I warn you in advance that this week’s post is a bit of a manifesto. Like another manifesto that is receiving a lot of attentions these days, mine is bound to be far too long, angsty, angry, and at times incoherent, but with some good points thrown in here and there (for the record, I do not support vigilante justice or murder, but one cannot deny that there are more than just hints of veracity in Dorner’s overall position that the LAPD is a chronically corrupt organization that presents a heinous example of the abuse of governmental power). In any event, consider yourself warned (and please don’t sue me for intentional infliction of emotional distress). Enjoy!
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A couple of weeks ago I read this post and decided to write an improved version of it. I sent my post to Jason Evanish, the author of the first post, and he liked my take on his creation enough that he linked my page to his. Within one week of his doing so, San Francisco Love Affair received nearly 3000 hits (in the first year of the blog, it received roughly 5000). That post received 7 likes and 16 comments (my previous bests were 2 and 3, respectively), and lead to my blog gaining 5 new followers (for a grand total of 12).
I don’t anticipate that I’ll ever reach that level of success again with SFLA, unless I find another opportunity to ride on the coattails of somebody else’s popularity. However, given the off-chance that my popularity continues for another post, I thought I’d take the time to write about something very important to me. I am thus abandoning my original plan for this post, which was going to be a piece entitled “On My Favorite YouTube Videos.” If you’re interested in that, I’ll cut to the chase—this is my all-time favorite clip ever posted to YouTube.
My G-d I love that clip. It works on so many levels. Alas, masturbatory mimicry is not the subject of today’s post, although I’ll use it as a segue. When I meet somebody new in San Francisco, and he tells me he works for a startup, I’m sometimes inclined to smile and say “that’s so interesting” while making a jerking-off gesture. I usually restrain from doing that, because I don’t like to be overtly rude except when it’s absolutely necessary, but occasionally, unbridled rudeness is unavoidable, particularly if I’ve been drinking.
Take the other night, for example. I was out to dinner with my friend, her boyfriend, and their friends (another couple). Being a fifth wheel didn’t bother me, as I had already had a few drinks and was just killing time until I met up with another friend. Somebody at the table (I can’t remember who) started complaining about the rents in SF, so I pulled out my soapbox (which I keep in my backpack at all times) and started ranting about how it’s because of the tech kids who have taken over SF and are ruining it more and more every day. Naturally, both my friend’s bf and the other dude at the table were techies, so the attacks inadvertently got kind of personal. I believe I pointed my finger at them and said “you people”—in a joking way, of course, but I don’t think it was “ha ha” funny.
After much thought and a $20,000 payment to a branding firm, I’ve come up with a name for what has been bothering so much. I call it “The Problem”. And what, you may ask, is The Problem? Allow me to explain. Sometime in the past few years, Silicon Valley finally moved past silicon and software and applications took over. The good news: fewer people are getting cancer from inhaling dust in microchip factories. The bad news: any smart kid who is good at computers can get a high-paying job. This wouldn’t be so bad, except these smart kids who are good at computers find the peninsula to be boring, so they’d rather move to San Francisco. They get paid a lot, and cause rents and the cost of living to escalate to biblical proportions (fact: the price of Jesus’ Nazareth apartment was what turns out to be $2300 for a tiny studio when translated to today’s prices. Fortunately for him, he was Jesus). They drink PBR and act like people in Williamsburg acted 10 years ago, except with less drugs and little, if any, appreciation of irony. They use apps. They talk about apps (again, with little, if any, appreciation of irony). They take pictures of their food. They wear SF Giants caps even though the only sports that they enjoy are Skeeball and Berlin-style ping-pong. They multiply, and next thing you know, everybody in San Francisco either works for a startup or works for Google, but in the end, they work in tech and subscribe to the tech lifestyle.
