Boom asks "What's the matter with San Francisco?" and offers insightful answers

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“What’s the matter with San Francisco?” asks the Summer 2014 issue of the Boom: A Journal of California, a quarterly magazine produced by the University of California Press, tapping an amazing array of writers to explore the struggle for the soul of San Francisco that has captured such widespread media attention in the last year.

The question on its cover, which all of the articles in this beautifully produced 114-page magazine explore from varying perspectives, is a nod to Thomas Frank’s insightful 2004 book, What’s the matter with Kansas? And the answer in both cases, argue writers Eve Bachrach and Jon Christensen in their cover story article, is the people.

“Specifically, the people who act time and again against their own interests, people who adhere to a narrow political line, whether it’s antipopulist in the nineteenth century or antiprogressive in the twentieth. By focusing on one set of values, this analysis asserts, the people don’t notice what they’re really losing until it’s too late — and San Francisco is no different,” they write.

At this important moment in time, San Francisco is fighting to retain the last significant remnants of the cultural and economic diversity that have made this such a world-class city, with today’s hyper-gentrification building off of previous waves of displacement to change the city in fundamental ways.

Sure, this struggle between capital and community has been part of San Francisco since its founding, a dynamic that animates our civic life and feeds important political movements that trickle out across the country. And local writer/historian Chris Carlsson has a great article documenting those movements, from the Freeway Revolt of the 1960s to the pro-tenant and anti-displacement activism around the last dot.com boom.

“Read one way, this short history demonstrates the relentless power of money in defining who is a San Franciscan and who can stay and who must go. But read another way, this history shows that there is historic precedent for optimism that the worst consequences of today’s creative destruction of the city can be averted if we know and use our history,” Carlsson wrote.  

But in a Q&A interview with author Rebecca Solnit, both celebrates that dynamic and explains why things are different this time: “You can image San Francisco as full of dynamic struggle that’s been pretty evenly matched between the opposing sides since the Gold Rush. There have always been idealists and populists and people who believe in mutual aid in the City of San Francisco. And there have also been ruthless businessmen and greedy people: the ‘come in and get everything and be accountable to nobody and hoard your pile of glittering stuff’ mentality has been here since the city was founded. But it has not been so powerful that it has rubbed out the other side.

“Now, however, it feel like Silicon Valley is turning San Francisco into its bedroom community. There’s so much money and so much power and so little ability to resist that it is pushing out huge numbers of people directly, but it is also re-creating San Francisco as a place that is so damn expensive that nobody but people who make huge amounts of money will be able to live here.”

After building off of previous gains, the capitalists of today, those who refuse to even acknowledge the political landscape and dynamics that have been developed over generations, seem to be moving in for the kill, armed with more powerful weapons of accumulation and displacement than their predecessors had or were willing to deploy.

“So what’s the matter with San Francisco? It’s becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, while Silicon Valley becomes a global power center for information control run by a bunch of crazy libertarian megalomaniacs. And a lot of what’s made San Francisco really generative for the environmental movement and a lot of other movements gets squeezed out. And it feels like the place is being killed in some way,” Solnit said.

Yet the issue pointedly avoids falling into us-vs.-them traps or trite demonization of techies, ultimately seeking to provide a more nuanced look at the city’s current cultural and economic clashes than the various East Coast publications have brought to the task. And the best of it is “The Death of the City? Reports of San Francisco’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Written by Rachel Brahinsky, a former Bay Guardian staff writer who is now a professor at the University of San Francisco, the article echoes other concerns about the threats and challenges facing San Francisco, but she finds a potential “seed of the solution” in the city’s current zeitgeist.

For one thing, she challenges the convenient blaming of “techies” for the problems facing San Francisco, noting that some of the city’s best progressive organizing has been done by those with skills and/or jobs in the technology sector, often by people who despise the corporate managers and investors who run the industry as much as outsiders do.

“The problem isn’t tech, but corporate tech,” she writes.

Brahinsky also urges readers to broaden their lenses to consider San Francisco as part of the broader Bay Area, which now much confront the growing challenges of rising economic inequality and gentrification as a region, using the clashes here as a catalyst to finally pursue what she calls “ethical urbanism.”

“What is to be done? There is no lone policy shift that will salve these corporate tech wounds. There are many good solutions under debate now; with continued pressure they may become law in the same way that rent control moved from impossible to mainstream in 1978,” she writes.

The prescription she then offers includes fostering greater community engagement, developing regional policies that promote “community development without displacement,” not blaming techies for the sins of landlords, finding ways to increase the density of development without displacing or sapping vital public services, using open source tech tools to increase awareness and broaden the progressive movement, and “you need to fight like hell for the kind of city you want.”

Finally, in closing, she writes, “The San Francisco region’s most potent dreams are made of the kinds of struggles that refuse the sweeping change brought by the economistic forces of urbanism. What we witnessed in the winter of 2014 was a reawakening of this side of ‘San Francisco,’ a part of the city as mythic and real as the Gold Rush. The ongoing cacophony of protests, corporate tech-activist happy hours, housing lectures and forums, and the ballast of anti-eviction committees brought together by two months of tenants conventions are all signs of this legacy regathering steam. What happens next?”