Tuesday, April 8, 2014


One Sign of Gentrification - The Debris Box
San Francisco is reinventing itself, again. Back in the post-hippie days we lived in many neighborhoods of San Francisco, from the Marina to the hillier bits on the city's southern frontier. As with any city, San Francisco is more a collection of small towns interconnected with a gridded fabric of streets, parks, and retail blocks. And for the most part the city is also significantly single-family homes. Sure there are large apartment buildings (especially closer to downtown) and in some neighborhoods many of the homes are now rental, but overall, single-family homes dominate. And because of this, areas fall in and out of favor. Some San Francisco districts, like in other cities, fell in value and failed due to lack of care, changes in race, declining values, and fear. But these districts also turned around.

Over the years one of the rally calls of social critics and urbanists was "Stop Gentrification," a somewhat pejorative term meaning that some "other" group was taking over a neighborhood and, OMG, fixing up derelict properties and moving in. Try as many of these people-of-conscience might to vilify this activity, most of the locals in the area were thrilled to finally see a positive change to a declining district. I saw this forty years ago in the Western Addition, then on Polk, then the Castro, and so on and so on. For San Francisco this was often the work of the expanding gay community in a city that accepts everyone.

All these improvements are a result of seeking value. Every neighborhood of most large cities will experience it; it is evolutionary and is not necessarily driven by racial change. Some are driven by fashion, life style, and aging in place until the need for wholesale replacement by the next generation. During the era of freeways and expressways bifurcating American cities it was not unusual to find isolated neighborhoods that suffered. Today many of these are being reborn.

Currently San Francisco is facing another round of gentrification, this time financially driven. It can be seen in the Goggle buses and other high-tech charters that prowl the neighborhoods picking up employees for the one hour drive to their jobs in Silicon Valley. Nice work if you can get it. It's pushed protestors to stand in front of the buses demanding some type of social justice. It escapes me how or what that would be. I do recall a great cry during the past twenty years for more transit use and less auto traffic, but I guess that if it's one of the tech firms it doesn't count.

But what does count is the impact that these very affluent employees have on the city. The neighborhood and cities around the core of Silicon Valley and north San Jose are now too expensive for the everyday employee and besides who wants to live in a tacky suburban tract home that costs 2 million. San Francisco, as it did for us more than forty years ago, draws young people, it has for one hundred and fifty years; nothing has changed – other than it too is becoming very expensive, again. Dodgier neighborhoods are being rehabbed, new shops are appearing, and rents are rising. And even though the pols downtown wring their hands over these changes (to appease their cultural/political supporters), down in their dark hearts they are thrilled. Higher values mean more tax revenue, higher values mean a less problematic population, and higher values mean advancement not decline.

Now the Bay Area is experiencing the classic spill-over effect. Oakland, while definitely NOT San Francisco is also experiencing some uptick, especially along the estuary and neighborhoods with views of San Francisco and the Bay (now if they could only get their political house in order). Alameda and Berkeley are also feeling the love. Unfortunately many who live there are on the wrong end of the ox and are also feeling the pinch, especially when it comes to rising rents.

Gentrification is a more passive, grassroots if you will, form of urban renewal, a nasty term from the fifties and sixties. But gentrification is purely American in its form and process, and entrepreneurial in its core. Without it a city could devolve into a Detroit or other troubled big city with decaying streets and neighborhoods. Without gentrification and renewal, houses wouldn't be improved or "fixed-up," neighborhoods would be lost and not retaken. Every effort should be made by the city to help these people, through timely permits and approvals, to make it happen. Economic cycles come and go, cities need to understand and seize the moment and help, not hinder, these urban entrepreneurs.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . . . . .

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