Why do I call this “The Problem”, with both the “T” and the “P” in caps? There’s one immediate obvious answer: I am bothered that I no longer identify with the demographic that defines the “quintessential San Franciscan.” I use my phone to talk to people (as in, with my voice, not in the form of text messages), and when I want a restaurant recommendation, I ask a human being. When I go running, I just put on shoes and hop out my door—I don’t track where I’m going and post my progress on Facebook for the world to see. I don’t read TechCrunch or Reddit or Mashable or [insert names of other blogs or websites or whatever that SF Tech people constantly read] every day. Or ever. In fact, the only blog that I read regularly is my own (it never gets old). I admit that I get paid on par with what these kids make, but my company has been in the city since 1883, so you can’t tell me that I’m changing the nature of this town. Besides, as an IP lawyer, I work in the world’s second-oldest profession (because it wasn’t long before prostitutes starting suing each other for patent infringement).
SF tech people see the world in a completely different way from me, and I find it very difficult to relate to them. In Evanish’s blog post, he included the line, “Pro Tip: Try a couple new apps every week and if you’re looking to spark conversation, ask someone if they’ve tried any great apps lately.” He said that without any sarcasm or irony; he was dead serious. Honestly, if somebody actually said that to me in real life, it wouldn’t spark conversation, it would spark me punching him in the face. Then again, given my inability to communicate with the myriad cute girls working in tech here, maybe “tried any great apps lately?” would be a good pick-up line. It would probably work better than my current go-to (“Was your daddy a benevolent donkey salesman? Because you’ve got a nice ass”).
But in all seriousness, the fact that the author of this blog can’t make out with the authors of this blog is not reason enough to deem a city-wide phenomenon “The Problem”; there has to be something more. And there is more, you can bet your sweet bippy there is. The problem with the tech wave in San Francisco is that it is chipping away at the spirit of the city. People used to talk about how San Francisco was an incredibly diverse city (minus our glaring lack of black people), but now “diversity” in San Francisco means having dinner with a white product manager, an Indian developer and a female Asian UX designer.
For those of you who don’t live in San Francisco, a “UX designer” is somebody who designs a website or app’s “user experience” (get it?). From what I understand, the UX world is kind of like architecture: predominately female, but many of the top dogs are gay men.
The Problem goes beyond gentrification—the population of San Francisco is not only becoming wealthier, it’s becoming homogenous. As Evanish notes, “working in tech is the norm, not the exception.” This is because, as rents soar up to Uranus (the oft-neglected planet, possibly because its name sounds inappropriate no matter how you pronounce it), the only jobs available in the area that pay a livable salary are in the tech industry. The other day I was having dinner with a friend who works for a tech company, and while bitching about The Problem (as I’m wont to do), she noted that people just have to get used to the fact that San Francisco is a magnet for extremely bright, talented people, and if you can’t hang with that, you’ll have trouble living here. I asked her, “when did you become a Republican?” This is not something to be taken lightly. “Republican” is probably the harshest insult you could ever bestow upon a San Franciscan. My friend would have probably been less offended if I had called her a “[expletive]-guzzling [explitive][explitive]face.” Friend, if you’re reading this now, I apologize.
I don’t think that the “we’re here because we earned it” mentality is rare in the new San Francisco. Don’t get me wrong, these tech kids are smart, and good at computers. I can respect that; I never would have passed my intro-level Java class in college if my CS-major buddy hadn’t done all of my homework assignments for me. But there is a kind of Ayn Randian “only the best survive” attitude about this tech wave that bothers me (see this article on the pitfalls of the virtuous meritocracy for more on this point). First of all, all of the brilliant intellectuals who happen to not be interested in technology (and who can articulate the general sentiment of this blog post much better than I) are getting priced out. Second, other important people in a city’s make-up who are not in high-paying positions, such as police officers, teachers, waiters, secretaries, convenience store workers, laundrymat owners, tailors and cobblers, are going to have to commute from far away. Third, San Francisco’s unfortunate but very prevalent poor community is going to be swept under the rug, away in the wind, or at least to the outer reaches of the East Bay. I know I’ve written about this before, but it sickens me how many of my fellow San Franciscans don’t want to solve the city’s homeless problem and would rather just see it “go away.” When Mitt Romney claimed he didn’t care about the “very poor,” much of San Francisco got its collective panties in a bunch, but the truth is that most San Franciscans I’ve spoken to on the subject feel the same way but articulate their beliefs in a slightly more P.C. manner (if calling all homeless people “dirty crackheads” can be considered P.C.).
