Just under a year ago, Rebecca Solnit, a writer living in San Francisco, wrote a sobering piece in the London Review of Books about the Google Bus, which she viewed as a proxy for the technology industry just down the peninsula in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Cupertino.
“The buses roll up to San Francisco’s bus stops in the morning and evening,” she wrote, “but they are unmarked, or nearly so, and not for the public. They have no signs or have discreet acronyms on the front windshield, and because they also have no rear doors they ingest and disgorge their passengers slowly, while the brightly lit funky orange public buses wait behind them. The luxury coach passengers ride for free and many take out their laptops and begin their work day on board; there is of course Wi-Fi. Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.”
The folks who travel behind those tinted windows, she continues, remind observers of “German tourists – neatly dressed, uncool, a little out of place, blinking in the light as they emerged from their pod”. They are, in fact, Google employees, many of them new to the region – “mostly white or Asian male nerds in their twenties and thirties” – who work in Mountain View but want to live in San Francisco for the same reasons that everyone used to want to live there – its tolerant, rackety, socially mixed atmosphere, varied housing stock, cosmopolitanism, cultural institutions, history etc.
It’s a great piece, worth reading in full. It reminded me of a 2008 essay by John Lanchester in which he wrote prophetically about the pernicious impact that the banking industry was having on London. The moral in both cases is the same: any geographically concentrated industry that suddenly makes lots of youngish people very rich is going to have a major impact on its urban surroundings and much of that impact will be socially divisive.
So, in both cities, property prices have skyrocketed, rents ditto, to the point where most ordinary people have difficulty finding a place to live, at least in anywhere that is remotely central. And as once-poor neighbourhoods are gentrified, their older residents find themselves being patronised by their new, affluent neighbours.
But at least in London, the newcomers affect to regard the old-timers as quaint. In San Francisco, the tech elite is more assertive. Here’s an example: a blog post headlined “10 Things I Hate About You”, by a geek named Peter Shih (motto: “I build things that make me happy”). “Hey San Francisco!” he writes, “if you’re going to have such an embarrassing excuse for a public transit system, at least build some fucking parking lots like Los Angeles. Why the fuck would I want to go anywhere if I have to choose between spending an hour on a bus where homeless people publicly defecate or an equally enraging hour of circling the same four street blocks trying to find parking on a 45-degree hill?”
Here’s another in the same vein, from a startup chief executive named Greg Gopman. “I’ve travelled around the world and I gotta say there is nothing more grotesque than walking down Market Street in San Francisco. Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts, and trash I have no clue. Each time I pass it my love affair with SF dies a little.”
In other cities, apparently, “the lower part of society keep to themselves. They sell small trinkets, beg coyly, stay quiet, and generally stay out of your way. They realise it’s a privilege to be in the civilised part of town and view themselves as guests. And that’s OK.”
As it happens, Gopman got such backlash from his musings that he took down the blog post – though not before media blog Valleywag had cached it. But his attitude explains why there is now a groundswell of resentment in San Francisco against the technobrats whose ability to pay $5,000-plus a month in rent is making the city unaffordable for everyone else. It also explains why someone recently heaved a brick through the tinted windows of a Google bus.
The irony here is that, as John Markoff and others have pointed out, one of the wellsprings of the tech industry was the hippy counterculture of 1960s San Francisco – that untidy, disorganised, anarchic ethos that generated the industry that enables these loudmouthed technobrats to live there now. But then, as someone once observed, if you don’t know history, then you’re like a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Image: Chris Martin