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Of monsters and men: tech, startups and direct action in the San Francisco Bay Area

Tensions continue to rise in the San Francisco Bay Area, as incoming tech and startup workers displace longtime residents. This article examines the downfall of direct action in addressing the roots of pervasive problems.

By Amanda J. Reinke

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to hundreds of technology (“tech”) and startup companies. Some companies, such as Twitter or Facebook, are wildly successful, while others struggle to make their way, hoping to be the next unicorn. Tech and startup workers are visually marked by their company’s logo emblazoned hoodies, tees, and bags (an ensemble lovingly referred to as the “tech uniform”). Workers at successful companies reap rewards beyond hoodies and tees – they are highly paid, receive good benefits, and have access to well-stocked pantries, casual, but rigorous work environment, and gym discounts. Emerging startups on the other hand base benefits on equity – employees buy in with the hope that the company will eventually go public and their equity will be worth thousands. But to lifelong Bay Area residents, all companies and their employees look, sound, and act the same.

The incoming residents dotting the region’s physical landscape, the companies they work for, and politicians who support their enterprises have also dramatically altered the politics, economics, and culture of the area. The rapid transformations manifest in the physical, social, political, and economic environment have led many native Bay residents to characterize tech and startup workers as a nuisance at best, an invasion at worst. Dramatic alternations to the landscape have deepened already pervasive problems, such as the gap between the rich and poor, displacement, gentrification, diminishing racial and cultural diversity, and rising cost of living. At the heart of activist critique, beyond the substantive changes that make everyday living in the region challenging, is the concern that the Bay is no longer a special place for non-conformity, progressive politics, activism, and rebelliousness. San Francisco and the region more generally is remembered and, in the eyes of longtime residents, should still embody the anti-establishment, hippie, progressive, and inclusive social atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, as the most recent digital gold rush began and transforms the city and region into a center of power and wealth, many are left with the questions: what happens to everyone else? What happens to all the folks who are left out of the newest gold rush to hit the region?

At the root of these questions is both lost history and deeply entrenched feelings about how the region should look and feel. Tech and startup companies and their workers have confused the situation, transforming the Bay into a mecca for digital innovation, finance, technology, and young well-educated people looking to work hard and get valuable skills for the market. Not only are they altering how the Bay looks and feels, but native Bay residents have yet to see substantive returns on all the influx of capital and wealth. The result is anger and fear among longtime residents that is in turn driving direct action and activist organizing against companies and their incoming workers. In this paper, I argue that the fundamental problem with this approach is that in acting upon fear and anger, activists and residents are blaming workers – the lowest on the political and economic totem pole – and companies, rather than focusing on the politicians that made the effects of the tech boom 2.0 possible.

Tech Boom, Housing Bust
Tech booms are a natural fit for the region. Close proximity to Silicon Valley, educated population, interesting history that promises to attract workers from far and wide, and longtime fixture as a center of commerce and wealth booms are all factors contributing to digital gold rushes, and while there are negative side effects of the tech boom and culture, there are also positives. For example, the Bay Area has a lower poverty rate than California and the United States; the region has an 11.3% rate compared to an overall 16.8% California poverty rate and 15.8% rate of poverty in the United States for the same time. Bay residents believe that the influx of capital and people should be spent to better the region’s services, such as improving infrastructure, aiding the homeless, and providing affordable housing. However, many residents argue that no substantive benefits have been accrued by the general populace; instead, these benefits are seen by only the extremely wealthy. While the poverty rate is low overall, embedded in these statistics are a number of uncomfortable truths about the everyday impact of startup and tech companies.

Skyrocketing cost of living, particularly in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Oakland, pushes long-time residents, businesses, and nonprofits out of the area. Locals working for nonprofits and Bay businesses repeatedly reflected their frustration and anxiety about an untenable living situation, long commute times, and concerns about rising rents for their business. Rents can shoot as high as 40% from one lease term to the next – this is a phenomenon referred to as being “priced out” of their homes. Perhaps the most poignant example is the recent expulsion of Tenants Together and the Eviction Defense Collaborative, nonprofits specializing in eviction assistance – from their office in mid-Market. The nonprofits were located just a few blocks from Twitter headquarters, which received tax breaks for moving into the mid-Market area and contributing to its gentrification. Today mid-Market continues to be a battleground between the rich and poor, with some of the highest rates of homelessness occupancy and the highest rents.

Twitter Headquarters and NEMA Apartments, Mid-Market Neighborhood, San Francisco, CA. Twitter received generous tax breaks to build their HQ in mid-Market, an area home to the largest population of homeless living in the City of San Francisco. Long considered the “skid row” of the City, these tax breaks are part of Mayor Lee’s plan to gentrify the area. Photo Credit: Amanda J. Reinke.

