In San Francisco, Tech Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness – The New Yorker


Two years ago, sometime in the spring, I stepped outside my apartment in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to find the block plastered with gone-missing posters for a small black cat named Sergeant Pepper. The cat belonged to the Red Victorian, an intentional community and “experimental hostel” around the corner. During the Summer of Love, in 1967, the Red Vic had been a flower-child flophouse; in 2017, its tenants subleased the front of the building to a vintage shop called Sunchild’s Parlour, which trafficked in fringed suede and psychedelic synthetics and often flung open its doors to attract tourists. Maybe it was through those doors that Sergeant Pepper had escaped.

On the posters, the words “HALP,” “LOST,” and “KTHX” had been superimposed over a blurry photo of Sergeant Pepper’s face. It was a brand of humor popularized by Cheezburger, Inc., a startup that operates the Web sites “Know Your Meme” and “I Can Has Cheezburger?” and has, to date, raised forty-two million dollars in venture capital. The flyers flapped against parking signs and building gates; some were taped to a construction crew’s portable toilet, which was padlocked every night against the neighborhood’s growing population of homeless people. The missing posters struck me as emblematic of the new San Francisco. Millennial communitarians, carrying the torch for a neighborhood that had incubated the sixties counterculture, were using the visual currency of the Internet to send up a flare to their neighbors­, many of whom were recently transplanted tech workers paying exorbitant rent for drafty, bay-windowed bedrooms so that they could participate in our generation’s gold rush. I was in the target demographic, having moved from New York, in 2013, to work for a startup.

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I glanced around idly for the cat. I remembered that the former C.E.O. of Cheezburger, Inc., Ben Huh, had recently been tapped to run a research initiative called New Cities, funded by the startup incubator Y Combinator and charged with imagining how to build an optimized, tech-centric metropolis from scratch. I asked myself who would choose to live in a city engineered by a startup incubator. I wondered why successful technocrats were fantasizing about “seasteading” communities and special economic zones. Was it San Francisco’s sclerotic, democratic bureaucracy? Its progressivism, small-scale community orientation, and dedication to processes that were often inefficient? At the time, I considered this collision of cultural references and affiliations uniquely San Franciscan. I still found it charming.

Market Street is downtown San Francisco’s main thoroughfare. Last week, rideshare drivers gathered on the sidewalk there, outside of Uber’s headquarters, as part of a daylong global strike against Uber and Lyft. The interior of the Uber office looks like the company’s app—gleaming black elevator banks, hot-white light arrangements that evoke Dan Flavin—but the building itself is pure nineteen-seventies Brutalism: a beige concrete tower reminiscent of an air purifier. Originally, it housed a data center for Bank of America. Now it also holds offices for Square, the financial-services firm, and The We Company, which owns WeWork. On the day of the strike, the front entrance was roped off and guarded by private security, while employees slipped in and out of a temporary side exit.

The demonstration drew about two hundred and fifty people. It was lively and passionate. There was a significant turnout by the media, and protesters seemed energized by the attention. There was also a sense of solidarity, defiance, and creative resistance—a feeling that the strike marked a sea change. A group carried signs in Chinese: one read “Uber exploits drivers,” employing a homonym for Uber that translates, loosely, to “the thing that removes skin.” Others held signs addressing Uber’s C.E.O., Dara Khosrowshahi: “Dara, I can’t pay my rent. How’s your $17 million mansion?”

The protesters marched around the block, obstructing traffic. Marching with them, the Brass Liberation Orchestra—a local group that has been performing at progressive demonstrations since the early aughts—played a rendition of the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams.” The procession passed a cashless food truck selling Filipino-fusion burritos and a matte black, twenty-six-foot mobile trailer run by Studio Dental, which has been dubbed “the Uber of dentistry.” (The company offers a tech-forward experience: inside, patients are greeted by remote support staff who appear via video chat, on tablets; they’re offered noise-cancelling headphones and encouraged to “catch up on Netflix” while their teeth are cleaned.) Behind them, the Salesforce Tower loomed. It opened early last year; it’s the city’s tallest building and looks like a gigantic nose-hair trimmer. “We want our dignity back,” a protester chanted, into a megaphone. People wearing tech-casual outfits glanced out the windows of a Peet’s Coffee with expressions of mild curiosity.

