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A Survey of Gentrification Lit: Notable Achievements in the Genre 

Wednesday, Jul 17 2013

Back in February, San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius began a piece about the changes taking place in San Francisco with the following two sentences: "Gentrification," he wrote. "It's happening with surprisingly little grumbling."

Which raises the question: Just which Internet is Chuck Nevius reading?

For months prior to his column, in publications from the highfalutin pages of the London Review of Books to the midfalutin pages of this very paper, residents of the city of St. Francis saw fit to grumble quite a bit indeed about the G-word (either "Gentrification" or "Google bus," take your pick). And as expected in these argumentative and content-hungry times, their complaints prompted a fair number of impassioned responses.

After gripping Bay Area media during the first Internet boom of the late 1990s, the gentrification debate took off again in 2012, fueled partly by the symbolism of Twitter's move (with the help of city tax breaks) into its new Mid-Market headquarters. Halfway through 2013, gentrification has become the core of a near-constant argument about the future of San Francisco, with offshoots subsuming otherwise civil conversations about food, the arts, and development. For the media, decrying, praising, or simply pointing out the forces of change in S.F. is practically a cottage industry: Gentrification writing is a reliable traffic-magnet for websites like the Bold Italic, an evergreen lesson in lefty values for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and a juicy tale of trouble in Bohemia for international papers like The New York Times and the UK Guardian. (SF Weekly is, of course, also happy to address the subject.)

The bevy of online writing has practically become its own genre: "Gentrification Lit," with two major subgenres: "Against" and "Not-Against."

The Against crowd has a host of concerns, like demographic change and the loss of San Francisco's famously weird character. But what drives their anger (and they are usually angry) is the issue of where to live in a very small city. These worries course through Rebecca Solnit's Feb. 7 essay for the London Review of Books, which can be summed up as: I have lived in San Francisco, and I want to continue to live here, and you newcomers are making it so that I can't. Solnit's piece deals with more than housing — it's an all-inclusive broadside against the techies, about whom it generalizes with no shame — but the fear of displacement underpins every sentence. Not surprisingly, it's become an almost sacred text for the Against crowd.

Other journalistic accounts are just as outraged. David Talbot's "How Much Tech Can One City Take?" from San Francisco magazine (Oct. 2, 2012) grounds its worry in reporting from the front lines, like the cafeteria at Twitter HQ. Ellen Cushing's "The Bacon-Wrapped Economy," from the March 20 East Bay Express, examines the cultural interests of the new young elite, and worries about the effect of their libertarian, data-driven perspective on the city's nonprofit institutions.

No one has quite argued in favor of gentrification the way the Against crowd sees it, but there's no lack of people defending the changing character of the city, as well as those responsible for the change. The Not-Against crowd, including real estate agents and neighborhood activists, helped inform Nevius' assertion that no one is grumbling. Salon writer Andrew Leonard read Cushing's piece and chided that the whole gentrification debate happened already, more than 10 years ago: a common critique of this literature. Many young rich jerks lost their shirts in the last dot-com bust and will in the next one, he predicted in a March 27 article, while insisting that a boom (or even a bubble) is much preferable to a bust.

Perhaps the most forceful retort to the views of Solnit and Talbot came from technology writer Farhad Manjoo, who scolded the city to "get over itself" in a withering column for PandoDaily (Dec. 1, 2012): "If it accepts its fate as a large metropolis, San Francisco could become the next New York, Hong Kong, or Paris — a city that's dense with people and businesses, and all of the urban services, cultural values, and environmental virtues that density accommodates," he wrote. Economics blogger Matthew Yglesias, writing for Slate (April 11), also suggested that more density would solve some of the city's problems. "I completely believe that 3.2 million people would want to live in a hypothetical, much-more-crowded version of the city if they were allowed to," he wrote, appearing dumbfounded at the city's refusal to allow taller residential buildings in compact, transit-adjacent neighborhoods like the Mission. "It'd be affordable with a much larger tax base."

Manjoo and Yglesias have a point. Demand for housing in San Francisco is basically both infinite and eternal, but building more units might ease the upward pressure on prices, and thus defuse some of the friction between middle-class residents and moneyed newcomers. (Or it might not help the middle class at all; look at New York.) In these ideas, though, progressive anti-gentrifiers, the original Against crowd, saw an old foe. "You Want to Live in Manhattan? Move There," sniped the Bay Guardian on April 19, with former editor Tim Redmond insisting that "housing should be treated as a human right and regulated like a public utility ... and it should be allocated by seniority." Redmond, however, didn't acknowledge the contradictions in his position: That building taller buildings could actually make the city more affordable for the middle classes he says he wants to defend, and that many people who don't already own houses here, like he does, would be happy to live in a more dense San Francisco if it meant living here at all.

But gaps in understanding arise even more frequently in the arguments of the Not-Against. Their idealistic, prescriptive visions fail to offer any real defense of, or panacea for, the heartbreak and injustice of being pushed out of a city you love, reside in, and have dedicated years of your life to. Leonard can complain about how boom-driven restaurants close during a bust, and Manjoo and Yglesias can offer grand solutions that are unlikely to be adopted. Techies can bitch, with good reason, about being stereotyped by grouchy old-timers. But there isn't an app for losing your home or watching its culture evaporate away, and there's never going to be. Which is maybe why this subject, in the hands of skillful writers like Solnit, Talbot, and Cushing, makes for such compelling and sad stories.

One could always try denial, as a scribe for the New Republic did. In a piece that birthed a sort of third subgenre of S.F. gentrification writing — neither Against nor Not-Against, but rather something like "Gentrifi-skeptical" — Ilan Greenberg ("I Left My Home in San Francisco," April 12) insisted that what's happening here isn't gentrification at all, but merely middle-class residents using the word to conceal discomfort over richer people coming in and ruining their good time. Greenberg argued that neighborhoods like the Mission are already long gentrified, and that the Againsts are a simply bourgeois class with access to the media, who are ignoring the plight of the genuinely poor out of worry for themselves. "In San Francisco, anti-gentrification is a progressive cause to save financially viable people ... from losing their lease on a rental property in an already gentrified neighborhood," Greenberg wrote, with the emotional detachment of an outsider. "In the best of times, it's hard to envision a lot of people shaking the rafters for this one."

But aren't they already doing it? The vast body of writing on the subject suggests that whether it's technically gentrification or not, the concern in San Francisco is as real as the change. As we've seen through the way the debate has subsumed other recent issues, like the BART strike, Gentrification lit — and all the grumbling and counter-grumbling therein — is here to stay. At least until the next bubble pops.

About The Author

Ian S. Port


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