Are The Techno Riche Really Ruining San Francisco? Yes, Says Rebecca Solnit

By Brad Wieners
December 31, 2013 6:15 AM EST

The author who has best traced the pre- Hewlett-Packard origins of Silicon Valley (in her biography of the photographer and inventor Eadweard Muybridge), Rebecca Solnit was also among the first to cast the Google bus as a symbol of disparity and discontent in the San Francisco Bay Area. Writing a year ago, she described the big, luxury coaches that ferry employees from San Francisco and Oakland south to Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., as “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.”

Today, Solnit’s cheeky and dyspeptic essay appears prescient. The Google bus, which stands in for all the similar private coach services contracted to Apple, Facebook, Yahoo!, et al., has emerged as a flashpoint, with fairly regular protest blockades. The companies’ “secret bus routes” have been mapped. There’ve been frequent bursts of outrage (and mock outrage) over the “tone-deaf arrogance” of tech workers. There’ve been a number of troubling evictions in a competitive housing market responding to tech wealth. And there’s broader concern that the search engines and social media upon which millions rely have become tools for U.S. government spying, further undermining trust in tech corporations as good citizens.

For Solnit in particular, the recent headlines and tension have been nothing if not déjà vu. In 2000, collaborating with the artist Susan Schwartzenberg, she published a book on the impact of the dot-com boom titled Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism. The city, she wrote, “has been for most of its 150-year existence both a refuge and an anomaly. Soon it will be neither. Gentrification is transforming the city by driving out the poor and working class, including those who have chosen to give their lives to unlucrative pursuits such as art, activism, social experimentation, social service. But gentrification is just the fin above water. Below is the rest of the shark: a new American economy in which most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous and more controlled or controllable.” As 2014 begins, Solnit says, “It’s very dot-com boom redux—except that the dot-com boom reamed the city in some ways, and this wave is kind of scouring out what survived.” We spoke over the phone from her apartment in San Francisco’s Mission district, which she has the good fortune to own. The interview has been edited and condensed, and includes written replies from a follow-up e-mail.

Are the Google buses really that bad, or just annoying? At bottom, they’re carpools that remove scores of vehicles from traffic.
Solnit: It’s not like we hate carpools or public transit or anything like that. Nobody has any issues with the [University of California at San Francisco] shuttles. It’s that they’re very effective and potent symbols.

The buses represent, first of all, accommodating people living in San Francisco even though they don’t work anywhere near here. So it’s really about making San Francisco Silicon Valley’s bedroom community.

Second of all, it’s privatizing public transit. In another era, the captains of industry would have said, “OK, our workers live here, our factory is there; let’s encourage, enforce, and subsidize the improvement of public transit.” Caltrain does run down there. We could have beefed up that system and had a tremendously efficient train system, with trains leaving every 15 minutes or so for the peninsula—and it would be so much more environmental, too. Instead we have these luxury coaches picking people up at public bus stops in such a way that they’re displacing the city buses.

But is it Google’s fault for offering the bus, or those who failed to beef up Caltrain?
It represents our era of privatization—that rather than making a better system for everyone, they’ll just continue to argue for paying no taxes. Mostly, it’s that they really do represent what expensive bottled water does in a town with polluted municipal water, or private schools in a city with underfunded public schools: They’re gated communities on wheels.

I met a guy who lives at 24th and Valencia [Street]. He says the Wi-Fi signal on the buses is so powerful that when the Google bus pulls up in front of his house, it uses all the broadband and his Wi-Fi signal crashes. And that’s like a tiny thing that happens to one guy, but it signifies, “We are so mighty, we are crushing your reality.”

What specifically would you like to see done about the Google bus?
First, they should pay to use public bus stops. Then they should stop using those transit stops in a way that makes public transit less safe, punctual, and convenient (a one-door Google bus takes a long time to load and unload, and a municipal bus can get stuck behind it). Second, those fees should be pumped into upgrading existing transit, including Caltrain.

Did you object to Twitter renting out San Francisco City Hall for its holiday party?
The joke was that they should have paid $5.5 million, because Twitter got this tax break to stay in San Francisco that they blackmailed out of the mayor, and that’s about what it’s saved them so far.

City Hall rents out for many private functions. But it was disturbing because it feels like we’re becoming a company town. And it feels most like a mining town, in that it’s disproportionately young men coming in, and they’re transient. They’re not committed to the place, and they’re displacing a lot of people who are.

Maybe if they hang around awhile, they’ll start to.
But if you work 60 hours a week, you don’t have a lot of time for civic engagement. That’s part of what I object to with Silicon Valley. The people who work there have lots of money, but no time. On the one hand, they’re kind of lords of the earth economically because they’re paid better overall than any other industry. On the other hand, they’re working like field hands or coal miners. It’s like the bus comes to take the miners to the pit every day, and they do work these horrendous hours. Part of why they’re always sweetening the pill with all the gyms and saunas and gourmet food and ping-pong tables is you’re essentially living there. That’s your life. Meanwhile, there’s an old San Francisco of people who didn’t have lots of money, but who had lots of time to devote to activism and social services. People who worked a little on the side to make a living, and then devoted themselves to idealistic jobs. In an economy where everyone has to pay $4,000 a month minimum for housing, that doesn’t exist.

