Tuesday, Nov 2, 1999 09:00 AM PST
Did the Internet really ruin San Francisco?
When a Salon article suggested that the dot-commers had killed everything wacky and wonderful about San Francisco, our mailbox was flooded with reader replies. The debate continues here.
Clearly we’ve touched a nerve. After running Paulina Borsook’s How the Internet
ruined San Francisco on Thursday, and Carol Lloyd’s follow-up
piece on Friday, Salon was flooded with letters to the editor.
More than 60 letters came in over the first day and a half, and
several more came in over the weekend.
The letters fell roughly into three groups. About a third criticized
Borsook for disparaging the improvements gentrification had brought
to San Francisco, chiding her for misplaced nostalgia. Another third
praised her for expressing the sadness and outrage they felt as their
neighborhoods were taken over by SUV-driving commuters. The final
third agreed that the city had changed for the worse, but argued
that it was unfair to blame only the Internet for changes that had
been under way for the last couple of decades.
To show the number and the intensity of the responses, we’ve
published a larger than usual selection below. If you’ve got thoughts
of your own, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org — or better
yet, join the Table Talk
debate on San Francisco’s fate.
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I found this article incredibly ironic. Let’s see, the author of
a forthcoming book on high-tech culture, writing an article about
how the Internet has killed San Francisco, in a San Francisco-based
Internet publication. Paulina and Salon, you have met the enemy and
they is you!
– Eric Murray
I might not make all the same cause-and-effect statements as the author, but
there’s no denying that recent economic changes in the Bay Area are having
enormous, rapid effects on all its less-than-fabulously wealthy residents — and that local press and legislators are almost entirely ignoring this truly ugly,
May I also point out that, in addition to the displacement of
real artists and “interesting” “flakes” the author is concerned about, there
is a huge displacement of public servants from the very neighborhoods and
cities which they have dedicated their lives to improving. I don’t mean “improving”
by putting up another high-priced eatery — these are the people who have worked in
clinics, schools, social justice organizations and the many non- or
low-profit organizations that have created the very unique (and previously remarkably
humane) environment that the new young rich have come here to co-opt. Please don’t
stop discussing this; I know a lot of people whose lives literally depend on it .
– Eli Coppola
My heart goes out to poor, poor Paulina Borsook. The big bad men with money
ruined her Manhattan and now they’re ruining her San Francisco. Too bad the
world does change. Too bad progress marches on. Too bad it ain’t the ’50s
anymore, huh? Why do these particular types of rants always smack of
jealousy of those who have vision and success? I suspect Borsook wishes
nothing more than it could be she sitting in a half-million-dollar condo and
driving an SUV. Sounds like she’s sat on two coasts watching
people zoom by on their way up the economic ladder. There’s a trite little
homily that’s most appropriate: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”
– John Dinkeloo
writing from Wall Street
Even if the Internet ruined San Francisco, it hasn’t ruined
Oakland. If San Francisco rents are too high, if the bars are
too hoity-toity, if the neighbors think your beautiful old car
is an eyesore, just move across the bay. You’ll find all the poor,
the artists, the anarchists and the ethnics. They all moved out
before you did, and they won’t ask the cops to tow your car.
– Steve Mooney
I lived in San Francisco from September 1983 to January 1992, and spent much of those nine years reading about and otherwise studying the city and its environs. I’ve got some bad news for
Borsook: San Francisco is going through yet another “iteration” (to use a
valley idiom) of an old story.
More than 40 years ago, William Saroyan famously said, “San Francisco now
sells what she once gave away for free.” In the mid-1970s, a huge battle was
waged over closure of the International Hotel by the leftist forces that –
if one is to believe the subtext implicit in Borsook’s article — were
at the zenith of their power and influence. Well, they lost; the
International Hotel was torn down and hundreds of low-income housing units
were destroyed. Some of the same people I saw living on the street every
day as a freshman at San Francisco State landed there after having been
evicted from that hotel. They are not there anymore; they are most likely dead.
What is happening now is on the same socioeconomic and cultural continuum
as what Saroyan noticed in the ’50s, the hippies fought against in the
’70s and all those “identity” politicos have been screaming about
since the ’80s. San Francisco is being ruined by forces of greed
masquerading as progress, and there’s not a helluva lot we can do about
this City we love but watch it burn. Unless, of course, the poor decide to
vote in a mayor and supervisors who truly represent them.