I told one of the band members, a fiftysomething woman named Lauren Swiger, that the protest felt like something from an earlier version of San Francisco. Swiger, who was holding a snare drum and wearing a yarn bolo tie clasped with a red flower, nodded vigorously. A massage therapist and single mother, she began driving for Lyft four and a half years ago, after going through no-fault eviction from a rent-controlled apartment in the Mission. “You’re feeling the energy,” she told me. “That’s ’cause it’s real San Francisco. They can’t cover that up. We’re not going away.” Solidarity, she explained, would be the key to holding tech companies accountable. “We need our passengers as allies. The healing—part of the medicine, the antidote—is this connection that’s happening. And we know how to make it grow.”

I thought of something I had read on Twitter a few days earlier. Andrew Chen, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who, for a time, led growth teams at Uber, had floated a hypothesis about the company, presumably in response to the criticism it received during the run-up to its I.P.O. “The primary way that techy bicoastal millennials interact with the vast underclass of millions of hourly workers is in Uber cars,” he wrote. “Riders talking to drivers. Uber is creating the forum for folks to learn about each other, and what we’re learning disappoints us. In turn, this emotion is redirected at the company, when in fact we all need to get smarter about what’s going on in our economy.” Chen went on to detail the various factors contributing to economic inequality and instability—hourly wages, high turnover, debt, automation. He concluded that, while driving for Uber was preferable to service work, the precariousness of hourly pay was “something that needs to get figured out.”

I looked at the drivers with their protest signs. I wondered why I’d expected to read a nuanced socioeconomic take written by a venture capitalist. I thought about how it often seems as though people in Silicon Valley—capitalists and contract workers; activists and entrepreneurs; technocrats and socialists—are talking past one another. At the beginning of the current tech boom, it seemed that “old” San Francisco—activists, artists, immigrants—might continue to set the terms of the city, as it grudgingly acclimated to, and resisted, the influx of entrepreneurs and tech workers. The enraged, joyous protest outside Uber felt like a revival of that spirit. But in the argument over the tech industry’s role in exacerbating income inequality, its consolidation of capital and power, and its subsequent social and civic responsibilities, the winner almost always turns out to be whoever has the loudest voice—the longest staying power.

The protesters wound their way back up to Market Street. Two Square employees paused on the sidewalk to watch. I asked them if the demonstration had any bearing on their workdays. Both men shrugged. “Not really,” one said. “To us, it’s just a circus.”

Journalists, recently, have been asking what will happen in San Francisco after Silicon Valley’s wave of initial public offerings finally crests. (“When Uber and Airbnb Go Public, San Francisco Will Drown in Millionaires,” ran a recent headline in the Times.) Thus far, the I.P.O.s have been a mixed bag. But the financial impact is more staggered than it might seem at first glance. Some employees have already got their windfalls, via private buyback programs at their companies; others are waiting for their “lockout periods,” during which they can’t sell their shares, to expire. The startup ecosystem seems likely to experience an influx of newly minted entrepreneurs and venture capitalists; already, two former Uber executives have created a fund to back companies founded by fellow ex-employees, perhaps in a bid to create this generation’s “PayPal Mafia”—a tight network of former colleagues who reinvest their time and wealth in each other’s investment portfolios. And all eyes, of course, are on the housing market, where the median home price hovers around $1.4 million.

