In his introduction, McClelland acknowledges that this is simply how gentrification works. “[T]he richer the cities get,” he writes, “the more unequal they get. Specifically, the more young, male, and white they get.” Yet he also knows that tech has roots in the radical thinking that has shaped California, and his book includes interviews with a wide range of tech workers, CEOs, and visionaries. Those with a long view understand that the Bay Area may have changed past the point of no return. As Regis McKenna, a marketer who worked with many of tech’s giants in their early years, tells McClelland, the whole point of tech is to push “the edge”—yet this very tendency inevitably leads to a tipping point, beyond which social change cannot be undone. “The problem with the tipping point,” McKenna observes, “is that you can only see it in the rearview mirror.”
As the interviewees in McClelland’s book point out, the tide of gentrification hasn’t quite managed to erase the Bay Area’s radical history. Berkeley student Lisa Chu says the campus tradition of protest has spread in the Bay Area’s consciousness, like something in the water. “It makes you aware,” she says. “Inspired.” The Bay Area’s radicalism is both political and cultural; its much-vaunted (and endangered) diversity is reflected in creative work by those artists still clinging to an existence here, rooted in waves of DIY and avant-garde art charged with cutting-edge politics.
Much of that radical art and political thinking has been forced out of San Francisco. Artists began decamping to Oakland during the last tech boom, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, moving into abandoned warehouses. Those artists were primarily white, while Oakland is historically black, and a version of the displacement crisis that occurred in San Francisco is now playing out in Oakland, where rents have spiked and home prices soared. As Oakland rapper and educator Do D.A.T. tells McClelland, Oakland is “the heartbeat” of the Bay Area, while San Francisco “is a city built to funnel all the resources.” What San Francisco seems to be doing now is funneling people of color out of the Bay Area altogether, with many of Oakland’s black residents are forced to move an hour away or more.
This push-and-pull forms the question at the heart of McClelland’s book: Can the soul of San Francisco—and by extension, the rest of the Bay Area—be saved? The most moving interview in the book is with an Uber driver who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he studied computer science. Like many skilled immigrants, Leon Fakiri found that his degree didn’t much matter in America. Becoming one of the first Uber drivers in the Bay Area, he has watched that company explode, as he ferries around people who represent the best and worst of the new San Francisco. About the gig economy, he comments that “I’ve seen this story already,” and predicts that “a society that doesn’t value human beings will end, just fail.” No matter how inured we are to Twitter jokes about end-stage capitalism, stories like Fakiri’s are a punch in the gut.
But whose gut? Callie Millner, a city native and San Francisco Chronicle columnist who covers the tech industry, states what many of us born and raised in the Bay Area have said over and over again: that our lives are now shaped around waiting for the coming bust. In a bust, the money stops being so “crazy,” Millner tells McClelland, and “you can actually buy a house, have a kid, do these things that normal adult people do.” But for many, a bust is a calamity. Retiring governor Jerry Brown and others have sounded a warning: the bust is coming, and California, high on the fumes of its own success, is not prepared. If that means anything, it’s likely to be more homelessness, more poverty, and more displacement. The Bay Area will likely be ground zero.
Much of McClelland’s book feels like any number of conversations you might have had at Bay Area parties over the last couple of decades. So if you have lived here a while, perhaps Silicon City is not for you. It might be useful for newer arrivals who don’t know the area’s history, or for those of us tired of trying to explain things to out-of-town friends. McClelland’s bio on the back flap of the book says he lived in San Francisco and even built a home there. Perhaps revealingly, McClelland no longer lives in the Bay Area. He wrote this book from the city where he now lives. That city is Brooklyn.
Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley
Norton, 272 pp, $26.95