Notes on Gentrification
Earlier this month the Vara — the building where my wife and I currently live — attracted some protesters, anarcho kids decrying the police presence and influx of new money. I missed out on the action as I was away on honeymoon, but it got me thinking.
I've spent much of my adult life in New York City and San Francisco, both fantastic places to live, but also fantastically expensive. For most of that time I didn't have very much money, and as a result I have years of experience living in "transitional" neighborhoods — places I could afford, and in this act of affording lend my energy to the alchemy of gentrification.
This is something that we're going to be dealing with for the foreseeable future. The situation in San Francisco is extreme, but there's really no viable frontier anywhere; the exurb development model doesn't scale, 100-mile commutes by car are unsustainable, and the lifestyle cliche of wanting walkable, diverse communities isn't going away.
Anyway, for most of the past 15 years I've been an agent of gentrification at one level or another. The first time I lived in the San Francisco, back in 2004, I helped some of those same kind of anarcho kids hang drywall in their then-new collective space just around the corner from the now-new apartment building where I live today. It was a lot of fun. We drank beer and played jump rope afterwards. That was a kind of gentrification too though, turning an empty former USPS depot into a haven for kids against hierarchy. Different waves.
It's obvious why the building I live in lends itself to being a focal point in the complex class-conflict that's engulfed the city. I'm actually kind of surprised it took this long. Although it was constructed in place of derelict light-industrial property, has underground parking, is energy efficient, and includes a number of affordable housing units, the Vara is a perfect visual symbol for the changing neighborhood. Sticks out like a giant manicured thumb.
And to be fair, while I think it represents relatively responsible large-scale development, it's still a large-scale development. The building is a significant driver of the changes that are pushing people out of the Mission.
Even though there's no direct displacement, plopping down over a hundred new apartments means several hundred more people living in the hood who can afford current market rates. A lot of those people are transplants, and some of them even fit the nouveau rich techie stereotype.
Hey; if you squint a little bit, I fit that bill myself.
To put it country simple. Earth has a lot of things other folks might want, like the whole planet. And maybe these folks would like a few changes made. Like more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and room for their way of life.
You seen this happen before right in these United States. Your way of life destroyed the Indians way of life. Created the Indian reservation.
Now my own position is ticklish. I'm with the invaders, no use trying to hide that. And at the same time I disagree with some of the things they're doing.
- William Burroughs "Quick Fix"
My career as a gentrifier began in Greenpoint, the more remote, smelly, Polish cousin to Brooklyn's ultra-hip Williamsburg. Circa 2001 Greenpoint was in the thick of the homesteading period. There were a few restaurants and a handful of warehouses converted to lofts, but for the most part people there were either rooted there in generations, part of the Polish diaspora, or just using it as a place to crash while they worked and played elsewhere.
But people naturally want to love the place they live. The homesteader spirit demands improvement, outreach, integration. In those earlier days of the aughts we did it all.
Notably, we broke down the class barrier at the best of the neighborhood bars — withstanding the withering contempt of the old men to drank there, bonding with the younger ones who ran the joint over their fine selection of heavy metal on the jukebox. We may have been inadvertently aided by the swelling of civic spirit after 9/11, but the ultimate outcome was that we went from being sneered at to being welcomed. That felt good.
Today the friends I have who still live there are priced-in: they can't afford to move. The bar we used to relax in is packed and teeming on a Friday night. The guys who run it are probably doing pretty good financially — their family owns the whole building — but I wonder. The last time I was in there they didn't look happy, hustling beers for an endless stream of hipsters.
Business owners in transitional neighborhoods face a lot of challenges. Some will make it, a few might make out like bandits, but many will be swept away by the same market forces that displace less affluent residents.
The first time I lived in the Mission there was a great cafe downstairs, run by a Korean couple. We were on a first name basis, since I was in there every weekend, often working on this old blog. Great people, great cafe - small business! The backbone of America! But the building got knocked down and they couldn't afford the new rent. I don't know what happened to them.
Even when I lived out in the remote rural reaches of Humboldt County there was gentrification of a sort. The burgeoning grey-market of pot growing was driving rents sky high. I wasn't a part of this myself, but it was an inescapable and controversial topic of conversation around town. I eventually came to understand it as just the latest chapter in a multi-decade story of how a community carved out by lumberjacks and fishermen gradually developed into a haven for hippies.
And of course there were people there before that "carving out" as well. The American mythology of the frontier is powerful, but conveniently ignores the fact that all the lands of Estados Unidos were occupied at their time of "discovery."
Like I said, this is something we're going to be dealing with for the foreseeable future as we figure out Spaceship Earth. We've come some way over the past centuries, but the process of migration and settlement remains fraught. It probably always will be, at least a little, but the tension is amped-up by inequality; something that's running high in the US generally, and San Francisco in particular.
I currently live in the most un-affordable city in the country, a city that seems simultaneously overrun with vagrants and millionaires; the only place you're likely to see Lamborghini parked next to a homeless person encampment. As a tech capital, we often congratulate ourselves on being ahead of the curve, but sometimes SF feels like a glimpse ahead into a very dark future indeed.
If you adjust your frame of reference away from the particular, it's clear that the real live-wire of inequality is global. It is pervasive, existing in nearly every locality, and between many in the form of race-to-the-bottom labor market dynamics. It is also most pronounced in macro perspective. According to OxFam, the 85 richest people in the world have as much as the bottom half of the global population.
This trend can't continue. I strongly doubt that organization from the most oppressed will drive much change: people struggling to live have very little room to maneuver. Likewise, while some enlightened self-interest would be nice I don't really expect the current global elite to divest themselves of their position. The hope, I think, is in the emergence of some kind of global middle-class consciousness, for the bourgeoise to realize they have more to gain by aligning themselves with the common good than by chasing the 1%. That's your classic Alinsky "have a little want more" scenario right there.
And maybe it's happening; in little bits and pieces. London real estate's transition from "expensive property in one of the worlds capital cities" to "reserve currency for the super-elite" is an example. When souped-up globalized gentrification pushes out traditional property owners, there's the potential for re-alignment. Also, too, snapping out of myths of "deserving" rich and poor. These are good things. Glimmers of promise.
I'm far from sanguine, but my outlook always bends towards optimistic. I don't see current trends in wealth distribution continuing, and I hope that the realignment is both gradual and equitable.
Shockingly, I've got more thoughts on this, but they'll have to wait for another post. Maybe this theme will help me write more frequently! Until then, here are a couple links that helped stimulate my thoughts you might enjoy.
- Which side are you on? by David Taylor. I went to a few parties at his house back in '04/'05 as we were both swimming in the techie/activist space. He captures the complexity of the current atmosphere extremely well.
- The Year We Broke Everything by the infamous Mike Montiero. Captures the specific surreality of a city that is trending away from having any middle class at all.