The Bay Area’s ‘Infinite’ Loop

‘Silicon City’
(Wikimedia Commons)

We talk about what’s closing. We talk about who’s leaving. We talk about our childhood and adolescence being erased. We talk about rent. We talk about the impossibility of owning a home, about commutes and homelessness and crime. We talk about beer gardens, kombucha on tap, high-rises appearing overnight, legal weed delivered right to your door, Uber drivers clogging bus lanes, fifteen-dollar cocktails, yoga and wine meetups, Central American nannies, clothing stores that sell neutral-colored shirts costing $300 each. In the Bay Area, we talk about gentrification every single day. Apple’s headquarters, an hour south in Cupertino, are located at One Infinite Loop. That might also be the name of every conversation happening in the Bay Area. One infinite loop of worries about what tech is doing to us.

Lawyer and filmmaker Cary McClelland’s Silicon City is a collection of interviews with Bay Area residents, conducted as California goes through yet another boom cycle. In the vein of Studs Terkel’s Working, the book gathers short interviews into themed chapters, each with an introduction by McClelland. If Silicon City has an overarching theme, it’s that the accelerated growth of California’s economy in the current tech boom is changing the state in ways we still can’t figure out. California’s economy is currently the fifth largest in the world, surpassing that of the U.K. Yet we also have some of America’s highest housing costs and rates of social stratification, America’s worst poverty rate, and nearly 150,000 homeless people.

San Francisco, in many ways, embodies this inequality. The glittering headquarters of tech giants Twitter and Salesforce are just blocks from the Tenderloin neighborhood, where urine, feces, and discarded injection needles litter the streets. Blocks away from that, the city’s historically Latinx-populated Mission District now has some of San Francisco’s highest rents; a little further on, Hunter’s Point, last holdout of the city’s rapidly dwindling black community, is under siege from developers.

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.

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.

 

Cary McClelland
Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley
Norton, 272 pp,  $26.95

Published in the December 14, 2018 issue: 

Kaya Oakes teaches nonfiction writing at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland, California. She is the author of four books.

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