Jordan's Blog - Two tales of the city

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Two tales of the city

Jordan 2018-05-10
#culture

I.

Long ago, before Google and Facebook, before block-chain and the iPhone, before 5000% GDP growth and VC funding, long ago there was a town called San Francisco, named after Saint Francis of Assisi, an Italian preacher and animal lover (who apparently was also known for preaching to animals from time to time).

Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, and ecology, and peace. And the city had always done its best to live up to that namesake. Artists flocked to the city to be part of the beat generation and the Summer of Love, and counterculture movements which focused on earthiness and liberalism were born here. Anyone who was weird could find a way of belonging, and a way of giving back, and so the city began to become known for its unconventional practicality.

And then came the techies, in waves, attracted by the nice weather, weird art, and the promise that here their weirdness could lead to success rather than ostracism. But as workers from lucrative industries flooded in to the area with money to spend, the price of housing went up, leading to large numbers of people losing their homes, overcrowding, and the gentrification of poor areas. The environmentalist culture was slowly displaced by one of industry and consumerism. Tech companies are like self-propagating viruses, attracting engineers from all over the country, churning them into higher profits, and using those profits to attract more engineers, all at the expense of the original city. Artists and musicians could no longer afford to live in the city they had created, and moved to cheaper areas like Oakland. Tech had chosen San Francisco as its home, but ended up swallowing everything that made it special.

Today, in the wake of the social media boom (the second wave of techies), new grads with top-quartile incomes move to San Francisco, if only because it’s where the companies are hiring. The city itself is mostly devoid of art, largely gentrified, and has more homeless people than ever before. It is a bastion of capitalism; a real life example for the economics books, where the business of making money out-competed the business of making art.

II.

Long ago, before Microsoft and Elon Musk, before social activism and OWS, before the personal computer and the internet, long ago there was a town called San Francisco, named after Saint Francis of Assisi, an Italian preacher, and the inventor of altruism.

The story of San Francisco started with the Gold Rush, when indigenous peoples were forced off of their land by gold-seekers. The immigrant population burgeoned by 20000% while the native Californian population declined by 90%. The California Indian Wars continued for the next 30 years, and the genocide of American Indians was supported by new laws established by the newly created State of California. Tens of billions of dollars worth of gold was unearthed over the span of 6 years. But the most money was made by merchants selling things to prospectors; mostly prospecting equipment, but also Levi’s jeans, retail, and boarding homes, in fact, the large majority of prospectors earned very little money, thus setting the tone of the next 200 years of the city’s story.

Today the city’s overpopulation problem, combined with the eternal promise of striking gold, has led to an extreme homelessness problem, with an estimated count of 7,500 homeless people (and only 4,000 beds in shelters). The landowning class does everything they can to halt the construction of more housing, and are happy to continue raising rents as high as the new gold-seekers are willing to pay. (But what say do the gold-seekers have in the matter; San Francisco is where the gold is!) The other economic classes are not happy about this, least of all the displaced middle class, who have suffered wrongful evictions and lengthened commute traffic, as techies take their private company shuttles to work instead of patronizing and supporting public transportation. But then again, who are they to claim to be the true owners of this city, which once belonged to the native Californians, this city, which has always been the city of gold rushes, displacement, and opportunists?

III.

Let’s get some things straight.

The dot-com boom was the real gold rush. In the 1990s the city became the epicenter of new Internet companies, riding on industry growth caused by the new ubiquity of the personal computer. Those people were 25 in 1995 and today they’re 50. Is that what you pictured? Or maybe you instead find yourself mostly enraged by the 20 somethings waiting in line to get boba, and you’re not quite sure why except that you know techies are the worst.

Why does SF have so many homeless people? According to SF Chronicle In the mid-1980s federal housing programs were cut and mental hospitals were closed, resulting in a huge spike in the homeless population which has continued to this day. You mean the homeless people on the street aren’t just people who were displaced by yuppies?

Tech companies and their founders are surprisingly socially responsible. Google has pledged 1 billion dollars for the next 5 years to charity. Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to donate 99% of his Facebook shares to charity. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has basically eliminated polio. Elon Musk made electric cars cool. These tech billionaires have done more good than almost anyone else will ever do, but it turns out that click bait sites can make more money writing viral articles which antagonize them. Maybe the cool kids who picked on the weirdo nerds were on to something. You don’t think I should be painting a picture of rich tech people as the bullied underdog? You’re suspicious that they’re not because they have all this money and power? Do they pattern match more to super-villains than super heroes? Well that’s what doing good looks like; amassing money or power and then using it on important and good things.