In short, San Francisco is becoming a city that is primarily composed of young, rich, computer-minded people. Not everybody sees this as a problem. Mayor Ed Lee loves the thought of his city being full of wealthy tech people and devoid of the poor(er). As more and more of the riff-raff is displaced, the city’s crime rates will go down and tax revenues will go up. If people are forced to leave the city, that just means that they won’t be able to vote against the incumbent mayor, and elections aren’t until 2015 so Lee has plenty of time to clean the town up. After all, “[San Francisco] did not become the greatest city that ever was or ever will be by letting [non-rich] savages through its gates.”
Not everybody sees what is happening to San Francisco as a problem. After all, technology is certainly the driving force of the twenty-first century, and who wouldn’t want to live in the center of the action? Me, I suppose. That’s why I left New York in 2004.
But what is to be done? The tech revolution is here to stay, right? And we certainly can’t lower rents in this town! This may be true; we have lost that battle. But the war for San Francisco’s soul is far from over (at least until Mayor Lee gets re-elected). For those of us who still want to fight the good fight, I’ve developed a small list of things we can do to keep the spirit of San Francisco alive, while living in harmony with the tech-folk. Here it is, the FIVE THINGS WE CAN ALL DO TO KEEP SAN FRANCISCO FROM TOTALLY BEING WASHED TO SEA BY THE UNDERTOW OF THE TECH WAVE:
1. Look up from your technological devices and witness the beautiful city. Last month, for a while there was a website dedicated to showing artsy black and white photos of people walking down the street glued to their iPhones, iPads, and other gadgets. For whatever reason, that site has been taken down, but if you really want to see people walking down the streets ensconced in their personal little worlds, you need look no further than any street in San Francisco…or on the BART or Muni, or in any café or restaurant or even bar. I’m not joking, you go to a bar and everybody is on their phones. What has these people so absorbed, so zombified? Grindr, or maybe some heterosexual equivalent? Are they asking yelp! what they should order? Playing Angry Birds: Where in the World is Carmen San Diego edition? Maybe, but I think most people are just texting, or checking their email for the millionth time, just because it’s become a nervous habit, as if our brains can’t handle ten seconds without technological stimulation. Electronics have destroyed our attention spans, and they’ve also made us incredibly selfish. Why deal with other people in the world when you can live in a world of your own? Plug in your headphones and drown the flotsam and jetsam out.
I won’t say that I’m completely innocent. I remember when I got my first iPod, my senior year of college. This was back when iTunes didn’t exist and you had to use MusicMatch to load music onto your iPod, which was white and clunky and weighed as much as a calculus book. Yeah, I’m that old. I went to Columbia, and a large chunk of my life was spent on the subway, especially senior year, when I no longer gave a hoot about my studies. My first three years in NY, I used to get great pleasure out of riding the subway late at night and striking up conversation with the drunk, high, and crazy folks who found themselves headed uptown in the witching hour. I once met a guy who was convinced that he was the reincarnation of John Lennon, even though he was born ten years before Lennon was killed. Anyhow, I remember the first night I rode the train home late with my iPod. A crazy homeless woman got on the train at Times Square, plopped down right next to me (we were the only two people in the train car), and started jabbering away. I plugged in my iPod and put on some Beatles (speaking of John Lennon). She kept talking to me, and I just stared blankly at the seat across from me and cracked a hint of a smile. I had tuned her out, and was perfectly content in my own little world without her.
10 years later, I hate that shit. San Francisco is full of amazing people doing amazing things, and you miss what makes the city the best place in the world if you’re glued to your iPhone. Hell, just yesterday I saw some woman walk right past this stupendous creation on my street without noticing it.
This is happening in every glorious corner of the city, and it really shouldn’t. So here’s my plea: every once and a while, put your phone away. Take your headphones out. Listen to the sounds of San Francisco. Talk to strangers. See something beautiful and don’t take a picture. It’s okay—I give you permission.