– Robert Anderson
A quick note before you’re hit by a backlash of letters from defensive (read:
guilty) yups. The worst part of these San Francisco nouveaux riches is their lack of culture or good
taste. You would think an influx of money would mean more of art, ballet,
culture or civic projects, but there’s nothing of the sort. They’d rather
spend their money supporting another pre-fabricated neo-1940s swing club.
A year and a half ago Skyline Realty evicted me on a technicality (I paid
my rent late — twice in seven years). I tried to fight it, but I spent my
courtroom time reflecting. I was sick of paying $6 for half a sandwich at
Harvest Market, tired of feeling guilty for not wanting a Range Rover. For me, San Francisco
got the spirit choked out of it when Klubstitute went under, when the Sick
and Twisted Players ran out of performance spaces, before the F Market and
the condos with a view of the Market Street Safeway.
I’m one of those renters who left the city (I’ve heard the poor sap who
rented my apartment pays double my rent). In fact, I left the country
to find another safe, close-knit neighborhood with character. I grabbed my
heart and left S.F. with fond memories of a city that will never again be.
– Gentry Lane
I was forced into the Internet industry because I needed to do something creative that would actually support me and my loved ones. I was sick of crack
addicts sneaking into my building in the Lower Haight
and stealing my jeans out of the laundry machine.
I was sick of temping for 10 months at a time at law firms
where people didn’t even greet each other in the hallways, just so
I could live in Bali for two months and spend my time in a place where
dreams and reality were similar states of mind, where the community collaborated
to create beauty.
I wrote part of a play about women travelers that led to my first Web job — writing a “tax fairy tale” for a computer geek whose day job was tax attorney. He handed
me a few Xeroxed sheets of HTML tags and said, “You should learn
this; you’ll make more money.” That was in 1994.
Fast forward to 1999, San Francisco. I spend my time in a place where
dreams and reality are similar states of mind, and the community collaborates
to create beauty. I have a washer-dryer in my garage in Bernal. I spend hours doing things like creating interactive slide shows with photos the AsiaQuest expedition team transmits from the
Silk Road; animating kangaroo characters; brainstorming in boardrooms where dogs run
around and babies coo; collaborating with people with whom I talk and drink and rollerblade and cry
and river-raft and attend concerts and play Scrabble and laugh; working in an office with
puppets, music and masks, ginger plants and Ashanti wooden combs, seashells and
plastic frogs and Legos and origami and balloon animals and a JFK Jr. shrine. We sit
on the floor. The CEO went to Germany after college with $24 and invites us to Wildlife
Conservation Society events. My boss, who almost became an astronaut, takes us out for margaritas
when we ship.
My starving artist friends, some of whom would have had no choice but to
take a permanent job in a bank or a law firm or insurance company, or who would have
moved back home to Iowa City or to somewhere else where they could live cheaply, like
Prague, are now making money in San Francisco expressing themselves:
designing, coding, writing, directing, coming up with ideas, starting businesses,
I am not rich; I haven’t had time to fix the dent in my Ford Ranger pick-up; and the one thing I miss is moving through the jungle with the smell of coffee and jasmine in the air and the birds singing from
the trees. But with leftover creative energy from work, I have been going home and writing a novel, finally.
It’s 75 pages, so far.
– Shara Karasic
When discussing urban gentrification, I always find it ironic when
“progressives” such as Paulina Borsook employ the “there goes the old neighborhood” nostalgia trip, which they routinely castigate conservatives for using in other situations. It is
predictable, too, that such arguments so often rely solely on anecdotes and
hyperbole for proof.
I suggest that Borsook move to my hometown, Philadelphia. There’s not much
of that pesky economic vitality she seems to loathe in San Francisco. And I’m sure she’ll
be happy to know that the gritty realities of city life that she pines for are driving
the yuppies (as well as working- and middle-class people) to abandon their
townhouses in droves. Interestingly, the lefties here wag their fingers at them for leaving the city. Go figure.
– John Griffiths
I‘ve lived in San Francisco now for 18 years. For 10 of those years I’ve worked for a high-tech company in Cupertino, commuting in a vanpool down the now Lexus-/Mercedes-clogged 280 corridor. Don’t suggest carpooling to these people; they all need “their
space” and of course time on their cell phones.
