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What San Francisco Felt Like at the Start of the Tech Boom

Updated: Mar 02, 2023 11:30
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Jones Street San Francisco by David Yu.

I just found this piece from 2013 that I never published for some reason. It does a pretty great job of summing up how so many people in San Francisco felt at the time…and still do. In this case the “tech boom” refers to what happened to San Francisco in the 2010s. The “dot com” is what happened in the 1990s.

This piece is also in my latest book Slouching Towards Neverland which you can grab right here.

Outside The Gold Rush

Ca-CLANK, Ca-CLANK, Ca-CLANK, go the shopping carts outside my window, shuttling between anywhere and nowhere, filled with cans and glass and bits of lifetimes lived within bottles and bindles and needles and numbness. Passersby play urban hopscotch, skipping and jumping over smeared and chunky plops of human shit that pepper the sidewalks. One of those luxury liners of the street lumbers by, whisking away tech workers to parts not unknown, just uninteresting. I feel I’m caught in between, that pretty soon, I won’t be rich enough or poor enough to live in San Francisco, the city that is my home.

I moved to San Francisco in 2002, a time I like to call “between gold rushes.” The fervor and swagger of the first dot com boom had not so much burst as it had flown around the city like a balloon with the air let out, taking down everything it crashed into. San Francisco had ridden the dot com monster into the 21st century on a wave of optimism and massive change, and not unlike the original gold rush that created this place, more than just a handful of people ended up with obscene wealth. And then like anything too good to be true, it ended with a whimper, causing those who hadn’t managed to strike a vein of digital ore, left to pick up the pieces and create something of their own.

This is the San Francisco I moved into. That stretch of the Western Addition centered around Divisidero was still more or less a Black neighborhood and the real estate people hadn’t yet figured out how to make it sound less like one by renaming it NoPa. The Tenderloin was as heartbreaking as it is now, but its residual influence stretched a bit further beyond its borders. The Mission was recovering from first, the influx of yuppies that had occurred during the dot com gold rush, and then the purge of them after it ended. It was quickly filling up with young people like myself who fancied themselves painters or writers or musicians or anything else that falls under the category of artist. At the time we wouldn’t have said we were gentrifying these neighborhoods because we didn’t really realize we were. We were mostly just young and broke and idealistic and looking for a place to call home where the rent wasn’t too steep and the hills weren’t either.

Since that time I’ve gone on to write three books, found a fairly popular arts and culture website, and create and host my own travel show. But despite all that artistic success, I’m still as broke and struggling as ever. I’ve loudly added my voice to the cultural patchwork of San Francisco, and I’ve put in my goddamn time here, 11 years of it. And despite all of this, I’m getting more and more worried that there may not be a future for people like me in San Francisco. This has long been a city full of creators and doers and participators. People who make things in the long hours of the night just to share them with others who might similarly revel in the uniqueness of the moment. People who create things like Burning Man or Bay to Breakers or the Internet. Yes, I see the irony there.

The internet probably wouldn’t have become the thing it is today without the “Hey, let’s try this!” culture that permeates the Bay Area. So it’s funny that the internet is the exact thing that seems to be so desperately choking that culture out. And here’s the thing, I don’t feel like it’s on purpose. People aren’t being like “Oh fuck all these weirdos, I want to institute some homogeneity here.” In fact it’s the opposite, many of the people that are attracted to the spirit of this place are the ones that are killing it. Like a non native plant being introduced to a new environment, these people are looking around and saying “Hey, I think I like it here. I can really spread out.” And that’s exactly what they end up doing. Just take this guy for example. He seems to really dig San Francisco but has no fucking clue that there’s anything here that is not related to technology.

These sidewalks scream poetry, literally. Street poetry by Elvis Christ (Photo by Steve Rhodes).

Where does that leave the people who make the city run? People who work at city hall, people who drive Muni buses, people who put out fires, people who show up when you call 911? What does it mean for a city when those people can’t afford to live there? And where does that leave people like me, people in the arts who just wanna make cool shit; things that make people laugh, things that make people appreciate the world around them and see that it’s full of wonder? These sidewalks scream poetry, literally, Elvis Christ puts them there. And this city is beautiful. It makes you want to fall in love and happy to be alive. There are literally hundreds of songs written about San Francisco. Who’s gonna write those if the artists are gone? And how many of those songs do you think were written about your fucking app?

What I’m trying to get at is that Not all worths can be measured in dollars. Jack Hirschman is worth more than your startup. Vicki Marlane was worth more than your startup. Harvey Milk was worth more than your startup. We’re in the midst of yet another gold rush, but whereas the original one caused an explosion of population, culture, and ideas which ultimately led to the creation of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth, this one might leave us with something that San Francisco has never been called in it’s 150+ year run: Fucking Boring

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Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, poet, TV host, activist, and general shit-stirrer. His website is one of the most influential arts & culture sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and his freelance writing has been featured in Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, The Bold Italic, and too many other outlets to remember. His weekly column, Broke-Ass City, appears every other Thursday in the San Francisco Examiner. Stuart’s writing has been translated into four languages. In 2011 Stuart created and hosted the travel show Young, Broke, and Beautiful on IFC and in 2015 he ran for Mayor of San Francisco and got nearly 20k votes.

He's been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero":SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York.