God of the City, Part 1: San Francisco is Changing

God of the City, Part 1: San Francisco is Changing

Cities are the new the suburbs.

It used to be that you grew up in places like Chinatown, the Mission, and Excelsior and you slowly moved outward, southward, until you achieved the stability that the American Dream had promised you. Immigrant families like my own, some from small villages in China, others from Mexico or the Philippines, would begin their American journeys in the inner city and, after working blue collar jobs, move to places like the Sunset District or South San Francisco. The neighborhood I grew up in was indeed like this: middle and working class, families who moved out of the city the first chance they could.

But the trend is reversing. “Every family deserves at least one generation of stability” someone once told me. We had our stability, and it was boring. Our generation is seeking a different kind of experience, a new expression of stability, and it is leading many of us back into the cities our families left behind, back into the neighborhoods once deemed too crazy, too loud, too dirty. We young, college-educated, iPhone-carrying professionals crave these things now.

Instead of using our wealth to secure quiet, safe lives, we are hungry for adventure, for stories, for excitement. We detest everything the suburbs represent: complacency, boredom, monotony. So we are coming back to San Francisco, transforming it, recreating it, gentrifying it, turning it into a new kind of suburb, one marked by the same kind of affluence but with the flair and rugged authenticity that the suburbs could never give us. We are chronicling the process in instagrams, Facebook posts, and pictures with the contrast levels way too high.

Many of us, however, are already catching onto the ugly underside of these trends. We have posted articles about “douchebags” taking over the city, about disrespectful startup CEOs, and about why San Francisco is better than LA. And while most of us are quick to condemn these actions, I think many of us lack the vocabulary to truly describe what is going on. The best we can say is, “Those dang hipsters, they’re ruining everything!” My voice has been in that chorus; I too am growing weary of a new wave of San Franciscans wearing their expensive dinners and Dolores Park instagrams like badges of honor. But to simply throw up our hands at such trends ignores not only the complexity of it all, but our complicity in it all.

I didn’t grow up in San Francisco (as many of my friends are quick to remind me), but I did go to school here, I did church here, my closest friends were here. My parents grew up here in neighborhoods that have changed a lot over the past thirty years. I still remember summers at my grandma’s house on 17th and Guerrero, right next to Mission High. We didn’t see hipsters back then, let alone know what they were. I love San Francisco because it’s home to me, despite the fact that I would always get picked up to go back to Daly City after play dates and birthday parties. In my mind, the (I’ll be calling them) New San Franciscans who have moved here for the restaurants, the nightlife, for startup and tech jobs, cannot understand or love San Francisco the way I do. I imagine for those of you who really did grow up here, you feel that even more deeply. We’ve been here the whole time, we remark whenever we feel like the New San Franciscans make claims on our city. We never had Yelp growing up so we just hung out where we lived: Geary and Irving was all we knew. What the heck is Dogpatch?

However, the trouble with my complaining is that, well, I like Bi-Rite. And Tartine. And going to Dolores Park. I’ve come to appreciate Plow and Brenda’s and all those hipster brunch places. I like a good coffee shop and I think it’s pretty freaking awesome if you can draw a panda face in my latte froth. I Yelp these places. I support their business. I gentrify San Francisco. Though I have been here all my life, I too am the New San Franciscan. And that puts me in a weird place.

I feel like the older brother from the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). The younger brother—wild, disrespectful, hipster—returns home after a stint of partying and debauchery and the father welcomes him back with open arms. The older brother, however, cannot share in their joy. I’ve been here the whole time, he laments. This is my home. And the older brother seems to resist a change that has already happened; he chooses to deny the fact that the younger brother is home and there to stay. His choices are to adapt, to make amends with his brother, or to sulk in his own self righteousness. As the Bible tells us, the older brother chooses the latter, and the younger brother proceeds to open a slow drip, free trade coffee shop that caters to young, bearded professionals in Judea.

So what can we older brothers do in this situation? Should we welcome our hipster younger brothers cheerfully, with open arms? Do we share our space with them, have hipster parties together complete with mason jars for cups, DIY lighting, and succulents as party favors? But what happens when the younger brothers, after being welcomed, start to disrespect the house rules? What happens when the younger brother sets up his bed in the space where the father had been sleeping for years? What do we do if he takes down the family portrait and replaces it with the weird avant-garde sculpture he bought at the thrift shop?

I must be honest with myself that I am part of the young, educated population of San Franciscans who are changing the landscape. The expensive restaurants, the coffee culture, the bars, Mission Street—I have excitedly put money into this industry. However, there must be something said about the ways that these new residents, businesses, and this new culture is affecting what has been here for decades. We are gentrifying the city. Black and Brown families are moving out because they cannot afford to live in neighborhoods that boast expensive restaurants, loud bars, and affluent tech company employees. Blocks are becoming progressively white and Asian and we must be mindful of how we younger brothers are affecting the city.

We—those of us who have money and education, who frequent the bars and coffee shops—we have the power here. We have the voice. The city is listening not to the Mexican shop owner but to the startup CEO. Our affluence affords influence; the city is happy about us changing the composition of the Mission or Bayview because that means more money being tossed around. But if we are to concern ourselves with justice, with true city renewal, we must use our financial and institutional capital wisely, to affirm the families and businesses that have been here, to increase awareness of what our presence means in this city and to give space for voices that may know a little bit more about San Francisco than we do.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that I think most of us know this already. Many of us are educated, politically correct, humane, and concerned about issues of justice. Young San Franciscans are the progressive intellectual elite. We buy Toms, we eat organic, we post articles about social justice and corporate greed—we know the answers. We know what gentrification is and we openly condemn it. But our activism is wrought with contradiction. We are a generation of slacktivists, quick to promote one-click justice or a tshirt that will feed a child, but we are negligent of how our consumer habits support a system of inequity and we are fearful of the implications of true justice. It is easy for me to post an article about how I hate gentrification and then buy a $10 cup of coffee in the same day without noting any contradiction. It is easy for me to complain about rent prices without realizing that am the one driving them up. It is easy to hate injustice. It is harder to see our own hands in it, and then to do something about it. Does this mean I have to change where I buy my coffee? Does it mean that I should reconsider buying that apartment? Does it mean I have to check my privilege, meet my neighbors, and advocate for them? In our educated, socially conscious, twitterized existence, the chasm between opinion and action is as much widening as it is becoming invisible. Many of us have fallen into it already without even knowing because we believe that saying what is right is the same as doing what is right.

This post is not about hipsters, Silicon Valley transplants, coffee snobs, instagrammers, or PBR drinkers. This is not a post about a nebulous, vilified them. This is about us. This is about the contradictions we face when we talk about things like gentrification, city renewal, and the neighborhoods we inhabit. This is about San Francisco being a microcosm for a generation of affluent, educated millennials who are politically correct in their assessment of society but fail to see how they (we) are part of the problem. For those of us who consider ourselves people of faith, there are even more contradictions (that’s for part 2). This post is about us being honest with ourselves, about laying down our iPhones, our designer jeans, and our new, idealized conceptions of what we want our futures to hold. We do not desire the sterility of the suburbs the way our parents did, but we are chasing after a different kind of comfort, a new complacency, a new suburbia, a nouveau riche that looks different but smells vaguely similar to the kind of affluence our parents attained. If we are not careful, we will turn the city and ourselves into a new kind of monster. Let us be mindful and let us walk softly, for this house is not ours.