United States / Gentrification

Mourning the Soul-Sucking of San Francisco

“Get to San Francisco,” Jack Kerouac wrote. “Get to San Francisco in defiance of your geography, your ancestry and the lonely change rattling sad excuses in your pocket.” For him, and for the generations after him, San Francisco was something mythic and untouched. A bohemian haven by the Pacific for artists and creators, a place where people were passionate about what happened in the world and took to the streets to show it, a place where different cultures from all over the world could belong and effectively create a culture that was uniquely San Franciscan.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find that wild, exhilarating city. Spend an hour on the legendary Haight-Ashbury street and you will see fewer hippies and far more techies, dressed in their nondescript t-shirts and jeans, sipping a pressed juice from the corner store, one hand perpetually clutching the latest iPhone. Today, San Francisco is rarely ever the center of any political movements, and its sky-high prices mean that tech workers are replacing the artists in droves. As we watch silently, one of the most important cultural centers in America is being invaded and taken over by big tech businesses.

Once known for its progressive roots and vibrant counterculture, San Francisco has become something else—a city gated by high prices to keep the rich in, and everyone else out. A city sterilized and cleared of any culture and activism, and instead littered with spin classes, juice bars, and artisanal coffee shops (replacing galleries and local shops that have been priced out) to appeal to the city’s new denizens. This new San Francisco is increasingly white, increasingly male, and increasingly indifferent. Neighborhoods like the Mission, once a vibrant Mexican and Central American pocket of San Francisco, or the Castro district, once the epicenter of gay America, are slowly becoming a monolithic arm of whitewashed, insouciant tech culture. The vibrant murals of the Mission District, that brazenly declare things like “Tax the Rich” or “Capitalism is Over” are starting to look like ironic, ancient relics.

Before mayor Ed Lee instituted a series of tax breaks in 2011 to attract tech companies to settle in the city, San Francisco was still reminiscent of its latter 20th century self. San Francisco was the city that fostered the artistic talents of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, the city that energized and electrified them, gave them cheap places to sleep and grew inextricably tied to their words. In the late 1960s, the city saw its flourishing counterculture turn political as hippies reveling in the Summer of Love grew increasingly suspicious of their government’s actions in Vietnam. By the 1970s, San Francisco was the center of the movement for gay rights and the center of the opposition to nuclear proliferation. When AIDs struck in the 80s, San Francisco, home to a vibrant gay community, stood at the forefront of the call for the American government to address the epidemic. In the 90s, the city erupted in anger over the death of Rodney King. Through all of its post-war history, San Francisco took a moral, progressive stand and its artists, fueled by this energy, created a culture emblematic of this.

San Francisco today is no longer America’s moral beating heart. Instead it is its capitalist centerpiece, emblematic of the worst of this economic system. The city serves as proof that when we allow the free market to decide, large swaths of people and culture become superfluous. As Newsweek reports, “In 2013…there were more eviction notices served on units than there were new ones built” in the city. And in 2015, the San Francisco Arts Commission reported that of 600 surveyed local artists, seventy percent had been displaced due to rising prices. This is what happens when government officials find themselves in the tight grip of big tech businesses who wear progressive masks but do little to back them up. The city loses its vibrant, cultured neighborhoods, and a new generation of San Franciscans is left to learn a new set of values: that it is a better use of one’s time to build an app than to pursue an art or take to the streets, because tech is where the money is.

When Jack Kerouac wrote of San Francisco, he called her “a fabulous white city…on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond.” Kerouac and his generation saw San Francisco as 47.9 square miles of promise by the ocean, a liberal bastion that made so many of America’s most important postwar movements possible. Slowly but surely, that San Francisco is disappearing like the fog that shrouds her.