People say tech is invading San Francisco. They said the same about my immigrant grandfather

James David Lee
July 30, 2014
James David Lee was born in San Francisco and works as a software product marketing manager.

Image courtesy of Flickr user torbakhopper

I’ve begun to worry that San Francisco is slipping back into the past.

If you’re not from here, you might not notice it amid the sparkle of new office towers, the pageant of initial public offerings and the people wearing glasses that can also make phone calls and tell you the euro-dollar exchange rate.

But there’s a current in this city, pushing backwards. It’s in front of my local supermarket, where someone has stenciled, “Yuppie Scum Fuck Off.” It’s in the posters near my office that juxtapose Google and Twitter logos with the words “Invasive Species,” “Tech Is Not Culture” and “Invasion, Colonization, Innovation.” It’s in the voice of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, our civic poet, mourning the arrival of a “soulless group of people” who threaten to trample our local culture underfoot.

This rhetoric has a historical ring. Growing up in San Francisco as a third-generation Chinese American, I learned about the city’s uneasy relationship with new arrivals. In school, we studied the Chinese Exclusion Act and the violent protests against Chinese communities. I remember textbook examples of anti-immigrant propaganda, with their language of invasion and culture-at-stake.

But as schoolchildren, we learned that this history was behind us. If the past was about exclusion and distrust, then the present was about coexistence and community. Our nativist history was a lesson that taught us to be better citizens today – people who recognize newcomers as heroes in our civic narrative and as fundamental contributors to our community. We were taught that San Francisco is a great city because it does not turn people away.

This idealized narrative meant a lot to me, because my family’s immigrant experience largely bears it out. When my great grandfather emigrated from China a century ago, racist laws kept him from owning the Central Valley farmland he cultivated. Decades later, my grandfather bought a house in a white neighborhood at San Francisco’s southern edge, where my father was terrorized by schoolyard bullies who threw punches and slurs.

But by the time I went to school, my classmates were Chinese, Guatemalan and Lebanese. It was easy to believe that we had realized the ideals of tolerance and pluralism, and that our commitment to those virtues was unshakable.

Today, I’m not so sure. At the software company where I work, I see immigrants every day. My colleagues come from Canada, Singapore, Venezuela and across the United States. Yet the posture of many San Franciscans toward them and others like them has been hostile. The spray-painted sidewalks are hard to miss. Attacks against Google’s commuter shuttles – smashed windows and slashed tires – have made national news. More recently, protesters have targeted the homes of technology employees themselves.

The violence and rhetoric feels regressive, like a step back into our city’s history that clashes with our contemporary ideals of civic inclusiveness. It’s true that the immigrants of the technology community are richer, whiter and better educated than those who came before, but inclusiveness, by its terms, requires us to resist the urge to choose which newcomers to admit based on their backgrounds.

By now, San Francisco’s inclusive ideals have pride of place in my identity, so I can’t help but wonder why my city is turning against our latest population of recent arrivals: What are the protests against technology workers actually about?

Underlying the rhetoric of invasion and cultural destruction is the fear of physical displacement. As venture capital flows into local start-ups, the influx of high-salaried technology workers competing for apartments has caused rents to rise more than three times faster than the national average. Landlords are evicting longtime residents from rent-controlled units, so they can replace them with tech workers who’ll pay more.

When Google shuttles roll into San Francisco, wealthy employees from Mountain View compete to buy homes in historic neighborhoods, pricing out the historical residents themselves. Home prices have risen more than twenty percent in the last year, surpassing even the bubble-era highs of 2007.

In other words, San Francisco is now a city where not everyone who wants to live here can afford to, including those who have lived here for a very long time.

This fact is disturbing, especially as it plays out on my doorstep. I live in the Mission, about a 20-minute bus ride from where my father grew up. In many ways, this neighborhood embodies San Francisco’s inclusive ideal. It’s a predominantly working-class Hispanic area with a layered immigrant history that you can see in the storefronts: Lucca Ravioli Company, Taqueria Cancún, Western Donut Chinese Food.

But the ethnic communities are dissolving (there are 1,400 fewer Latino households and 2,900 more white households in the Mission compared to twenty years ago) and longtime residents are losing their homes (a 98-year old woman recently faced eviction from her apartment of 50 years).

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How to interpret this crisis of displacement? If it’s a story about newcomers seizing land, as many anti-tech activists believe it to be, then the solution is to stop the newcomers – to turn the commuter buses around, mobilize neighborhoods against the outsiders and shut the city gates.

But what if we understand this not as a land grab, but as a shortage of housing? While over 30,000 new San Franciscans arrived between 2010 and 2013, the city continues to add only 1,500 new units per year. This shortage causes housing prices to spike, and the real estate goes to those who are able to pay – in this case, the incoming technology workers with their six-figure salaries.

If displacement happens because there isn’t enough housing, the solution is to build: Create affordable and market-rate housing that will bring prices down city wide, giving landlords less incentive to evict longstanding tenants and allowing residents of diverse income levels to live in the same city.


Image courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Hawk

Of course, building thousands of new units is relief that won’t come fast enough for people being displaced right now. This makes efforts to safeguard existing communities – like limiting evictions of vulnerable residents and increasing compensation for evicted tenants – more crucial than ever.

But building is better than trying to keep current and future newcomers at bay, because it creates physical space for old and new residents to coexist. In this way, it lets us live in a world where our civic narrative of tolerance and inclusion might still be true. It offers scope for a San Francisco that finds strength in its newcomers, makes room for their contributions and finally overcomes its history of exclusion.

To stay hopeful, I think back to my family’s story. Originally, my ancestors came here to work – to farm, repair sewing machines and pump gas. With time, they began to fill out the civic space around them, serving as teachers, civil servants and public health organizers. As San Francisco grows to accommodate newcomers from the technology industry, I hope they will also take on roles beyond their professional identity to include a civic identity, as well – as educators, reformers and advocates for the community that has taken them in.

This ideal is still a long way off – but the more of us there are who can share this city, the more likely we are to achieve it.

 

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