In the winter of 1996-1997, I was at a party in San Francisco's Inner Richmond neighborhood, and I ended up talking to Paulina Borsook, a brilliant writer who was getting a lot of heat over the piece she published in Mother Jones, "Cyberselfish," which postulated that the dot-commies who had flooded the area were a bunch of libertarian jerks. This quote stuck with me at the time:
I routinely attend parties peopled by digerati in their 20s and early 30s who, in addition to their desirable arrogance of youth, have a frightening invulnerability (their skills in demand, the likelihood of cashing out high).
Mostly because at the time, I was attending the same parties with the same type of people.
Then the piece segued into how people who were talented and educated couldn't find jobs and were getting pushed out of their home, all because their talents and educations were not in demand. It seemed mad, Borsook argued, to value only one set of skills, and to see people in binary terms -- tech or non.
Borsook's work stuck with me because it was a pleasantly astringent antidote to a lot of what was swirling around my world at the time, and because it presaged Laurel Wellman's long, brilliant run as the chronicler of insulated dot-com idiocy via the SF Weekly.
And then came the turn of the century, things went pop, people started writing pieces about being wrecked by the dot-com bubble, life went on, we got another tech-fueled boom.
With another boom come more pieces on how, once again, San Franciscans are getting pushed out of the city by arriviste techie jerks with money. David Talbot, who once helmed Boom 1.0 flagship publication Salon, wrote a piece last fall asking. "How Much Tech Can One City Take?" The premise:
The unique urban features that have made San Francisco so appealing to a new generation of digital workers—its artistic ferment, its social diversity, its trailblazing progressive consciousness—are deteriorating, driven out of the city by the tech boom itself, and the rising real estate prices that go with it.
And this is echoed in the recent London Review of Books essay by Rebecca Solnit:
All this is changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists. Like so many cities that flourished in the post-industrial era, it has become increasingly unaffordable over the past quarter-century, but still has a host of writers, artists, activists, environmentalists, eccentrics and others who don’t work sixty-hour weeks for corporations– though we may be a relic population.
Some writers say they'll hang on in a city that they love even as it gets harder, per Kirk Hamilton, who writes:
I wish San Francisco could live up to its funky, romantic, Tales of the City image more often. Solnit’s version, the “city that poets can’t afford,” is the one we’ve got at the moment. I’ll likely feel forever stuck between those two San Franciscos: One that might never have existed, and one that does, but of which I’ll never quite be a part.
And some of us leave.
I used to live in San Francisco, because that's what you did when you were in your 20s and working on the World Wide Web in the 1990s. I had the odd only-in-San-Francisco moment, but I had far more always-in-San-Francisco moments, many of them involving the N-Judah or overpriced food around South Park or homeless people voiding their bladders on my shoes or my front stoop.
I could say that the tech boom drove me out -- after all, when my housing situation changed, I didn't want to compete with hundreds of people for a wee studio apartment at $1100/mo rent. But honestly, I reached a point where I thought, There is no reason why my daily life should be this expensive, aggravating and inconvenient. And that thought wouldn't go away.
So I crossed the Bay, and I've been in the 510 for 14 years, ex- a two-year stint in Los Angeles. I love it over here. And all the things I thought were exclusive to San Francisco -- the artistic scene, the social diversity, the activist ethos -- are here, in glorious and accessible abundance.
During the dot-com days, I'd sometimes flee my desk and go sit alone in Levi Plaza until I could stand the prospect of staring at code again. I'd think about how Levi made his money -- not by the Gold Rush, but by being Gold Rush-adjacent.
Maybe that's the real magic in San Francisco -- that the same promise it embodies pushes people out to adjacent opportunities, ones that flourish and grow elsewhere. You can thrive in San Francisco -- but I'd sure love to see the besieged creative class entertain the radical idea that you -- and your new community -- can thrive outside it too.