Now in the coffee shops (increasingly Starbucks, not locally owned) the talk
is of IPOs, options, SUVs and “bargain” $500,000 homes. Books, art and
alternative scenes are not part of their reality. And these new people are
very disengaged from city life: They’re very white, usually with an
MBA, and definitely wanting an urbanized version of Palo Alto. Their idea of
diversity is having expensive tequila shots South of Market.
They honk and rush through red lights with disdain for the strange, the
edgy, the very things that made San Francisco what it was. I believe they
will be very happy when the convergence of Carmel and Hong Kong is here.
Then they won’t have to move out of the city to Marin when their kids need
to go to school. The city will then be just like Marin!
– Tony Hinojosa
I agree it’s a shame that so many of San Francisco’s unique qualities are
being diluted. However, I also think the characteristics of a city are
tough to machinate. You can’t keep the fairy-tale, bohemian San Francisco
forever because the world is in ineluctable flux. So what can we do? We
can’t command people to care and be engaged. I think the best thing we can
do is to make sure San Francisco’s population remains diverse and
representative by increasing the availability of affordable housing. Let’s
make sure a wide spectrum of people can afford San Francisco living; that
in turn will lead to the continued evolution of the political, artistic and
cultural diversity we cherish about San Francisco.
– Alex Leung
Paulina Borsook’s take on San Francisco’s demise as being caused by the
Internet just doesn’t ring true to me. I’ve lived in the ‘burbs here in the
Bay Area for most of my 48 years. The high rents, parking and traffic
problems have always been problems in the city ever since I became old
enough to drive. People have been flocking to California for a very long
time for our temperate weather, closeness to the beaches and mountains
and often-quoted “laid back” attitude. There are
high paying jobs here, a pleasant climate and a ton of other good things
happening here. Let’s not blame the Internet for everything.
– Rich McIntosh
The article by Paulina Borsook is priceless. It’s particularly funny when
you consider that every group that moves to San Francisco thinks that the
next group is spoiling things. I’m sure if you take the time to dig in the
archive you’ll find articles that despair at the hippie invasion and the
great post-Stonewall coming out that swept the city. Somehow it’s become
fashionable to be poverty-conscious and to decry anybody else who makes
money; perhaps it’s an overreaction to the Reagan years. But then what do you expect
from a city that has taxed many of its major employers out of town? Just one
request: Call us anything you like, but please don’t accuse us of being
– John Pettitt
My first husband and I lived in Berkeley while he went to law school there.
We moved down to L.A. in 1965, a few weeks before the first free-speech riots.
I was an artist and a reviewer for Artforum back in its salad days. All my
friends were artists.
Except for a few who had inherited money or homes in San Francisco, the
artists I knew in the city were all struggling desperately. The public
schools in San Francisco have been a horror for the 35 years I lived on the
West Coast, making San Francisco a very difficult place for middle-class
families to live. One artist family I knew (he was a sculptor) had to pull
their white children out of the public schools in spite of their liberal
orientation because their small children were coming home bloodied and beaten
up. (I think they eventually moved out of the city because of the schooling
problem and the difficulty finding good studio space.)
Public transportation is another nightmare. Without a car you can’t get
anywhere useful in the city — and never could. The horribly expensive and
socially destructive BART runs from one minority slum to another. I took it a
couple of years ago, looked at all the stops, noticed the deserted and
dangerous-looking stop in Oakland where I was boarding, observed that the
damn thing wasn’t all that cheap and vowed to never take it again. Back in
the old days, I and everyone I knew, no matter how poor, drove everywhere
(of course, gas was 30 cents a gallon then, too).
Finally, San Francisco has never had cheap rents, or even reasonable rents.
When my husband and I were paying $85 a month in Berkeley, the artists I knew
were struggling to find places under $200 a month in the city. One of the
reasons we moved to L.A. was because housing was so much more affordable.
San Francisco is — and always has been, for those willing to look — a city with a
smiley-face pasted over its dirty and rot-encrusted body. All its wonderful
Italian pastries, its pseudo-liberalism and its formerly excellent opera
cannot make up for its historical and persistent failure to care for and
about any but the richest and whitest of its citizens. Why shouldn’t it be a
happy home for the dot-com masters of the universe?
– Joanna Koss
Returning to San Francisco in summer of last year,
after being away three and a half years working as a
journalist in the Pacific Northwest and the Caribbean,
the changes in the city at first shocked me. But my
surprise was soon replaced with the kind of
gut-gnawing epiphany of fear that Europeans must have
felt as Mongol hordes approached their cities
– no hope, no succor, just carnage.
