Monday, October 28, 2013

Checkmate, SF?

(This article first appeared in the November issue of Tim Holt's North State Review newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, send $10 to The North State Review, P.O. Box, 214, Dunsmuir, CA 96025)

I suppose it was inevitable.

In early September, 2013, 57-year-old Marvin Boykins was evicted. Not from his apartment, because he doesn’t have one. He’s homeless, struggling to get along on the not-always-friendly streets of San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin district. No, he was evicted from the one daily pleasure he had: playing chess.

Officers from the San Francisco Police Department had moved onto the wide, brick-paved sidewalk near the corner of Fifth and Market Streets, near the famous Cable Car roundtable, and quietly shut down a San Francisco tradition that stretched back more than 30 years. They removed the folding tables and chairs, placemat chess boards, chess pieces and timers. The game, evidently, had gone on long enough.

“I’ve been playing since I was seven or eight years old,” said Boykins told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Chess is a true San Francisco tradition.”

“It’s turned into a big public nuisance,” Captain Michael Redmond told the paper. He cited complaints from nearby businesses, and an increase in arrests for sale and possession of drugs. “I think maybe [the chess games are a] disguise for some other things that are going on.”

Other chess players thought differently. Hector Torres, who noted that the street chess games had cured him of his gambling addiction, said, “I think it’s a scapegoat.”

Market Street, along with the city that surrounds it, is changing more rapidly and dramatically than in any other time in its relatively short history, save for the years after the Gold Rush itself. Between 1848 and the end of 1850, for example, the town went from about 1,000 residents to more than 20,000 Argonauts, their enablers and the just plain desperate flooded in. At one point, the city’s population was doubling every few months. 

San Francisco is a cyclical city of boom and bust

San Francisco is a cyclical city of boom and bust. Of that there can be no doubt. The current boom is different in some ways from the Gold Rush, similar in others. The booms of the gold and silver rushes centered on pulling wealth—minerals, water, land rights, capital—from other places within its sphere of influence, by any means necessary, no matter how ethically questionable or destructive to the health of the ecosystem. This wealth was often increased by land speculation in the city and its immediate surroundings.

 Today’s tech boom differs in that the miners are converging on the city not to mine metals, but to mine minds. It’s what the tech-boosters like to call the “knowledge economy.” Pack enough smart, tech-savvy people in one seven-by-seven mile square, the reasoning goes, and they’ll be able to pick one another’s brains to create new products and services that will “transform” the world and its economy—and make themselves extremely rich. The result? Twitter,, Instagram, LinkedIn, Zynga and a host of other online products, services and advertising-fueled entertainments that make people go gaga while lining entre-preneurial pockets. No one can say that it isn’t working.

But, like the gold and silver rushes, this boom despoils as well. But this time, it’s despoiling—or, if you prefer, dramatically transforming—the city. Another favorite buzz-phrase for this, one that was a favorite of failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is “creative destruction.”

This new model—bringing big tech to the inner big city—turns the Silicon Valley paradigm on its head. In that paradigm, companies cloister their employees on “campuses” and provide them with subsidized meals, on-site gyms, volleyball and basketball courts, and a host of other resort-like amenities. Some Silicon Valley companies like Apple and Facebook are sticking with it, building enormous new campuses and even their own housing complexes. Seems nice—at first—but the young hanker for the excitement of the city, its culture and its nightlife. 

San Francisco’s government, spurred on by expansionist Mayor Ed Lee, is actively pursuing—even subsidizing—big tech in the big city. The largest recipient of city largesse so far is Twitter, which moved into its new digs in the old, splendidly Art Deco-style Furniture Mart on the corner of Market and 10th streets—to the tune of $22 million in tax breaks.

Market Street construction and speculation fever is running on a high that hasn’t been seen since the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the city’s core. Last year, at a session of the Golden Gate Breakfast Club, I listened to a presentation by a prominent San Francisco developer. At the height (or, rather, low) of the Great Recession in 2009, he noted, there was but one moribund construction crane left aloft because it was more expensive to take down than it was to leave standing. Three years later, there were some 14 cranes operating feverishly throughout the city, many of them on Market Street.

Today there are even more of those cranes, throwing up massive glass-and-steel condos, apartments, and office buildings like giant erector sets to meet the need for high-tech elbow room. There are so many that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik quipped that the crane should replace the phoenix as San Francisco’s official bird. (I’m no architecture critic, but most of these new buildings look like Legos to me.)

In addition, the mayor plans to re-imagine the beleaguered mid-Market area, roughly between 5th and 7th streets, into a new arts district, one that complements the Yerba Buena Gardens and Center for the Arts a few blocks away. This is not an entirely bad thing, as that area has been blighted for years. Unless, of course, you like to play street chess.

Despite the housing boom, rents have skyrocketed beyond all reason. A 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, was listed at $3,995 a month, reported the local-interest website Haighter Nation. The apartment in question is located in the Lower Haight, long considered a relatively affordable neighbor-hood, at least by San Francisco standards.

