Tuesday 28 June 2016

Tech overkill destroyed the loveliest, liveliest city on the West Coast

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

'San Francisco is starting to resemble a boring suburban place'
'San Francisco is starting to resemble a boring suburban place'

A friend of mine pays $5,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. To buy it, she says, would cost $1.4m.

"At first, I was going mad about it," she said. "But then we realised that this is what everyone has to pay."

The reason her rent is so high is because San Francisco is becoming an upscale suburb of Silicon Valley. In the process, it's becoming really, really dull.

Gone are many artists, artisans and tradespeople. Instead, the lofts, townhouses and studios are being populated with content curators, engineers and infrastructure architects.

They're young, they're rich and they're dull as dishwater.

Read more: 'Shameful', 'A rant' or 'spot on' - Adrian Weckler's much-shared column on how the tech industry ruined San Francisco has provoked strong reactions

San Francisco is starting to resemble a boring suburban place. Self-regarding cafes and restaurants are full of Slack-addicted 25 to 45 year olds wearing the same clothes and discussing the same material topics.

The city that once identified with The Grateful Dead now hums along to Hootie and the Blowfish.

They may all be responsible, hard-working people. But as I walked the streets of the city 10 days ago, I was struck by how everything was quiet by 11pm. It seemed that anyone staying up after that was working on some start-up project or teleconferencing with an office in China.

But perhaps these people all work hard and play hard? After all, they have cool playgrounds on their tech companies' campuses, right?

I've been to a few and they're largely dormant. And those pool rooms and games consoles inside? Unused. There aren't very many dogs under desks, either. The 'pubs' on campuses tend to be a little dry, too.

Now if you're the mayor of a city and want model citizens to generate revenue and commerce, this is hardly a bad problem to have. These mild-mannered, job-obsessed workers cause little hassle. They earn a lot. They rarely get drunk. They like rules.

But in terms of a city's character, its buzz, its memorable qualities, these tech clones are killing atmosphere in a way many might not have anticipated.

This is a relatively recent thing. The first time I travelled to San Francisco I was 19. It was a magical place, unlike any other US city I had been to. There was a pulsating artistic atmosphere about the place.

Today, San Francisco is still physically beguiling. But culturally, it's now a chilled out version of Manhattan without the legacy. The tech boom has pushed out local character and imported people who look, talk and act the same.

One of the practical problems is that no-one who works outside a booming tech firm or a financial services company can afford to live in the city itself.

Those who are merely financially 'comfortable' now have to move out to adjoining metropolitan areas like Oakland. Those earning less can't even afford to live there.

The result is a lot less diversity and a lot less culture. Technically, there are plenty of different nationalities and cultures present. But whether they're Indian, Israeli or Irish, they all keep their noses stuck in their Slack notifications. And the same button shirts seem to be popular regardless of where you're from.

To be fair, it's not a complete whitewash. The city has retained enough of a liberal ethos to tolerate a (very) large number of homeless people, where other cities might be more harsh. (This is striking: there are small armies of homeless people lining streets in San Francisco.)But even here, there may be changes afoot. Many people in San Francisco are becoming more vocal about "cleaning" the homelessness problem. Local officials have promised to clear the homeless out for big occasions, such as the upcoming Superbowl in January.

On one level, this is understandable. On another, it deletes one of the few remaining visages of San Francisco's non-yuppie character.

This is not a simple dilemma to address. I mean, who wouldn't want to live in San Francisco? Its idyllic climate would be enough to tempt someone like me, if I could afford it.

But that is exactly the problem.

Add enough people like me (or modified versions with money) into one place and it starts to get boring really quickly. Without false humility, I will firmly admit that I don't add too much to a city's culture. I don't sing, I don't make things and I can't really cook. I'm not a community event organiser. (I don't even know many of my immediate neighbours.) I'm exactly like many of the people who have colonised San Francisco: safe but boring. And it's exactly this type of demographic that, in over-abundance, sucks the buzz out of a community.

San Francisco may be the city of start-up dreams. But it's becoming a dreary place to visit.

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