In Ed Lee's San Francisco, Utopia and Dystopia Are Neighbors

    From the tall home windows of WIRED’s places of work in San Francisco’s South-of-Market neighborhood I’ve watched nearly a decade of radical change made bodily in concrete and glass. The town’s forest of recent skyscrapers is not less than partly the legacy of Mayor Ed Lee, who died early Tuesday morning after nearly seven years in workplace.

    San Francisco is rolling into the second quarter of the 21st century with the purposeful however cautious stutter-step velocity of a first-generation self-driving automotive—the wealthiest, youngest, smartest folks on earth stay alongside a few of the poorest; utopia and dystopia are barely just a few blocks aside. That’s the town Ed Lee constructed.

    It’s a cliché to say upon a politician’s loss of life that she or he had an advanced legacy, however right here we’re. Lee was a housing advocate who presided over a metropolis in a deepening housing disaster, going through large gentrification, displacement, and homelessness. He was, by most accounts, a quietly competent bureaucrat accountable for a metropolis present process a tech growth, fueled by Silicon Valley’s bizarre pressure of technolibertarian, oligopoly-friendly capitalism (and its handmaiden, #disruption). Not every part unsuitable in San Francisco was his fault and even beneath his management, however hey, he was the mayor when it occurred.

    As at all times, San Francisco is browsing the wavefront of the longer term. Each American metropolis must cope with rising inequality, housing issues, and the focus of wealth in companies that want fewer human staff and endanger unbiased retail. The coverage choices that these cities make, and the way they give thought to their relationship with capital, might be formed by San Francisco’s outcomes.

    It has at all times been a metropolis of booms. When Richard Henry Dana got here to the Bay Space in 1834, having bailed out of Harvard for a few years on a buying and selling ship, he discovered an entire lot of nothing—rolling hills, stunning views, and backbreaking work shifting hides. However as Dana wrote in an afterward to his guide concerning the expertise, Two Years Earlier than the Mast, when he returned in 1859, a metropolis had unfold throughout the hills, the staging level for gold miners headed up the Sacramento River and steamers to the southern a part of the state. Dana himself was a celeb; Two Years Earlier than the Mast had been one of many solely books about California lots of the new Californians had examine their adoptive residence earlier than shifting.

    California has at all times been America’s spatial instantiation of the concept of the longer term if not the precise future itself; the booms the state periodically emits are iterations of the concept that westward equals ahead equals onward. For many of the 19th and 20th centuries San Francisco was a lab for technological advance alongside social experimentation. There’s a cause Star Trek locates Starfleet Academy and the United Federation of Planets headquarters there. It simply matches.

    As a civil rights lawyer after which administration appointee, Lee was already combating for enhancements to public housing in San Francisco when the dotcom growth got here within the mid-1990s. He was a revered bureaucrat with restricted political ambition in 2010 when then-mayor Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor. As The New York Instances reported then, Newsom and the Board of Supervisors thought that they had the juice to nominate a progressive to the job, however former mayor and political macher Willie Brown, and Rose Pak, head of the highly effective Chinatown political machine, rolled over the extra left-leaning attainable replacements for Newsom and as an alternative discovered … Ed Lee.

    Granted, being politically reasonable in San Francisco is like being a communist wherever else. And Lee was typically well-liked. He’d be the primary mayor of Chinese language descent in a metropolis with a big Chinese language-descended inhabitants, and whereas he’d nonetheless be an advocate for inexpensive housing and LGBTQ rights, he’d additionally search for compromise with the town’s real-estate builders.

    Certainly he did. Underneath Lee’s management the town handed the so-called Twitter Tax Break, extra formally the Central Market-Tenderloin Space Payroll Expense Tax Exclusion, which exempted firms from paying payroll taxes on new staff in the event that they signed negotiable community-benefits agreements and moved to the Tenderloin, a multiblock space of squalor and poverty that abuts the glossier Monetary District. Twitter was an early beneficiary, shifting to an outdated furnishings showroom on Market Avenue.

    Additionally throughout his tenure, Google grew to become one among San Francisco’s largest business tenants, with over 720,000 square feet of house. Is that lots? Uber has greater than 1,000,000. And arguably the crowning growth achievement throughout Lee’s time in workplace is the tallest constructing within the metropolis, nonetheless beneath building, named for and largely to be occupied by Salesforce.