What’s being lost now?
We’re losing bars. Beloved bars are gentrifying. We’re seeing huge numbers of Ellis Act evictions. And through them, we’re losing a significant number of people who contributed to the richness of cultural and political life in the city. And then also people live in tremendous fear: They’re like an endangered species where it has one little fragment of habitat left, which is the rent-controlled apartment, their shared rental, whatever, and they lose that and they’re just out of here.

What’s an Ellis Act eviction?
In San Francisco, tenants are very well-protected from no-fault evictions. You have to screw up badly to get evicted, except for two major loopholes. One is an owner move-in eviction. The other is an Ellis Act eviction where the property owner has to take the property off the market—to go out of the rental business. And that sounds perfectly innocuous, and you can understand why someone might want to get out of the rental business. But it wasn’t made for what it’s being used for now, which is speculation.

A 98-year-old woman was Ellis Acted recently. A lot of elderly people, their whole world is their one-mile radius. Their bus route, the people they know in the neighborhood, the storekeeper who knows them and gives them special help or credit or things like that. You move them five miles away and they might as well be on Mars.

There’s a wonderful building by Golden Gate Park that was home to a lot of great gay cultural contributors, including the producer for the We Were Here AIDS documentary that won so many awards, and a guy who almost became the city’s poet laureate. A landlord bought the building when the elderly landlord died, told them he wasn’t going to do anything about it, and six months later he Ellis Acted it. He broke up a household of friends who’d been together for decades.

Isn’t some of the new wealth likely to fund the arts and activities you value?
You know, this place could have its own golden age, but I’m not seeing something even vaguely resembling it. The nouveaux technology riche may be like the Medicis in terms of politics, but they’re not like the Medicis in terms of culture. There are some foundations, but a lot of it is giving a little money away, or giving money away in odd ways. Like there’s a $3 million prize that some of the Facebook and Google billionaires have put up for medical breakthroughs. They seem to misunderstand how medical research takes place.

Isn’t the entrepreneurial spirit in SF and the Valley—so critical to the startup culture—consistent with the idealism that you fear is being run out of town?
I’m not worried about or very enthusiastic about the entrepreneurial spirit. As an environmentalist, I’m often fighting the entrepreneurial spirit to frack and clear-cut and pollute, and it doesn’t seem like a very fragile spirit that needs to be nurtured like a candle in the wind even when it’s doing good things. I’m worried about poor people and people doing things in culture and activism (including climate activism and human-rights activism) that don’t pay a whole lot; working-class people—firefighters, day-care providers, street cleaners, bus drivers—are the backbone of what keeps this place running and keeps it diverse; the artists and activists have done much to shape its identity and its major contributions from the Sierra Club (founded in downtown San Francisco in 1892) to the postwar poetry explosion to queer liberation. The new tech incursion is mostly white guys with some Asian guys and some women, though few women are in power; it’s mostly libertarian in its ideology, particularly at the upper echelons; it’s anything but idealistic in those upper reaches; and it’s driving out people.

What steps would you like to see taken to mitigate the change you oppose?
On what scale may I imagine change? On a small scale, there are practical steps to, say, overturn the Ellis Act statewide, which has warped into an easy way to evict anyone at all.

But why think small? Google and Facebook, in particular, are now so ubiquitous as to be essentially global commons, the way that the airwaves for radio and television broadcasting are supposed to be FCC-regulated commons, governed for the good of the people. We broke up the big trusts, notably Standard Oil, a century ago, and I think that some of these megacorporations with so much power and so little accountability should either be broken up or become public trusts governed by—I don’t know exactly who or what by, off the top of my head, but not governed by a handful of hubristic young libertarian billionaires with overt amorality. Look at Google’s membership in [the American Legislative Exchange Council] or Mark Zuckerberg’s taking out an ad to push the Keystone XL pipeline not because he believes in it, but because it’s quid pro quo for getting a conservative politician to sponsor immigration laws that make it easier for him to hire cheap engineers from overseas.

It appears that rather than leave, you’re digging in to defend what you love about San Francisco.
Absolutely, which I’m doing as a writer.

There is a sense for me that some of this is a bubble. Apple makes hardware. Almost everyone else makes products supported by advertising. Is that a good model where lots of people start using Adblock software like I do? Will the global recession mean there’s just not that much ad revenue out there?

I have housing, but I want to live here a lot because of the other people around me. And I have other friends who are homeowners, but the majority of people I know are renters, and I keep teasing my friends who are economically vulnerable that maybe they should go to Vallejo or Stockton, which are in economic crisis, and create a great, thriving bohemia there.

I don’t know what will happen, but yeah, I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.

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