“Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another.”—Plato, c. 380 BC
There’s no doubt that technology has impacted our world dramatically, but perhaps nowhere are the changes more visible than in San Francisco. And I’m not talking about the city’s free Wi-Fi. Specifically, I want to address how the influx of wealth to the city from the tech industry has started to change its soul from counter-culture to computer-culture. Whether this change is viewed as a net benefit or loss is almost beside the point, as there’s little to indicate we can stop it. Market realities are altering this city one way and another, and two recent articles published in New York demonstrate that San Francisco’s housing market is one of the primary factors driving this change.
Kevin Roose called San Francisco “the new American capital of real-estate kvetching,” with “supra-Manhattan rents and gentrification at a pace that would make Bushwick blush.” He’s not exaggerating. The New York Times reported late last year that “San Francisco has the least affordable housing in the nation” and that “[t]he median rent is also the highest in the country[.]” Under circumstances like these, the market reality is that many lower-income individuals eventually find themselves priced out. And when they leave, their historical memory of the city—its traditions, trials, and triumphs—leave with them. The Mission District, which used to be heavily influenced by Latino culture, has morphed into a brave new world. Anyone who’s recently walked from Mission St. to Valencia St. can attest to that. The former dotted with small bodegas and pawn shops, the latter bedecked with “[u]pscale restaurants [that] pop up at regular intervals … [with] everything from the $4 artisanal toast … to the underground supper clubs serving kombucha pairings with sustainable-seafood dinners.” Few people can afford such luxuries, and Valencia no longer exhibits a strong affiliation with any culture outside that of high-end consumerism. The end result is that newly-arrived twenty-somethings, often from out-of-state but with money and a college education, dominate one of the Mission’s most famous streets. The primary method of communication has changed from Spanish to smartphone.
And these relatively wealthy twenty-somethings are not only taking over the streets, they are pushing San Francisco’s housing market to stratospheric levels. Daniel Alarcón’s piece—entitled “The Mission: Creative Destruction in Eleven Parts”—offers a stark example of this phenomenon. Alarcón recounts that “Facebook founder [Mark Zuckerburg, age 29] bought his San Francisco home for $9,999,000. It had last switched hands for less than one-seventh that price” (emphasis mine). Can the average prospective homeowner compete with such increases? Another individual in Alarcón’s article pondered: “Can you be an artist if you have to pay $3,000 a month?” Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no. In fact, it’s not just artists who can’t pay rent. All sorts of other professions have been priced out of San Francisco, as the NYT has reported there’s “not a single home now on the market is within the reach of the average public-school teacher.” “Five years ago,” by contrast, “police officers and teachers could have afforded 36 percent of the homes on the market[.]” With no evidence to suggest these trends will change anytime soon, San Francisco appears set to experience a significant cultural and socioeconomic shift.
Real estate realities will dictate demographic changes. Lower-income individuals who have lived in the city for years will increasingly be unable to afford rent, and the person likely to replace them will be a higher-income individual who has been in the city two weeks. There’s no predicting how these changes will affect the city that was so important to the counter-culture and protest movements of the 1960s-’70s, but the San Francisco as it exists in cultural memory will soon be a relic of a distant past. And indeed, that may already be the case today. “More wealth is concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area,” the NYT reports, “than just about any other place in the nation.” I’m not surprised. The city that once spoke the language of rebellion and revolution now talks of robots and riches. Knowledge of counter-culture activism has been replaced with a concern for M&As and IPOs. San Francisco’s character will be shaped by those who live there, but what happens when those who can afford to live there increasingly view the world from expensive apartments and through Google Glass? We’re about to find out.