Hunter S. Thompson Would No Longer Recognize San Francisco



I have on my wall a poster that Hunter S. Thompson, an early mentor, gave me when I moved to the Bay Area. Called “Open Letter: San Francisco, Oct. 25, 1960,” it is Hunter’s stream-of-consciousness portrait of a city soaked in booze and romanticism, a place of rebels and deadbeats and those who had run out of luck:

City of hills and fog and water, bankers and boobs — Republicans all. City of no jobs … City of no money except what you find at the General Delivery window; and somehow it’s always enough … San Francisco, edge of the western world, where you can drink all night and jump off the bridge to beat a hangover, where you can sell encyclopedias because no other job is available, where you refuse to sell encyclopedias because you have better things to do.

San Francisco is no longer that city.

Thanks in large part to the rise of Silicon Valley, San Francisco is now about money more than alienation and self-discovery and creating art. Technology has moved the city from the edge of the world to the center.

But this boom does not benefit all residents, and those left out — the majority, it seems — have begun to vocally question what is going on. The topics roiling San Francisco are the same ones driving the presidential campaigns: inequality and a shiny future that does not seem available to all.

If you live here, you can feel the Bay Area becoming the capital of Technopolis. My house is way out on the BART line, just about as far from Silicon Valley as it is possible to get via public transportation, and yet the advertisements in my station speak only to the geeks: “Is your CRM a plus or a minus?” The University of San Francisco, aspiring to be Stanford, hangs posters from streetlights touting itself as the “University of ‘Look, Mom, I just got funded.’ ” The area still has its natural beauty, but attempts to enjoy it must be plotted like military campaigns: The 32-mile trip back from the beach on Presidents’ Day took me two hours.

Silicon Valley’s unofficial motto is that it is here to improve our lives, and while in many respects this is true — who among us would willingly surrender their Gmail or iPhone camera? — San Franciscans are beginning to realize what they are asked to give up in return: San Francisco.

My story last week documenting some aspects of this transition prompted over 1,200 comments. Some of them suggested I didn’t go far enough when I said people here were waiting for some shrinkage in the tech bubble.

“Count me as one native who will now dance upon the employment graves of every tech bro as he falls to ruin,” wrote Anna, saying she had watched a friend’s “sick, elderly mother tossed out of her home by a wealthy techie.”

Others literally want the earth to move: “Many of us secretly wish for another shaker — no one gets hurt but the ones that aren’t used to it pack up and get the hell out,” said SMedeiros.

More nuanced were those who saw both sides of the issue. The city Hunter Thompson lived in more than a half-century ago, as tech boosters will surely point out, might have been cheap but it did not supply many good jobs.

“The tech boom has brought undeniable benefits to the city, including low unemployment, rising real estate prices, which benefit homeowners like us, and improved health care with state of the art hospitals,” wrote Christopher Rillo. “Yet the city has lost part of its soul, been diminished by this new gold rush.”

Another commenter summed up the situation in 10 words: “Wealth is just as capable of ravaging cities as poverty.”

One unexplored consequence of all this wealth is that Silicon Valley’s well-chronicled problem with diversity is now beginning to reshape the surrounding community. “SF has become one of the most racially segregated cities in the U.S.,” wrote G. Harris. “This rarely gets mentioned. At most public events I attend in SF I am the only Black person. The same is true when I eat in restaurants.”

Evictions are moving up the income chain. It used to be that you got evicted if you didn’t have a job. Now it can happen if the value of your rental rapidly increases to more than you afford to can pay.

“ALL of the renters I know are facing the prospect of eviction, and most of us are lucky enough to make a decent salary,” wrote Jenny. “It’s crazy.”

Yet another group expressed regret that Silicon Valley, which is so fond of attempting impossible things it calls them “moonshots,” is trying so little in this respect.

“It is appalling that the very bright people making this wealth can’t seem to figure out a way to assist their less fortunate sisters and brothers,” wrote rbjd.

That seems to be the crucial issue. The future that Silicon Valley is building could improve the lives of everyone, or it might only be a playground for Silicon Valley.

The tech community insists it is working for all, but the situation increasingly brings to mind “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the iconic 1956 horror movie — set in a San Francisco suburb; the 1978 remake takes place in the city itself — of people being replaced by new and improved body duplicates.

One of the “Invasion” characters, freshly converted, advises a few holdouts: “Give up! You can’t get away from us! We’re not gonna hurt you!” Silicon Valley’s advice is similar. Put your life in our hands, the tech people say, and everything will be fine. Build more housing. Much more. Traffic might be so bad you can never leave your house, but don’t worry — we’ll be delivering everything you could possibly want via drone or Uber.

For the moment, at least, fewer people in the Bay Area seem to be buying those promises.

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