Note I said, “listed at.” There’s the rub. Often, East Coast and square-states transplants just coming out of college, and offered high tech jobs starting at six-figure salaries, will offer several hundred dollars more for these apartments, sight unseen, instantly under-cutting other qualified buyers. Out-of-state condo buyers routinely offer tens of thousands of dollars more than the asking price, without ever having set foot through the door.

Ellis Act evictions, too, are on the rise. Between March 1, 2012 and Feb. 28, 2013, reported Mission Local, “the number of eviction notices filed with the San Francisco Rent Board jumped 26 percent compared to the previous year.” Long-time residents of rent-controlled apartments are being forced to move out as owners, realizing the enhanced price potential of their properties in the new boom, are cashing in on condo conversions.

Long-time residents of rent-controlled apartments are being forced to move as owners cash in on the new boom

One North Beach couple, who had paid their rent on time for 30 years, is being given the boot so that the new owners could sell the building’s small flats for a brisk $439,000 a pop, reported the San Francisco Examiner.

All this creative destruction is taking a cultural toll as well. The sudden influx of the new rich—many of whom do not know even the most basic facts about San Francisco’s eccentric history or culture—bring with them new attitudes and, to locals, an unpalatable sense of entitlement. A friend of mine related the following story on his blog that nicely illustrates the new divide:  

“You’re on the bus and watch a 20-something guy reluctantly give up his seat to an elderly woman, and then say loudly to his friends, ‘I don’t know why old people ride Muni. If I were old I’d just take Über.’”

Muni is our subway and streetcar system, which costs $2. Über is a car service that you order from an app on your $500 iPhone or similar device that brings a Lincoln Town Car to wherever you are. It costs about twice as much as a taxi and requires a credit card.

You get the picture.

Long-time residents of a certain age call this sort of loathsome behavior “douchbaggery.”

Long-time residents of a certain age call this sort of loathsome behavior “douchbaggery.” And it, too, is on the rise. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, for example, to walk into a locally owned coffee house, sit down to a cup and read the newspaper (on, you know, paper) without a couple of d-bags at the table next to you loudly banging on about their latest business model in opaque Web jargon, or some budding exec yammering into his cell phone about why the project’s late.

It’s not just San Francisco’s endangered middle class and Bohemia who are put out. Old money, capital “S” Society, has its complaints as well. “They bore the hell out of me,” sniffed society aristo Denise Hale, in a recent Vanity Fair piece. “They’re one-dimensional and can only talk about one thing. I’m used to brilliant men in my life who leave their work, and they have many other interests. These new people eventually will learn how to live. When they learn how to live, I would love to meet them.”
In other words, grow some manners, punks.

And it’s gone, as the techies say, “viral.” The U.K. newspaper, The Independent, recently ran a story with the following headline: “The dawn of the ‘start-up douchebag:’ San Francisco locals disturbed as Google, Facebook, Apple and eBay professionals move in.”

The article features a Google engineer who lives in the Mission and rides to and from the company headquarters in Mountain View, 40 miles south of the city, aboard a private, air-conditioned luxury coach, complete with WiFi.

The same article quotes Tim Redmond, former editor of the weekly newspaper, The San Francisco Bay Guardian. “For more than a century San Francisco has been a mecca for young people who were different in some way, who wanted to start again. Most young people arrived here poor, with enough to rent a place then get a job. We moved here and built a life from what we had and could find,” Redmond told The Independent. That story mirrors my own.

“The people who move in now are the same age,” Redmond continued, “but they’re already stinking rich.”

It’s a conundrum. How does a city retain its distinctive personality and flair and still allow, indeed encourage, change and economic growth? How do you keep those hell-bent on pursuing the almighty dollar from driving out those folks who contribute to the city’s artistic and cultural life, or those who come here to develop their creative aspirations to their fullest? In a constant battle between art for art’s sake and money for money’s sake, money—for God’s sake—always seems to have the upper hand.

I don’t claim to know the answers. What I do know is that the San Francisco of Emperor Norton, of Gellett Burgess and the Lark, Frank Norris, the beats, the hippies, the punk rockers, Enrico Banducci, Armistead Maupin, Herb Caen and even Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is all but gone.

As in the Gold Rush, the money men, mountebanks and charlatans who play real-estate chess with other people’s money and property, remain. As do the homeless.

I don’t mean to paint too grim a picture. With new wealth comes new benefits. Over the last several years, the influx of fresh capital has brought many civic improvements that will last a long, long time: the most beautiful ballpark in America, a revived waterfront accessible to all, new parks and open space where only parking lots and slums stood before, and revitalized neighborhoods, to name a few.

   But I wonder how many of the young and culture-hungry will come to San Francisco and say, as Oscar Wilde said as he stood under the skylight in the studio of painter Jules Tavernier in 1882, “This is where I belong! This is my atmosphere! I didn’t know such a place existed in the whole U.S.”


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