Nostalgia and NIMBYism: Rebecca Solnit’s San Francisco

Feb 18 at 2pm

Editor’s note: this editorial is part of The Bold Italic’s ongoing mission to publish opinions that help move the current tech and culture debate in San Francisco forward. If you have strong opinions on the topic, email your pitch to info@thebolditalic.com.


By Christian Nicholson

As a member of the invasive species that Rebecca Solnit has repeatedly singled out, the tech worker, I feel compelled to respond to her piece in the Feb. 20 edition of the London Review of Books, which purports to describe recent events in San Francisco. 

If the publication were less respected, or the subject less inflammatory, it would hardly be worth debunking. But Solnit’s “Diary” entry is a deeply misleading account, which will leave the world a little more confused about what’s going on here, and very much mistaken as to the motives and actions of the players.

The factual errors and elisions in her polemic are numerous and fundamental, and if sloppy reporting is any indication of sloppy thought, then readers should approach her conclusions with caution. 

Since San Francisco’s troubles are tied to real estate, let’s start there. 

Solnit leans heavily on the fact that San Francisco is the second-densest major metropolis in the U.S. after New York, whose supposed building boom has had no effect on rents. “Meanwhile San Francisco developers are building 48,000 more units of housing in the few cracks and interstices not already filled in.” Her point is that development won’t cure San Francisco’s woes.

I’ll take these one at a time. 

First, neither San Francisco nor New York figure on a list of the world’s 50 most densely populated cities, which is the only true benchmark. Second, New York has added new housing units at a much slower rate per capita than U.S. cities such as Jacksonville, Houston, and Atlanta, and is hardly in the midst of a housing boom. Third, San Francisco developers are only actively building 4,900 new units, an order of magnitude less than Solnit claims. The remainder of her 48,000 units may be approved, but most are unlikely to be developed for many years due to a tangled and sclerotic regulatory process. 

Anyone who has visited San Francisco knows that outside a few neighborhoods lining Market – the Financial District, the Tenderloin and northern SoMa -- the city is about three stories tall. I suppose that is what Solnit is referring to when she writes of “few cracks and interstices not already filled in." Paris, the city I left to come here, is seven stories high almost across the board. Major Asian cities are much taller. San Francisco could double in height without greatly hurting its open space or aesthetic, even while leaving its Painted Ladies untouched.

The scarcity of shelter in San Francisco is artificially imposed, the result of a decades long resistance in many parts of the city to any kind of development. That resistance comes from several quarters. A recent high-rise on the waterfront was voted down by a coalition of local wealth and the political left, which is also leading the fight against evictions at their bus protests. 

That is, San Francisco’s incumbent residents — immigrants 1.0? — would prefer the postcard life of a low, sparsely populated city to the highrises of an Asian megalopolis. Fine. But that means homeowners are forcing the burden of adjustment onto tenants by rechanneling demand to the rental market. You can fight development or you can fight evictions, but you cannot logically fight both. 

Like all American cities, San Francisco is for sale, and its real estate market speaks through price movements. Rents in San Francisco are shouting at us to build more now. That’s the only way we’ll have enough space to go around. 

Rather than deal with the fundamental dynamic of supply and demand, Solnit mounts a fairly predictable attack on tech workers, pushing a narrative that the media has grown to love, in which two groups, so unlike in dignity, enter a fight to the death. 

To read her, one would think that San Francisco’s brave natives face a horde of villainous drones and gold diggers, who have descended on a pristine city to pillage its neighborhoods and hunt its idealists down. This is not the first time she has tarred the industry.

Last month, Solnit called tech a monoculture. I suppose every group looks like a monoculture to outsiders. But if she’d made the morning commute to Embarcadero lately, she’d see a lot of Indian and Chinese and Eastern European faces there. In San Francisco’s startup hostels, you hear half a dozen languages spoken every day. 

Monoculture, in fact, is one of Solnit’s gentler terms. 

In a previous essay in the LRB, she managed to compare tech workers to insects, aliens, Prussian invaders and German tourists in a few paragraphs. The implications are clear. Applied to any other group, these admirable attempts to dehumanize would have invited howls of indignation and immediate, public disgrace.

Let’s be clear: Rebecca Solnit is not from San Francisco. Neither am I. Neither are many of the protesters and tech workers. This is not a battle between the natives and an invasive species; it’s a negotiation between two different invasive species over shelter and tenants’ rights, stasis and change. 

Solnit’s parents moved to the Bay Area in the 1960s when she was a girl. She grew up in Novato. I wonder what side of the immigration debate she would have taken when her parents were seeking entry, or when she herself decided San Francisco would be a nice place to live. I wonder who she would have trusted then to assume the mantle of gatekeeper.

There is a basic thread running through American history: Economic opportunity draws immigrants. We should manage those migrations, but we shouldn’t stop them, because as soon as they end, we’re dead. 

Having sold her apartment in 2012, Solnit now suggests the city socialize housing. In an interview published by Businessweek, she also said we should socialize Google and Facebook. Modest proposals. Anyone hawking that sort of revolution has never seen what socialism produced in the suburbs of Moscow.

Events in San Francisco are symptomatic of the Great Inversion. The city is doomed to prosperity, and there will be many violent side effects and much grieving as it transforms itself from a queer refuge to a bourgeois fortress. Hopefully it can be both. If the protesters play their cards right, they may rally the general population to stop evictions. I hope they succeed. If they do, it will be despite Solnit, not because of her. 

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