Monday, 13 October 2014

To Gentrify or Not; Too Gentrified?

A friend who still lives back in the San Francisco Bay Area tipped me off to a recent minor skirmish in the Mission District (one of the informally-defined neighbourhoods) of San Francisco,  It seems a group of workers from the company "DropBox" - one of the manifold "tech" companies who have sprouted up further and further up the peninsula from the traditional Silicon Valley had sought to play a friendly soccer match in one of the neighbourhood parks.  Athletic fields in San Francisco - a very dense (by American standards) city - are a premium item, given that most of the land has long since been paved over, developed, or is too hilly to allow for a soccer field, and hence, the guys reserved the field for an hour one evening with the local city government.

WELL, lo and behold, when it came time for them to take the field, they were confronted with a rather ugly scene, as the field was already occupied by a group of young adults who were not too pleased, and the whole situation was recorded (by whom?) and posted to intenet, as these things tend to be.  The incident is reported at local noisemaker Valleywag on the Gawker web page, replete with the somewhat inciteful (if not insightful) title "Dropbox Dudes Try To Kick Children Off a Soccer Field."  

The URL embedded in the title is a bit more to the point: "Dropbox-doucebags-tried-to-kick-children-off-a-soccer."

In point of fact, the "children" largely look to be young men between the ages of about 17 and 25.  The tone of the rest of the article is similarly pointed.  It's hardly honest to imply a bunch of mean old guys yanked some candy canes away from 8 and 9 year old kids.

Don't get me wrong; I've little use for the so-called millenial techies, and watching the video, it's obvious that the Dropbox guys really handled the situation in an extremely undiplomatic and obnoxious way.  But the story quickly degenerated (it didn't really have far to go with "reporting" of the type on display) into finger pointing, fake social consciousness porn, and self-righteous preening about the community. 

And it raises (again) the issue of gentrification that is apparently roiling San Francisco. I wrote about this very topic a couple of months ago, when it was reported (at another site) that tensions between "long time San Franciscans" (if experience is still accurate, means those who came in the 1970s just after the city surrendered to liberal insanity) and the newcomers of the current tech bubble came to a head. 

At that time, the question of gentrification had focused on buses that Google and others were running between San Francisco and their campuses on the peninsula.  An infamous image showed one of the protesters astride a Yahoo bus, having, apparently, just vomitted on the front windscreen of the bus.

The debate about gentrification in the Bay Area (and elsewhere) is not new.  I lived in San Jose, about an hour south of San Francisco, for several years; my home was in downtown San Jose, partially because it was an area I could afford, and equally because I liked the "look and feel" of the neighbourhood.  My neighbourhood just to the east of downtown San Jose had at one point been an upper-middle class enclave.  At the turn of the century - the 20th century - the former homestead of General Henry Naglee was divided up into hundreds of 6500 square-foot lots on which nice Victorian, Craftsman, Spanish Revival, and other types of homes were built. 

It's a quite attractive area, and convenient to most of the Valley.

During the 1960s, as the freeways went in and development pushed to the suburbs, many of the well-to-do fled San Jose for Saratoga or Los Gatos or Los Altos or other more far-flung places, and the downtown core deteriorated.  It's seen something of a revival over the past 25 years, and that has resulted in the classic tensions that gentrification brings.  Many of the old Victorian mansions south of San Jose State and in Naglee Park to the east had been cut up into low-rent apartments.  These were now being purchased and restored to their original single-family origins.  In my opinion, this was for the better, but that view was not and is not universal.

And so it is with the process of gentrification, and no where is that more vividly on display than in San Francisco.  The Mission district, when I lived in the Bay Area, was a neighbourhood of poor and working-class people, heavily Latino.  It was a place many avoided - in fact, my very first job was at UCSF, and I commuted in on the 280, exiting at San Jose Avenue, and then driving up Dolores Street very near to where the park in the film is located.  I kept my windows rolled up.

That has largely changed, and the area is being overtaken by 'wealthy' millenials, though 'wealthy' is relative.  They are wealthier than the working class to be sure, but not wealthy enough to make it into Noe Valley or above Geary St.

The soccer field incident is a symptom of the larger problems.  The Dropbox guys wanted to use the field, and they availed themselves of the system that the San Francisco Parks and Recs to reserve it.  They could have (should have) behaved better, but the fury directed at them seems misplaced.  If the city of San Francisco puts in place a system to reserve blocs of time in crowded playing fields, and these guys followed that system, it's hard for me to see how they are in the wrong here.

But there is a meta-issue here that is larger as well, and that is the continued silliness of the arguments about just who 'deserves' to live in places of high demand.  The current residents in places like the Mission District (or, the lower east side in Manhattan) loudly complain that they are being pushed out by people with more money.  And this is true.

I'm sympathetic to arguments like that.  

But they tend to ignore the reality that, before the Mission District was heavily Latino, it was filled with working-class Irish and Italians.  THEY were "pushed out" as well.  And the others in the self-described "creative" class of San Francisco, most who arrived between 1965 and 1985, themselves displaced others.  

The world changes; it's hypocritical in my view to say that history starts when I got here, and that I, having replaced someone else, become the arbiter of when a city must stop evolving.  Far too many people in California and in the Bay Area in particular want to trap the area in amber at the moment they arrived.  The argument that the world is a perfect place necessarily means that any change must be bad.

The world is not perfect, folks.  It never was. It never will be.

Reading the Valleywag article and its comments, the word "privilege" is bandied about.  A lot.  In fact, one of the commenters makes the risible complaint that they guy, when asked to show the permit he got from the city does as he is asked and produces it, is "literally waving white privilege in the faces of the minority "kids" (sic).

White privilege is one of the current foot soldiers of politically correct cliches currenly deployed in print and on-line media.  I am not sympathetic - not at all - to the idea that the rule of law is somehow racist, and that those who obey and follow the rules are "privileged."

Further, the naked hypocrisy of those who post comments that the Dropbox guys should "go back where they came from" in defence of Spanish-speaking residents could not be more ironic.  This is exactly the sort of argument that guys like Pat Buchanan make, routinely, about immigrants from Mexico.  

In short, I am sorry, but the idea that a guy who comes from Virginia (one of the targets in the video is singled out because he is wearing a UVA hat) has no right to live in San Francisco because he would displace an immigrant from Mexico is ridiculous.


I agree with the broader idea that the Dropbox guys should be more respectful; not because I think they don't have a right to be in the park, but because I think people as a general rule just should be respectful and courteous to each other.  We all ultimately do have to live together and that means coexistence.  Uncomfortable at times.   An obvious solution would be simply to share the field - have the Dropbox guys play against the neighbourhood "kids."  Whoever wins keeps the field.  That's frankly how it was done when I was young.  It was called "winners" on our local field.

I am a lot less sympathetic to the argument that "you must follow "my" rules because that's the way we do it here," because I strongly suspect that that is precisely the kind of argument used about 30-40 years ago when Latinos started to show up in the Mission District and open businesses in Spanish.  It is no more (or less) "wrong" now than it was then.

And as to the idea that permits and rules are "white privilege," I would just say this.  One presumes that people come from Mexico to California for a reason.  They do not randomly go to sleep in Oaxaca and wake up in San Francisco.  Part of the reason - the largest part - is because in California, there is a general respect for the rules; corruption and physical threats and intimidation are not how disputes are settled, despite the phony bravado shown in the Valleywag article.

The writers would have you believe that there are millions of Mexicans (and others) living in California - in many cases risking death in order to make the dangerous journey to reach - to take advantage of "white privilege."

It's a racial bridge too far.

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