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


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From the tall home windows of WIRED’s workplaces in San Francisco’s South-of-Market neighborhood I’ve watched virtually a decade of radical change made bodily in concrete and glass. The town’s forest of recent skyscrapers is no less than partly the legacy of Mayor Ed Lee, who died early Tuesday morning after virtually 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 individuals on earth stay alongside among the poorest; utopia and dystopia are barely a number of blocks aside. That’s town Ed Lee constructed.

It’s a cliché to say upon a politician’s demise 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 in command of a metropolis present process a tech growth, fueled by Silicon Valley’s bizarre pressure of technolibertarian, oligopoly-friendly capitalism (and its handmaiden, #disruption). Not the whole lot fallacious in San Francisco was his fault and even below his management, however hey, he was the mayor when it occurred.

As all the time, San Francisco is browsing the wavefront of the long run. Each American metropolis should take care of rising inequality, housing issues, and the focus of wealth in companies that want fewer human staff and endanger unbiased retail. The coverage selections that these cities make, and the way they consider their relationship with capital, can be formed by San Francisco’s outcomes.

It has all the time 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 a complete lot of nothing—rolling hills, stunning views, and backbreaking work shifting hides. However as Dana wrote in an afterward to his e book 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 dwelling earlier than shifting.

California has all the time been America’s spatial instantiation of the concept of the long run if not the precise future itself; the booms the state periodically emits are iterations of the concept westward equals ahead equals onward. For a lot of the 19th and 20th centuries San Francisco was a lab for technological advance alongside social experimentation. There’s a motive 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 preventing 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 doable 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 reasonably priced housing and LGBTQ rights, he’d additionally search for compromise with town’s real-estate builders.

Certainly he did. Below Lee’s management town handed the so-called Twitter Tax Break, extra formally the Central Market-Tenderloin Space Payroll Expense Tax Exclusion, which exempted corporations from paying payroll taxes on new workers 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 previous furnishings showroom on Market Road.

Additionally throughout his tenure, Google grew to become considered one of San Francisco’s largest business tenants, with over 720,000 sq. toes of house. Is that so much? Uber has greater than one million. And arguably the crowning growth achievement throughout Lee’s time in workplace is the tallest constructing within the metropolis, nonetheless below 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” virtually bought to make use of San Francisco bus stops without cost, 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 middle ensures a number of pedestrians are all the time carrying lanyards and badges. Billboards promote software program of indeterminate or indescribable perform.

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

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 good points from which few San Franciscans, longtime or latest, wish to lose. (After all, the embrace of intercourse and gender variety hasn’t prolonged to racial fairness; in 1970 San Francisco was 13 p.c African American, and in 2016 it was 6 p.c. Greater than 2,000 African People left town yearly between 2010 and 2014.)

Actually, although, the infant boomers who purchased low-cost homes within the Bay Space within the 1970s and 1980s profit from Proposition 13, a 1978 regulation that enables California residents to pay taxes on the worth of their home after 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 companies supplied by cities and states—like, say, colleges and infrastructure—and have accrued enormous 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 houses, like denser growth or troublesome parking, is a near-existential risk.

Consequently, 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 this time it’s $1.25 million. Median hire is $four,450 a month. Since 2010, San Francisco added 70,000 individuals and has constructed simply 14,000 new housing items. (Or possibly it’s 11,000 new items; numbers fluctuate by supply.) Since 2011 there have been 16,000 evictions; no less than 7,500 persons 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 one thing else. Additionally, bizarre stuff. The headquarters of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals within the Mission District deployed autonomous safety robots to maintain individuals 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 drawback is that techies don’t eat out that a lot, and their workplaces have ultra-luxe cafeterias anyway—usually free.) The Twitter Tax Break introduced Twitter, however the Tenderloin continues to be the Tenderloin.

As considered one of my favourite urbanists, Darran Anderson, places it, everybody’s dystopia is somebody’s utopia. San Francisco gleams at evening. A brand new Bay Bridge connects to Oakland. The brand new Transbay bus terminal, with a most likely fabulous rooftop park, is simply months away from opening. A subway to Chinatown is nearly 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 individuals, San Francisco is higher. Younger techies who had been content material to stay in suburban Silicon Valley throughout 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 workplaces 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 alternative, no less than till a June election, is London Breed, head of the Board of Supervisors. She’ll be town’s first African American girl mayor. Ed Lee vetoed a regulation that will have restricted the period of time homeowners can hire out items on Airbnb; Breed was the regulation’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 era of politicians poised to win in a wave subsequent November. They’re ladies, particularly ladies of shade, and so they aren’t child boomers like Lee. That is Technology X and (hold on, I’m in search of a “shudder” emoji) millennials. No matter modifications 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 hearth for enabling hate speech, for damaging the material of society, for monopolistic enterprise practices, for undermining the press and democracy itself. Now they should deal with extra bother at dwelling, too.

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