Low income and minority racial communities are hardest hit by rising cost of living and associated displacement. For example, the Mission District, a historically low-income Hispanic neighborhood, has been rapidly gentrifying as incoming affluent residents push Mission residents out of the area. Most recently, the Mission Goodwill announced that it is closing; this comes just after the mid-Market Goodwill shut its doors on June 30. However, this is a trend that has been ongoing for several years. Private tech buses to shuttle workers from San Francisco to work south of the city have been a source of tension for years, prompting direct action by activists and local tension between longtime residents and incoming workers. These are some of visible effects of the high gap between the rich and poor in the city of San Francisco – a city that was only second to Atlanta in 2012 in terms of inequality.

The Real, The Imagined
All of the negative ramifications of Tech Boom 2.0 have native Bay residents feeling fearful, anxious, concerned, angry, and, in some cases, resigned. Locals want “techies” to see the region as a community with unique neighborhoods, histories, and cultures that deserve to be enjoyed and protected, rather than as a playground for the young and affluent. In many ways, locals are right. The loss of companies serving underrepresented and low-income groups is pervasive. The gap between the rich and poor is rising. Skyrocketing cost of living has spurred displacement and dispossession throughout the region. And, while the rate of homelessness has remained relatively steady, about 70% of the homeless population in San Francisco were once housed in the city.

The effects of Tech Boom 2.0 are not exaggerated and the impact is felt by residents on a daily basis. But however deeply the impacts are felt or perceived, many native Bay residents know surprisingly little about the everyday lives and experiences of the tech and startup workers they love to hate. Instead, workers and companies are homogenized and stereotyped into a catchall group of white, affluent, well-educated individuals who are overly paid and do not care for their communities. Stereotypes and negative sentiments, like the tech workers in their uniforms, manifest as marks on the physical landscape. Slurs against tech workers litter sidewalks and lampposts. Protesters yell at residents living in the high rise apartment buildings that break up the skyline of contested neighborhoods like the Mission and mid-Market. Activists halt the shadow transit system – the shuttle buses that transport tech employees to their workplace in south Bay. In a region that prides itself on a legacy of progressive politics, inclusivity, and an openness to diversity, there appears to be little inclusion of tech and startup workers and the companies that employ them.

Instead, tech and startup workers and the companies for whom they work are homogenized as monolithic entities that do not care for the community, are overly paid, well-educated, and racially homogenous. Despite characterizations as culturally homogenous, affluent, and uninvolved in their communities, there are nuances embedded in the tech and startup world. Young workers flock to the Bay for the possibility of once in a lifetime experience and training that often comes with costly tradeoffs.

While tech workers earn high salaries, even for summer internships, with great benefits like stock options, fully supplied pantries, and rooftop workspaces, startup employees are typically less lucky. Startup workers, especially at emerging companies, work long hours to gain experience and equity, but often take salaries that are significantly lower than market value. Startups, prone to rapidly growing and shrinking with the market, offer cramped work spaces, no professional HR department, little transparency on promotion possibilities, and meager salary increases (at least while the company is young and struggling). In exchange, workers buy into the company, getting equity in exchange for low pay in the hopes that the company will be successful and go public in the future, turning their equity into thousands of dollars. But nine out of ten startups fail, leaving their workers with little savings and no equity, but with valuable skills and experience. People taking jobs in new and emerging startups are taking a huge financial risk and enjoy a lower standard of living because of it: they often live in cramped quarters, paying a couple thousand dollars for a room and shared bathroom that is not up to health codes.

Many tech and startup employees do not plan to stay make the Bay a long-term home. The blurred lines that startups and tech companies make between work and life challenges traditional notions of work-life balance, making employees think that living in the Bay is untenable, that having a family and living in the region is impossible. For employees, the workplace is also a living place complete with ping pong tables, nerf guns, and beer. That deliberate mixture of work and life manipulates employees into blurring the lines between work and life and working longer hours with less fatigue. However, this also means that incoming residents see the Bay as a place for work and youthful play, rather than a place to set down roots, raise a family, or make a permanent home. Instead, the region is a momentary, but necessary stop on a career path.

This uncertainty of the future and their place in it is one of the reasons longtime Bay residents don’t particularly care for tech and startup folks. Residents who have made the region their home since birth or for decades don’t see it as a momentary stop on someone’s career tract – they see it as a permanent home, a place to grow and live in, and a community to give back to.

Direct Action
The fear, anxiety, and anger that many longtime residents feel towards startup and tech employees and companies has led to a number of direct action efforts throughout the region. Housing activists target the shadow transit system mentioned earlier, halting buses and occasionally slashing tires. Protesters march through the streets of the Mission District, once home to predominately low-income Hispanic communities, which is now a neighborhood riddled with high rises and renovated apartment buildings. These protesters yell at people living in high rises, telling them to “go home!” while residents yell back “but this IS my home!”