For most residents, though, the specifics of tech I.P.O.s hardly matter. The money is already here—and has been for years. In the midst of a housing crisis, an injection of cash into the superheated real-estate market seems likely to cause an uptick in evictions and displacement. Earlier this month, a small, Kelly green single-family home in the Mission erupted into flames, displacing eighteen people—all of whom were sharing the three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. In recent years, a spate of residential fires in the Mission, specifically in low-income or rent-controlled buildings, have inspired speculation about whether property owners might be torching their own properties. (The thinking is that, for owners impatient to redevelop, legal evictions are costly and slow.) The San Francisco Fire Department has taken pains to dispel these rumors: in fact, it says, the number of fires in the Mission has decreased. Still, it’s telling that San Francisco has become a city in which many people find the idea of widespread for-profit arson plausible.

Almost everyone I know is down on San Francisco these days, and for good reason. Few can envision a future here. The city is undergoing an accelerated identity transformation. On pastel blocks, developers are gutting elegant Victorians and mid-century homes and painting them staid shades of gray. Traffic congestion is spiking, boosted by rideshare vehicles. Fundamental civic infrastructure is in crisis, despite the city’s new wealth: teachers are leaving, and the 911 dispatch center is understaffed. The emerging city is a tapestry of boutique fitness studios and finicky New American restaurants, of private clubs (including one for dogs) and cryotherapy spas. Fast-casual restaurants cater to the efficiency-oriented; a newly opened salad shop, Mixt, offers a mood-lit, wallpapered “salad lounge.” Upscale cafés proliferate, some of them backed by venture capital: investors have put seventy-five million dollars into Philz, a local third-wave coffee chain.

These are infrastructural changes, and changes to the built environment, but they are also renovations of the ethos or spirit or soul of the city. (“What soul?” a friend joked last week—a writer who has lived here for fifteen years and whose rent-controlled building just went up for sale. “It’s gone.” She gestured through the window of the pie shop where we sat; its owner has become an activist of sorts, refusing to work with delivery startups and pressuring the Board of Supervisors to question the legality of classifying gig workers as contractors rather than employees.) San Francisco, where streets are named after union organizers and Mexican anti-imperialists, and local landmarks include murals from the Depression-era Public Works of Art Project, is becoming a paradoxical urban space: a homogenous corporate campus run through with threads of public pain. People struggling with addiction and mental illness sleep on the streets outside unicorn startups and shoot up in front of City Hall. Some of the companies that the city has incubated are now seen to be invasive, rapacious, extractive, creepy; in the local economy and national imagination, they eclipse serious work being done elsewhere in the Valley, in industries such as biotech and robotics.

Not all of this is new or unique to tech—other streets are named after landowners and gold-rush pioneers—but this is a small city. The effects of a dominant industry compound and are not easily absorbed. The city is being reshaped in the image of the tech industry—and by those who wish to sell that image.

On Monday, walking through the Mission, I stepped into a new business occupying the ground-floor retail space of a condo development that was completed in 2018. (Some of the apartments have become rentals: a two-bedroom, ground-floor unit was recently listed for $7,500 a month.) The store displayed high-end kitchen and grill tools, sets of cheese knives, truffle-flavored potato chips, wine, small-batch chocolate, Wagyu beef jerky, buckets of flowers, and a variety of small, high-design jars containing the sorts of transactional condiments and ephemera that often circulate as hostess gifts: preserved lemon paste; pork lard; red-pepper jam; hand-poured candles. Chunks of pink Himalayan salt were packaged with miniature graters near a Scandinavian-looking guacamole press. The offerings felt like algorithmically generated retail—the physical manifestation of an overworked twentysomething’s Instagram Explore tab. A small wooden crate contained a bag of local coffee, a vintage milk bottle stuffed with citrus candies, and a San Francisco-scented candle: a label identified it as a seventy-nine-dollar “Nostalgic San Francisco Gift Set.”

Back on the sidewalk, a man carrying a blanket quietly ranted his way down the street. A few blocks later, as I passed Psychic Horizons, a healing clinic and meditation school, a tear-off flyer taped to the window of an adjacent retail space caught my eye. It read: “Interested in a tech career?”



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