to this city is now being threatened by the people it attracts. What we are now witnessing is the rubber band of white flight snapping, bringing with it the strip-mall formula of familiarity that most people who now call this home fled from. It doesn’t matter if it's Whole Foods, Blue Bottle, or a flock of mobile food trucks, gentrification in 2013 seems to be characterized by a stark cultural homogeneity that is leaving one neighborhood indistinguishable from the next.
Many of the new arrivals I have met are oblivious of the changes the city is undergoing, and it’s completely understandable. They have no historical reference to draw from. To them, the abundance of upscale businesses has always been a part of their San Francisco experience. They see the independently owned, locally run merchants and relish in the stark differences from the corporatized America many hail from. I am in total agreement! Small business is a good thing. However, what newcomers lack is an understanding of the relative exclusivity of these establishments’ offerings.
Take a critical look around your neighborhood and gauge how friendly or hostile a raft of new retail and dining outlets might be to those of differing economic backgrounds. Are there restaurants that offer affordable meals that might be accessible to the seniors of our communities? Is it fair to inadvertently push them to the far reaches of the city? You see, if you let the free market dictate the identity of a community, those with money always come out on top. If we did away with rent control, most people I know wouldn’t be able to afford their current living situation. Furthermore, even if the slurry of new development reaches critical mass and the market can no longer support them all, the damage will already have been done, as traditional working-class mom and pop establishments disappear forever, along with their customer base.
Look … San Francisco is the best place on earth and I understand why people flock here to build communities, start families, or just be themselves. But the magic of what makes this place so special is the juxtaposition of rich and poor, commercial and residential, the unorthodox and the conformist. It’s the proximity of nature just minutes away from an eclectic, urban city center. It’s the Alamo Square mansions two blocks from Section 8 public housing. This diversity of people and ideas is often heralded as the catalyst for our most lauded contributions to the world at large. To lose that diversity would be a travesty that would change not only the way this great city is viewed from a historical context, but the quality of life for us all.
What needs to be understood is that gentrification is not simply an organic and natural evolution of urban communities, but a well-planned and concerted effort by business interests, developers, and the policy planners they fund to increase property value by what amounts to social gerrymandering aimed at making this entire city one big consumer block. My criticism of the changing cultural landscape of San Francisco is not about stifling small business or rejecting its clientele, but rather to build an awareness of the conditions that promote and support their success.
As evidenced in nature, variance is the key to sustaining healthy communities. And as we evolve and grow as a city, I implore everyone who loves San Francisco to consider the lasting value in not only retaining but also attracting a diverse mix of people and perspectives to this place we all call home.
Top illustration by Raven Keller.