Finding an apartment was damn near impossible and I
became fed up being trapped in the crossfire of rental
bidding wars at apartment showings. And finding a
roommate situation was even more Republican,
commercial and mercenary — no one was curious to know
whether I was a student, activist, did a bunch of
volunteer work or even about my worldly experiences,
like the “old days.”
They wanted the cold, hard financial facts of my
credit report before anything else. After all, they
had to get the right roommate to pay $800 a month –
for an 8-by-10-foot room — to help them pay off their
mortgage in a neighborhood a few years ago they
would’ve been terrified to have walked through in
The artists, activists, creative and wacky sorts,
blue-collar types, musicians, students and freaks
are fading from the cityscape, replaced by “Brave New World” clones from elsewhere.
The Mission and the Haight are now neighborhoods of SUVs, $200 shoe stores and wannabes trying to be “hip.” Bar conversations devolve into stock-option
comparisons and how soon “broadband” will be in their
house. My alma mater, San Francisco State University,
formerly a place where freaks could find a place, now
looks spliced together from various WB and Fox network
Freaks are like the triangles in those intelligence
tests they give monkeys — we got a place, but the
monkey as society can’t quite figure out what to do
with us. In San Francisco, the triangles had plenty of
slots to fit into. Now, who knows? All the people that move here now are
doing it because of what all the people who can’t
afford to live here anymore created.
I wish I could cry for a manning of the ramparts,
freaks of all sorts aligned in a common effort to
repel the invaders. But the Mongols are here and
they’ve traded in their ponies from the Asian steppes
for Ford Explorers.
– Carl Holcombe
I think the problem is really caused by something that has never occurred before in
this area: It’s just full. True the new arrivals are mainly due to
Internet mania, but if we weren’t near the saturation point it wouldn’t
matter so much.
And it’s not just the Bay Area that has this problem. I now live near
Monterey and housing costs have gone through the roof, not just because of
new wealth, but new people. We have very limited resources here in
California — not just land, but water and energy needs too. And adding
more people to the mix means that housing will be scarcer and
dearer as a result.
– Tom Galczynski
Carol Lloyd’s article gave me some new insights into the changes happening
in the Mission, and provided good examples of the complexity of the
situation. However, I found she confused racism with class hatred.
They are often intertwined. Racists often hide behind the more socially
acceptable class hatred and individuals subjected to the ravages of
gentrification often see the color differences between the rich and poor
as a defining factor. Paulina Borsook’s article showed a better
understanding of the mentality that easily justifies stomping all over
other people with the quote describing the incoming yuppies as having a
“voracious sense of entitlement.” Such is the defining quality of that
class — far more than the skin color of its members.
Lloyd describes “downward mobility as a lifestyle choice.” Words that could only come from someone who always occupied the middle class, even when she herself made poverty a lifestyle
choice. Real poor people call that behavior “slumming” and it’s never a
pretty sight. Lloyd describes the contempt she had for her own class and
attempts to disassociate herself from it when she first arrived in San
Francisco. But like most everyone else who engages in some form of slumming
she dropped it when it no longer gave her the satisfaction it used to.
She blithely assumes that anyone else can do the same. Perhaps because
she spent most of her “impoverished” time with others of the same class?
Beware of the do-gooder anarcho-liberal-lefty: The speed with which they
can change will forever astonish me.
But a society needs all of its members (yes, even the techno-weenies). As a
city increases its percentage of wealthy people, an adverse phenomenon
occurs. People who normally do not get much pay have to receive bigger
paychecks just to live in or even near the city. But people in the other
classes cannot get their minds around the idea of a bus driver or
janitor making the kind of money one needs in order to make the new,
higher rent. Recall the public outrage during the BART strike over news
reports that some BART operators made as much as $40,000. For the dot.com
bunch that’s chump change — but how dare a mere prole even dream of making
that much money? I’m all in favor of talented people making a good living
and those who do more receiving more — it’s only fair and works out well for
everyone in the long run. But must we leave hard-working (but less
educated or talented) people behind?
Again the Borsook article showed a
better understanding of the overall situation: For whom does the economy
boom? It booms for a select class of people and a relatively small
number of others who have the skills and opportunities necessary to join
that class. To Carol Lloyd (judging by her article), no one else exists.
– Steven Dunlap
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