This is a Talk I gave at The Battery, a ridiculously chi-chi private club at the edge of downtown San Francisco. The event, “Gentrification and the Changing Nature of San Francisco,” was organized by Broke-Ass Stuart, who somehow came to be one of their current artists-in-residence. I have to say, I felt pretty uncomfortable there, and I’m sure a number of my co-presenters were in the same boat, especially Michelle Tea and Maryam Rostami… and though the event was promoted as a way to generate dialogue between us ostensibly “authentic” San Francisco writers and artists facing displacement and eviction, and the nouveau riche of The Battery (private membership = $2,500/yr!) who might be partly responsible for our precarious situations, by the time I got up as the penultimate speaker, about a third of the attendees had already departed, and no one had much energy left. After the unbearably self-serving, pretentious, contradictory, and laughably arrogant presentation at the end by Roberta Segal, Stuart thanked everyone for coming and no dialogue was invited. So much for that!
Gentrification and Liberalism, San Francisco and Beyond
Thanks for inviting me to participate. I’m a local historian and a long-time writer about the stupidity of modern work and the field of economics, so for starters let’s just say that gentrification cannot be addressed in isolation from social amnesia or work. I think gentrification is a concept that hides as much as it purports to reveal. The word sometimes functions as a marker even while it can allow us to leave out history or broader questions of how we organize the production and reproduction of life in all its complexity.
The physical spot we’re in here at The Battery has gone through some mighty transformations in the relatively recent past. We are here on a spot that used to be part of San Francisco bay. Not so very long ago, less than 200 years, a couple of blocks west of where we are was a beach with a creek burbling in about where the Transmerica Pyramid is now… in 1837 the first house was built by William Richardson at apx. today’s Clay and Grant (up in Chinatown) and years later his son told a story about sitting on the porch gazing down sandy slopes at the mudflats revealed by the low tide. There he saw dozens of huge fish, probably sturgeon and salmon, beached in the mud by the tide, being fought over by a coyote, a wolf, and a grizzly bear.
The old Barbary Coast grew up here along Pacific Avenue, originally on piers and platforms over the open bay. It was home to vice and crime of all sorts, perhaps the most dramatic being “shanghaiing”—the business of providing sailors to ships, by hook or by crook. An 1897 U.S. Supreme Court decision excluded civilian sailors from the 13th amendment’s protection against involuntary servitude, arguing that sailors were deficient in that full and intelligent responsibility for their acts that is accredited to ordinary adults, and therefore must be protected from themselves in the same sense in which minors and wards are entitled to the protection of their parents and guardians!Decades of organizing sailors into unions finally led to the banning of “shanghaiing” in 1906.
Fifty years after that, this area was a teeming center of the produce district. Most people were speaking variations of Italian and the abundant produce of California’s agricultural industries flowed from inland empire to the City’s waterfront finger piers, and from there into the wholesale markets, canneries, and other facilities that made this the heart of Italian North Beach. In the 1950s a double-decker freeway was built along the waterfront ending—temporarily, thought the highway planners—at Broadway, with on and off-ramps just a block from here. The relatively new-at-the-time Redevelopment Agency chose this part of town for its first major project—the removal of the Wholesale Produce Market and the expansion of downtown east and northward. This modernization process also led to the destruction of the old Montgomery Block, home to dozens of San Francisco’s bohemian artists and writers for many decades, and its eventual replacement by the Pyramid.
Concerted efforts by local citizens led to rezoning of the Jackson Square historic district before it was engulfed by new highrises. Another dynamic political movement arose to oppose the crisscrossing of San Francisco by elevated freeways, ultimately stopping over a dozen plans and eventually, with a helpful earthquake in 1989, leading to the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and the flourishing of a tourism-based economy along the waterfront. That could only make sense because another huge social movement had finally changed our relationship to the San Francisco Bay. For a century it was a given that filling the bay was a good thing and finally in the early 1960s people organized to stop it. They largely succeeded with the creation of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and subsequent environmental regulationssuch as the Clean Water Act. Today, saving the bay, along with the freeway revolt, are foundations for the environmental and urbanist movements that are still battling to make this a good place to live.
I arrived in San Francisco in 1978 at the age of 20 and moved into an apartment on Cole near Haight when Haight Street was 50% boarded up. At the time it was slummy, trashed, full of alcoholics and drug addicts, depending on its exaggerated reputation derived from the hippie era. Within a couple of years, it was gentrifying, and by the time I moved to the Mission in 1987 people had been complaining for years about how the Haight was being taken over by yuppies.
Gentrification has been going on for several decades at least, but we tend to notice it episodically when the effects are most extreme, when neighborhoods and communities are at their most threatened. The word itself probably obscures as much as it reveals at this point.
What we’re experiencing these days is called in many parts of the world “neoliberalism.” Neo of course means new, so what is this new liberalism and how is it different from the Old Liberalism that preceded it? I think this distinction is an important one for understanding what is different about how gentrification is affecting us now, compared to how it was when I saw it beginning in the late 1970s in the Haight.
Precisely at that time, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and in the wake of Nixon’s southern strategy that coaxed millions of white racists into the Republican party, the Old Liberal coalition that had come together under Franklin Roosevelt in the New Deal was falling apart. Old liberalism had strong proponents in San Francisco, mostly Irish Catholics from the Mission District who dominated City and state politics during the middle of the 20th century. Old liberalism had a purpose, forged in the Depression of the 1930s. It was strongly opposed to laissez-faire economics, and understood that Capital could not be given a free hand without serious damage to the fabric of life. Regulation and government economic intervention were necessary to achieve fairness and prosperity for the majority of the population. These liberals were also believers in the American way of life, including private property and the importance of so-called free enterprise. They saw themselves as the only hope to save capitalism when it was threatened by the godless communists, who were not only atheistic but totalitarian. During WWII liberals and communists worked together to defeat fascism and for a brief moment at the end of the war it seemed that a kind of Scandinavian social democracy might emerge in the U.S. too, with guarantees to housing, health care, decent jobs, public education, social security, and more.
But the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war overshadowed everything. The largest strike wave in U.S. history in 1946 led to the passing of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 by a Republican congress determined to curb the power of the working class to win strikes and expand its power. Moreover, though they joined the consensus on the liberal expansion of the state, the conservative politicians of that time made sure the vast majority of that expansion would be oriented towards empire and the military. In fact, the interstate highway program was sold by Republican President Eisenhower, the former WWII general, in part for its importance to military defense. Old liberals closed ranks with conservatives against the communists during the Cold War, often becoming aggressive hawks to prove their patriotism. During this era, there were liberals and conservatives in both Democratic and Republican parties, a reality that didn’t really begin to change until the breakdown of Old Liberalism in the 1970s. More »