    With all that tech cash and with all these tech staff—170,000 jobs—got here sidewalks clogged with Apple earpods and Increase electrical skateboards. The “Google buses” nearly obtained to make use of San Francisco bus stops totally free, till Lee got here round to charging $7.31 per cease. The annual Salesforce convention closes down a lot of the South of Market neighborhood; an increasing conference heart ensures a number of pedestrians are at all times sporting lanyards and badges. Billboards promote software program of indeterminate or indescribable perform.

    Oh, however the area forgot to construct any new homes for these folks.

    San Francisco’s social progressivism masks a deep conservatism. A few of it’s a consequence of the success of these mid-20th-century social experiments, the features from which few San Franciscans, longtime or latest, wish to lose. (After all, the embrace of intercourse and gender range hasn’t prolonged to racial equity; in 1970 San Francisco was 13 p.c African American, and in 2016 it was 6 p.c. Greater than 2,000 African Individuals left the town yearly between 2010 and 2014.)

    Actually, although, the child boomers who purchased low cost homes within the Bay Space within the 1970s and 1980s profit from Proposition 13, a 1978 legislation that permits California residents to pay taxes on the worth of their home once they purchased it, plus negligible will increase, and to move on that profit to heirs. For nearly two generations, some Californians haven’t paid as a lot for the providers supplied by cities and states—like, say, faculties and infrastructure—and have accrued large quantities of worth of their property. But when they transfer, their taxes will skyrocket. So something that they see as jeopardizing the worth of their properties, like denser growth or troublesome parking, is a near-existential risk.

    In consequence, California has a housing disaster, and it’s most acute within the Bay Space. The New York Instances notes that Zillow says the worth of a house in San Francisco when Lee grew to become mayor was $685,000; at present it’s $1.25 million. Median hire is $four,450 a month. Since 2010, San Francisco added 70,000 folks and has constructed simply 14,000 new housing models. (Or possibly it’s 11,000 new models; numbers differ by source.) Since 2011 there have been 16,000 evictions; not less than 7,500 individuals are homeless.

    In some neighborhoods, just like the Mission, gentrification has introduced displacement. All the brand new bike outlets, third-wave espresso outlets, and yoga studios was once one thing else. Additionally, bizarre stuff. The headquarters of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals within the Mission District deployed autonomous security robots to maintain folks in close by homeless encampments from trespassing. The homeowners of recent eating places and bars that hope to cater to the booming tech inhabitants complain that staffing is troublesome as a result of servers and kitchen staff can’t afford to stay wherever close to the place they work. (The opposite downside is that techies don’t eat out that a lot, and their places of work have ultra-luxe cafeterias anyway—typically free.) The Twitter Tax Break introduced Twitter, however the Tenderloin continues to be the Tenderloin.

    As one among my favourite urbanists, Darran Anderson, places it, everybody’s dystopia is somebody’s utopia. San Francisco gleams at night time. A brand new Bay Bridge connects to Oakland. The brand new Transbay bus terminal, with a in all probability fabulous rooftop park, is simply months away from opening. A subway to Chinatown is sort of open, a final legacy of Rose Pak, who died in 2016. It’s a fantastic metropolis wherein to eat and drink. It has bike shares and devoted transit lanes and electrical buses.

    For some folks, San Francisco is higher. Younger techies who had been content material to stay in suburban Silicon Valley in the course of the dotcom bubble wish to stay right here. That’s what introduced the buses, the gentrification of the Mission, and finally Google, Fb, Uber, and others opening places of work in San Francisco skyscrapers as an alternative of suburban workplace parks. Lee wasn’t only a bystander for that change. He was an advocate.

    So what occurs now? Lee’s substitute, not less than till a June election, is London Breed, head of the Board of Supervisors. She’ll be the town’s first African American lady mayor. Ed Lee vetoed a legislation that will have restricted the period of time homeowners can hire out models on Airbnb; Breed was the legislation’s writer. If tax breaks and coddling couldn’t get California’s tech giants to be higher residents, possibly some old style suspicion—or animosity—will. Extra housing would additionally assist.

    Breed is a part of a brand new technology of politicians poised to win in a wave subsequent November. They’re girls, particularly girls of colour, and so they aren’t child boomers like Lee. That is Era X and (dangle on, I’m on the lookout for a “shudder” emoji) millennials. No matter adjustments she brings to San Francisco, her political contemporaries will deliver echoes elsewhere. The businesses whose names are synonymous with not simply the San Francisco growth however the American economic system are taking heavy fireplace for enabling hate speech, for damaging the material of society, for monopolistic enterprise practices, for undermining the press and democracy itself. Now they must take care of extra hassle at residence, too.

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