For all the protests of everyday tech and startup workers, there are much fewer protests and actions directed at politicians and policy-makers. Although much is said about rapid gentrification in downtown Oakland and the squeeze Oakland residents are getting from folks moving in from Berkeley and from the City of San Francisco, there is little action taken against the politicians and policy-makers incentivizing business movement into the area. Across the Bay, while residents have a number of negative comments to make about Mayor Ed Lee, these comments rarely translate into substantive action. For example, despite criticism during his recent handling of homelessness – a deeply entrenched and longstanding issue in the region – during the Superbowl 50 in the City of San Francisco, there was little action against Mayor Lee directly. Protests in the streets failed to impact City Hall or disrupt political office activities. Direct action that impacts the elected officials providing tax breaks and incentives for companies to gentrify areas like mid-Market and downtown Oakland seem to appear only during election seasons, such as last November.

November 2015 elections in the City of San Francisco were widely publicized and money poured in to support various sides of each proposition – the election was characterized as a fight for the very soul of San Francisco itself. Proposition F, perhaps the only ballot measure to reach national consciousness, sought to restrict short-term rentals, such as AirBnB, which have taken over in many parts of the city. For many housing rights activists, short-term rentals are one of a litany of reasons for skyrocketing cost-of-living and shrinking availability of affordable housing. Instead of renting on a monthly basis, landlords and master-tenants are renting on a daily basis, which brings in much more revenue and is not subject to the same housing laws and restrictions. Prior to the vote AirBnB poured money into advertising throughout the region and especially the city of San Francisco. Ads were aggressive, stating: “Dear Public Library System, We hope you use some of the $12 million in hotel taxes to keep the library open later. Love, Airbnb.” And another: “Dear Parking Enforcement, Please use the $12 million in hotel taxes to feed all expired parking meters. Love, Airbnb.” Needless to say that these ads, which focus on the taxes the short-term rental company pays, did not go over well with many residents. There was an immediate intense backlash against AirBnB, but even with this reaction Proposition F failed with 44% supporting increased regulation.

No Monster in the Mission. In response to proposed development, termed the “Monster in the Mission,” protesters take over City Hall. Photo credit: Kyle Smeallie.

On the same ballot was Proposition I, which sought to place a moratorium on market-driven development in the Mission. This particular Proposition led to protests in City Hall itself where activists chanted and waved banners proudly saying “No Monster in the Mission!” referring to a high-rise development that was going to tear down a block of otherwise affordable housing and be a mecca for incoming residents that could afford to live there. Most of the direct action that takes place in the Mission, however, is directed towards incoming residents. The Mission is a particularly active place for displacement, emplacement, development, and the subsequent emotions all of this raises for both the people being pushed out and those moving into the area. Flyers warning “brogrammers” to leave the area have been posted. Protests targeting high rises are more common here.

Brogrammers Off the Block, San Francisco, CA. Flyers requesting that “brogrammers” leave the Mission District.

Bursting Tech Boom 2.0
It sometimes feels as though each new day brings an article claiming that the Tech Boom 2.0 is finally bursting. Tech stocks were
falling rapidly earlier this year. Investing for startups took a rapid decline in late 2015 that seems to have carried into 2016 as well. The recent decline of Lending Club has put other peer-to-peer lenders in a bind as well, wondering whether the entire market has gone bust or whether this is just a temporary lull. On a broader scale, startups and tech companies have found homes in places like Seattle and Austin – cities that now face the same debates, protests, and concerns that the Bay Area continues to have.

Amid a falling market, activists and many longtime residents respond with cheers, happily awaiting the day when the boom busts and they can go on about their days without worrying about displacement, skyrocketing cost of living, and staring at those tech uniforms. If history is any indication, the region is not a “boom or bust” place. Instead, it is a boom and lull. With Silicon Valley so close to the places like Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, it is unlikely that the “bust” will be the true kind of bust that leaves people completely destitute in its wake, emptying out an entire city, and sending its residents to scratch together a living from elsewhere.

A historic place for revolutionaries, counterculture, progressive politics, activism, and bohemians, the Bay Area may at once appear an unusual place for tech booms. However, the tech boom is in and of itself revolutionary: Uber has transformed the way we think about and use transportation and infrastructure; SpaceX provides an alternative to critical government funding losses for space exploration; financial-tech companies (fin-tech) provide loans to mom and pop shops, students, and low-income folks who otherwise cannot get financing from reputable sources; Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have revolutionized the way we connect, share, mobilize, and socialize. Tech Boom 2.0 is the current tech bubble cruising through the Bay Area, bringing with it highly educated young people interested in exploring the ways we can innovatively use technology. In this sense, the people who flock to the city are bringing a new kind of nonconformance: searching out ways to push the bounds of what it means to be human in and how we can most efficiently and effectively communicate, travel, finance, and serve each other in a technological age.




Amanda J. Reinke

Amanda J. Reinke is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Georgia College. Her research examines alternative forms of conflict resolution amid displacement and urban transformation. She can be contacted at areinke@vols.utk.edu or @LegalAnthro.




BronislawMagazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

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