2. Kick it Old School. One thing that has always bothered me about Japan is that nobody has any desire to own anything that is more than a year old. People in Japan get new cars every year (which is nice if you want to buy a used car—I got a great 5-year old car for $1000 when I was there), and new cameras, and rice cookers too. Whenever a new restaurant opens, people line up around the block for 3 months, and then immediately forget about it. Pop stars come and go every fortnight.
This obsession with the new seems to permeate tech culture in America as well. That makes sense—for those in the industry, survival depends on innovation, and what made millions last week is a piece of shit on the discount rack today. People who waited in line for the iPhone 4S waited in line again for the iPhone 5, what, six months later? G-d forbid you own any “ancient” technology that has been on the market for over a year. Every time I walk down Valencia I feel like there are a dozen new bars and restaurants that are packed, but none of them seem all that great. And of course, new apps come out every minute.
Don’t get me wrong, all of this new stuff is fun, I’m sure. But San Francisco is an old city—it’s been around since the mid-1800s—and there are some legendary places worth checking out, which we have to support lest they go the way of the dodo.
So—instead of buying a book for your kindle, go to City Lights and buy a real book, with pages!
Go to the Tadich Grill—it’s been around since 1849! Or the House of Shields, a relative youngster appearing on the scene in 1908.
Go see some shows at the Fillmore, Warfield and Great American Music Hall.
Go see some boobies at the Condor Club—apparently it’s the oldest strip club in town.
Don’t ride the trolleys though. That shit’s for tourists.
There’s also something to be said about doing things the old fashioned way. One of the worst dates I went on in 2012 was with a woman who was the UX designer for some app (I don’t remember what it’s called) that allows a user to hire a person to do pretty much anything (non-sexual) for $25 an hour, including buying groceries, babysitting, and carrying furniture up the stairs (as long as it’s not heavy–they don’t have insurance coverage for any back injuries). Anyhow, the woman told me that most people use it for house cleaning. This means that, if you want your house cleaned, it may get done by somebody who doesn’t know diddly about cleaning houses and is more suited for less skilled labor (like walking your cat). I’ve heard that sometimes they send engineers if no one else is available. The best part: it costs more than a normal housecleaner.
Thus, you pay more and get less. Further, you may get somebody different every time. Trust me, it’s really best to get and stick with one housecleaner. You form a relationship with her, she knows your house and understands your needs. However, true housecleaners are becoming a dying breed due to this and other similar apps. It ends up that people have become so afraid of human-to-human interaction that they’d rather press a few buttons to hire a housecleaner than actually get on the phone and call one. I say that’s bullshit. If anybody in SF needs an amazing housecleaner in SF, I’ll gladly recommend mine, just shoot me an email at email@example.com. For real.
3. Stay Subversive, San Francisco. On October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg performed his poem “Howl” for the first time ever at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street. Jack Kerouac was there, as was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and Neal Cassady. And my grandma. This reading is considered to be the coming-out party of the Beat Generation and established San Francisco as the best place in the world to be an intellectual, brooding, misunderstood and possibly alcoholic poet.
Around the time of reading at the Six Gallery, there was a proposal to build a freeway by the panhandle of Golden Gate Park. Property values in the nearby Haight-Ashbury district plummeted with news of the coming mass of concrete and obnoxiously loud horseless carriages (‘20s, ‘50s…it’s all the same to me), and young, poor, bohemian, drug-using types who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere in the city moved into the neighborhood. The freeway was ultimately defeated, but not before Haight-Ashbury became synonymous with the hippie counter-culture. People flocked to San Francisco from all over America and the world to see Haight-Ashbury. Some came for the music. Some came to experience the freedom. Some came to simply turn on, tune in and drop out.
After the “Summer of Love” in 1967, many middle-class folks living in the nearby neighborhood of the Castro fled to the suburbs to escape from the crazy hippies. Housing prices in the area dropped, and young, poor homosexuals, many of whom had been attracted to San Francisco because of its open attitude, found a new sanctuary. Just as the hippie movement was dying, gay culture was taking off. A young Harvey Milk opened a camera shop in 1973 and, well, you saw the movie, so you know what happened.
