San Francisco: the “threw it on the ground” city?

Nathan Heller has a New Yorker piece about dissatisfaction with the tech industry in San Francisco. I always watch my step around Heller’s work these days, because he’s so damn persuasive – he had me completely won over with the Bay Area tech industry booster article he wrote last October, despite my better instincts. (With some distance, I’m less swayed than I originally was.) And he’s produced another well written, satisfyingly reported piece. It stands out for being descriptive among a crop of prescriptive and polemical essays on the topic, even if one still feels that his sympathies are a bit more on the side of The City’s transformation.

There was one passage I particularly liked, a surprisingly poetic nibble at the conflict between the burgeoning “progress”-oriented culture in SF, and Northern California’s political heritage:

Does a society that regards efficiency and advancement as its civic goal have any true investment in the mechanisms of representative public life? The West Coast radicalism of the twentieth century arose from the revelation that, in moments of extreme frustration or injustice, power could be claimed and wrongs could be corrected by exiting the system.

One implication of the article is that “exiting the system” may no longer be a viable means of claiming power. Which relates, I think, to a complaint I hear from people who visit these days that the city feels like a bubble. That observation may be on target, but at a point in time it was the right kind of bubble – a city that lived on its own terms, and was a true pioneer for counterculture and the rights of marginalized people. A paragon of “think global, act local.”

What people are complaining about when they call San Francisco a bubble these days is something a bit different. In some cases, their annoyance may still have the tinge of an old mainstream, reactionary prejudice against the city. However, I think it is also energized by a feeling that San Francisco is very much part of the system from which it would like to think it stands at a distance. Indeed, it has become something of a capital of that system in a way that—for all its bank towers and corporate law firms—it never fully was in the past. To those critics, it’s a city where aesthetes and other lovers of rare, fine things can enjoy themselves while feeling a bit morally superior.

It’s not really the city’s fault that this has happened. The system it once shunned has overtaken it: global American-style capitalism all but rules the world. What San Francisco has done wrong, however, is fail to recognize the size of the macro forces outside its control. It often still seems like the best-intentioned San Franciscans—those I would agree with on a huge variety of political issues—still believe that simply standing their ground will be enough to get the city through this storm, mostly unchanged. What they can’t seem to see is that they are quickly losing the fight. In failing to adapt, they are allowing the city’s defining values to slip away forever. They may lose their only chance to have the city change on their terms.

Will San Francisco shift from being an activists’ redoubt to being a “threw it on the ground” city? I refer, of course, to the pathetic character portrayed by fellow Bay Area native Andy Samberg:

The reason we don’t respect this hilarious character is not that he’s militant, but because, with his careful hip wardrobe and staid, middle class activities, he is obviously not separate at all from the system he is so angry with.

I hope that doesn’t become a good metaphor for San Francisco in 2014. I’m sure there are those who would argue it already has.

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