Several years later, on the other side of town, the Ramones came from Queens and did a gig in the back room of the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach (back when North Beach was North Beach), officially introducing San Francisco to punk rock. Numerous seminal punk acts emerged, including the Nuns, Mutants, the Offs, and of course, the Dead Kennedys. The SF punks found the New York scene to be too snooty and aloof, and embraced the more politically-charged punk flavor of the Clash.
Flash forward to 2013. The poets of San Francisco have largely been relegated to sporadic readings in Tenderloin basements with flickering fluorescent lights. The flowers of Haight-Ashbury have faded, and the word “hippie” has a negative connotation for most people (“cut your hair,” “take a shower,” etc.). Gay culture is no longer subversive, for better of for worse (probably for better). Punk is dead—just ask Crass. And our city’s newest demographic, the techies, seem to be sorely lacking rebellious spirit. Dressing up like Santa and getting piss-ass drunk on PBR doesn’t count as being edgy, especially if everybody else is doing it. The game goes for dropping molly at an EDM show. G-d that music is crap. As a good friend of mine recently quipped, “when I listen to dubstep, I understand how my grandparents must have felt when they first heard rock n’ roll.”
The problem (at least in my biased, skewed, warped opinion) is that techies are often brainy without being intellectual. They’re former engineering students who never read Marx or Ginsberg or Camus or Sylvia Plath, never listened to the Beatles or Patti Smith or the Talking Heads or Peter Tosh, never watched old Hitchcock or Bogart or Goddard flicks, and have no idea why a street connecting Polk and Van Ness would be called “Alice B. Toklas Place” (FYI: Alice B. Toklas was an S.F. native who became the lover of Gertrude Stein. She also invented pot brownies).
I often make fun of Stanford. Stanford is vey proud of having produced so many of the brilliant techy minds that have made San Francisco what it was, but I find Stanford to be sickeningly wholesome. I have a friend who went to Stanford, and for New Year’s Eve last year (as in 2012-2013), a friend of hers from Stanford who was 26 and rich from techy stuff rented a huge mansion in the Hollywood Hills to have a New Year’s party, to which he invited a whole lotta Stanford folks. There were 2 open bars and a professional photographer, and the invitation said “dress to impress.” When my friend told me about this party the week before it happened, I poked fun at her, joking that it would be the only New Year’s party in the Hollywood Hills where nobody did coke and nobody got laid. On January 1st, she sent me a gchat message confirming that I was correct.
This lack of texture and flavor is the new SF. They even outlawed public nudity! Harvey Milk is rolling in this grave.
I’m ranting (read: bitching) here but I’m not proposing any solutions, as I promised to do above, so let me cut to the chase: I’m not saying that San Franciscans need to do more drugs or be more promiscuous (although honestly, I wouldn’t be opposed to SF restoring its reputation as “that kind of place”). I am saying that all San Franciscans, and human beings in general, should read a little less TechCrunch and a little more poetry. That’s all.
4. Make Socially-Conscious Apps. In December, I read this article, which talks about how the SF/Silicon Valley tech industry needs to stop making apps that only benefit members of the SF/Silicon Valley tech industry (or as I call it, “circle jerking”) and start using their programming skills to create programs that benefit society. This piece really struck a chord with me—we have all of these brilliant minds, surely some of them are after something more than just becoming millionaires, right?
Shortly after reading the article, I had the good fortune of being connected with Code for America, an organization in SF that sets out to do exactly what the author of the article was discussing. Every year, CFA gives fellowships to small teams of young, brilliant programmers to go to cities with substantial lower-income populations (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, Philly, etc.) and work with City Hall to come up with programs that can help improve city conditions and the quality of life for those urban residents who are too-oft forgotten. Many of the resulting programs have to do with collecting data pertaining to lower-income households, or giving the poor equal opportunity to be heard on civic matters.
I had a conversation with a friend the other day regarding one of the Code for America programs called Textizen. The basic concept behind the program is that a city planner can put surveys up all over a neighborhood (e.g., “Should we build a new subway stop here?”), and anybody with a cell phone can text in yes or no. My friend scoffed at the idea. “Come on,” he said, “these people need to enter the 21st century. Nobody texts anymore. With a smartphone, you can just ‘push’ the answers. It’s much more efficient.”
“That’s true,” I replied. “But Textizen is designed so that everybody can use it…even people who can’t afford smartphones.” Sometimes we forget that there are people who can’t afford smartphones. That’s part of The Problem.
As I was writing the first paragraph of this section, I decided to re-read the article, and to send the author a note about Code for America. It ends up that the author actually works at Code for America. She was just doing some creative self-promotion. Ain’t nuttin’ wrong with that, I suppose.
The point is: if you’re good with computers, join Code for America or some similar cause. Please.
5. Let your Supervisor know that you don’t want San Francisco to become “Galt’s Gulch”. “Galt’s Gulch” is the place where the few who are great enough to survive establish their new ultra-elite utopia at the end of Atlas Shrugged. But you already knew that.
The time to fight is now, as is always the case. Your weapon? An email to your local Supervisor. In SF we have 12 District Supervisors, and they run this town. Literally. You can find and email your Supervisor here. What are you waiting for? Write that email!
Oh, wait. I should probably tell you the cause first. For those of you not so into local politics, the most controversial bill before the Board of Supervisors today is one that, if passed, will allow owners of tenancies-in-common (TICs) to convert their units into condominiums by paying a $20,000 fee, instead of entering into the lottery. This means a TIC owner can convert to a condo today, instead of waiting 10-20 years. Why does this make a difference? TICs are covered by rent control, and condos aren’t.
So if the bill passes…yeah. Those of us who want an SF where non-techies can afford to live will lose, period. The Board of Supervisors was supposed to vote on the bill last week, but tabled the vote until February 25th. Apparently Mayor Ed Lee, who would have the tiebreaker vote if the bill went 6 and 6, would be in a tough spot if he had to make the decision, torn between his tenants’ rights past and his “new dream” future.
My Supervisor, London Breed, represents District 5, which includes Hayes Valley, the Haight, the Panhandle, the Western Addition, Inner Sunset and Japantown—all tenant-heavy neighborhoods. She grew up in public housing in the Western Addition (back when the Western Addition was the Western Addition, and one of the shittiest neighborhoods in the city) and now lives in the Lower Haight. One would think that she would definitely not support the bill, given her background and constituency, but who knows? She just got elected and is here to stay for at least four years. If rents go up, a lot of not rich people can be removed from District 5 in four years, and they won’t be able to vote against Breed from Richmond (that’s Richmond, not the Richmond) or Fremont or wherever the hell they end up.
With that in mind, I’m sending Ms. Breed an email. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but here’s what I have so far:
Dear Ms. Breed,
Need I say more?
p.s. Was your daddy a benevolent donkey salesman?
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Yesterday I had a friend visiting from out of town, and he wanted to “do what San Franciscans do,” so naturally, I took him to Dolores Park.
On the sidewalk by the park I saw this man:
I loved the idea so much that I paid him all of the money in my wallet ($9.25) to pen a poem about the new SF tech wave. The resulting poem sums up in 13 lines more than I could say in nearly 10 pages. That’s why I love poems. They can do that.
by Lynn Gentry
The masons footprint left
The whisper in the shadows
As commerce won over the Barbary
The debt left to Haight’s daughters
as the prices drop
The dream is sold
This city is just a name
Now the gold standard is a word
Even the weed is tamed
As gazing in to a monitor
I see myself on maps
And only Google knows the answers
But their wires are tapped
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Alright friends, I think I’ve bitched enough. I don’t know if I’m fighting a losing battle, alienating my readership, or preaching to the choir (which, in this case, is tantamount to preaching to the perverted). All I know is I had to get all of that off my chest. If you made it this far, I cannot thank you enough. Here is your reward: