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Fear and Lofting in a Silicon Boomtown

I lost a pretty typical argument a while ago with a security manager at San Francisco Centre Mall. The guards had just thrown out a scraggly couple rather than let them use the bathroom. The manager stuck to his three word explanation: “They’re not shopping.” Not much I could say. Class discrimination mostly isn’t against the law.

So, OK, he probably thought the couple just wanted privacy to shoot up. And being a block from Sixth Street he may have had a point. But if I know San Francisco, the actual and unforgivable sin for which this man and woman were cast out was in fact Not Shopping.

Someday soon they’ll give San Franciscans little boxes like parking meters to carry around—sleek black plastic items designed at a dot-com right here and built by people making three bucks a day in Jalisco. Buy something and you get credit on your Residency Meter. If you don’t buy something on a given day, you can have a fee deducted from your credit balance. If you don’t have credit you can feed it quarters. Or, if you stop spending entirely, the meter radios the cops and they pack you off to Oakland for Not Shopping.

Space has always been valuable in San Francisco, which has water on three sides and no room for sprawl. But during the dot-com gold rush—which I’m happy to be discussing in the past tense—it got as money-pressured as a Beverly Hills gourmet supermarket, with every item required to earn its shelf space.

Now the real estate market is slacking, and some of the dot-commers are falling off their high shelves, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the rest of us to hang on. Better pay your rent, keep shopping, and no extra credit for those flowers in your hair. Part of the reason is that, like many American cities, we are experiencing what Patricia Williams calls “white reflux.” But here in particular the white middle class has colonized our inner city at T1 speed thanks to the silicon bubble.

“Don’t ask,” he said. “We don’t make anything, we don’t sell anything.”

Our local history offers some lessons on the subject of gold, silver, and other rushes: Paydirt is not guaranteed. Plenty of miners lose their shirts. The surest way to success isn’t hunching over a sluice box all day; it’s selling things to those miners who get lucky, or selling the possibility of luck to hopeful investors. Look how Wells Fargo outlived the Wild West and the Hearsts outlasted the Comstock Lode. Now it’s the loft-happy San Francisco Residential Builders’ Association developers—the ones who sold their buildings in time, anyway—who can walk away with cash, not unvestable stock options. Our rising tide has sunk a lot of boats—if you don’t believe me, step down to the courthouse and watch the landlords evict rent-controlled tenants so they can welcome techno-yuppies instead.

My husband Joel and I occupy temporary shelf space in a drafty but picturesque flat South of Market (that’s “SoMa” to your real estate agent.) We never exactly lived on Planet Dot-Com. Joel “really” does math; I’ve been mixing legal aid with journalism. But he does work as a programmer and we do live in San Francisco. So we’ve ended up in frequent participant-observer contact with San Francisco’s new society.

We nearly lost our shelf space summer before last when we were both looking for work, and that was probably a typical 1999 San Francisco experience. Everyone was nervous then, and trying not to want stability too badly. My homeless or hotel-hopping clients who learned to travel light and not ask too much; our own yuppie semi-poverty, short of cash and charging goat cheese on the credit card; Joel’s job interviews at startups where the coders had stock tickers on the corners of their screens.

You would think the programmers were best off in this picture—and yes, they probably were. But then there was the dot-com man at a party just before the Nasdaq crash who cringed when I wondered what his company did. “Don’t ask,” he said. “We don’t make anything, we don’t sell anything.” They turned out to run a variation on the Green Stamps gimmick: Shop in certain places, get points toward a prize. He was one of his own customers and had just collected a DVD machine as a Free Gift. I asked what distinguished his company from Amway. He said Amway had products.

Jack London knew SoMa as “South of the Slot.” A hundred years ago this was the city’s main working-class district, named after the pair of cable car “slots” that ran down Market Street. Now London’s Third Street birthplace is on prime dot-com real estate, more a development campus than a public urban space.

We live on the less fashionable end of SoMa, near shelters, sweatshops, a detox center, and a welfare office. But our neighborhood has been forcibly yuppified by big-box loft developers over the last few years. For a while we had three construction projects on our block alone. Our apartment could rent for half again what we’re paying. We’re only living in San Francisco at all thanks to rent control and relaxed landlords.

Of course, the twenty-year resident next door reminds us that we’re colonists, too—a white, middle-class boy/girl couple in a neighborhood that had been low-rent since the Gold Rush and that, when he moved here, was home mainly to Filipino immigrants and gay men. Folsom Street—just around the corner—was once known for its gay bathhouses. There are still enough leather shops to shock out-of-town visitors, and the Folsom Street Fair draws thousands of bare chests (and other parts) every September. But lively as it remains, this neighborhood is full of ghosts. We newcomers live on earth scorched by AIDS and gentrification.

We spent the last few hours of July 1999 helping a couple in the next alley to clean out their apartment for a midnight eviction deadline. Another “owner move-in” on a rent-controlled unit. They had invited us to a ten o’clock pizza and beer farewell, but when we showed up with part of a six-pack they were still frantically packing the truck. Lots of friends and neighbors pitched in—as many as ten people working at various times. We were not actually done when the landlord and his lawyer appeared at midnight, but they found an angry, sleep-deprived tenant surrounded by lots of friends, including some large guys moving furniture and two small middle-class women spouting legalese. They dropped the settlement check and left in a hurry.

A small victory, but then again, when the whole neighborhood helped out in the Depression it was sometimes to move the furniture back indoors in defiance of the sheriff. We’ve lowered our standards.

The legal aid office where I volunteer sees no letup in the eviction rate, and has itself been displaced by a dot-com. Landlords of rent-controlled properties are jumping on late rent payments. “Nuisance” evictions, for supposed bad conduct, are up. Citywide, Section 8 public housing certificates are expiring for lack of landlords willing to accept subsidized tenants. In mid-June last summer, 5,700 people applied for a chance at fifty-four new units of public housing.

Under Highways 80, 101, and 280, “property sweeps” have turned camping from a difficult but possible way of life for homeless San Franciscans into a risky last resort. A “property sweep” happens when city or highway maintenance crews, acting on police orders, remove the entire contents of a campsite. The crews are supposed to save any items of value for later collection by the owners. In practice the crusher trucks often eat sleeping bags and raingear, medicine and eyeglasses.

Sweeps are especially common in India Basin, under and around Highway 280. (This is the scenic Jag-laden route to San Jose.) The Residential Builders Association pushed through permits to build lofts all over India Basin, which has long been a live-and-let-live warehouse district full of rusty truck parts and wild fennel. The inhabitants still include bikers, hippies, artists, mechanics, and metal recyclers, many of them proudly self-sufficient “vehicular residents.” Now that the district has to be made safe for yuppification, the law in its majestic equality is sweeping campers out of the freeway’s wide rain shadow, and sending city tow crews to take cars, trucks and campers from people who use them as their homes.

This notion of clearing, paving over and repopulating jibes eerily with the newly rehabilitated word “solutions.” Hitler couldn’t put that word out of fashion forever. High-tech copywriters love it. A company down the street from us is typical: “DigitalThink: The Internet Learning Solution.” Joel was scoped by two software companies with names in the “____ Solutions” format and another that uses “solution” in the name of a major product. One company uses the slogan: “Dynamic, Smart, Connected. Embedded Databases and Development Solutions.”

The “solutions” phrase also extends into local politics—as does its unrealistic promise of breakthrough quick fixes. In his 1999 campaign, mayor al candidate Clint Reilly put out a campaign booklet called “Homeless Solutions,” promoting something called “compassionate refusal.”

Of course a lot of the money is in solutions to problems that had to be invented first. Like one company’s work on Internet surfing machines for exercise treadmills.

Joel interviewed at one company that builds solutions involving narking appliances. A low, new building slabbed out into the bay mud where the employees have to open a door with their security badges every time they go to the bathroom. They talked about washing machines that analyze their own problems and call the lonely repairman themselves. Also, toilets that test your waste products and, if necessary, call your doctor. (Or why not your parole officer?)

Joel had another interview at a dot-com startup near a brewery, in one of San Francisco’s fashionably post-industrial bonanza districts. Internet finance solutions this time around. The programmers there kept boasting about their “informal atmosphere” and the beer keg in the kitchen. One claimed the keg had helped his headache problem. The gradually apparent catch being the godawful working hours.

Around the corner from our apartment a dot-com called Petopia moved in where a custom photo-printing shop used to be. Petopia had big glass windows so you could see the poor boys sitting at their monitors late at night. The “jobs” section on their Web site talked about the fun of bringing your dog to work. Well, at least they had a popcorn machine and a giant fire hydrant. Times change: the Petopia store-front is empty now, for lease, and the company’s Web site indicates that it is now “part of the Petco family.”

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling suggested ten years ago that corporate yuppies have given up middle-class professionals’ traditional prerogative of doing useful, interesting work and are therefore more susceptible to the “addictive” attractions of wealth. A stock market derivatives programmer, for example, doesn’t enjoy the satisfactions of, say, a professor or civil engineer. If you spend your days setting up the Wall Street equivalent of trifecta bets, you’ll want to be well paid for it because money is your only reward.

Addictive is definitely the word, and—during the high tide of tech mania—the addiction had a twist: Dot-coms seemed to have improved on Eighties corporate culture by rewarding long hours with controlled injections of novelty and excitement as well as money—an appropriately Huxleyan approach for a place called SoMa.

To start with, there was the continual gambler’s excitement of watching stock options shimmy on the Nasdaq. Then there were the silly perks. The popcorn machine, the keg in the kitchen, weekly soccer, the Informal Atmosphere. When Joel started one programming job, the owner took him out for Thai food and the new Star Trek flick. Another startup reportedly made itself an indoor beach with real sand. All of which was supposed to keep our video-gaming generation persuaded that even at work, Computers are Fun. If your leisure activities actually were your work, then why did you need free time?

The flip side of Work as Fun is Fun as Work: the creation of dot-com products by putting dams, flow meters, and advertising rates on things people do for free in their spare time. It turns out that if you do something on the Net for its own sake, some third party will find a way to sell your enthusiasm.

My own virtual home is a Usenet discussion group where advertisements are either ignored or barbecued. So it was a shock to find that we served as unpaid “content providers” for,, and other ad-laden commercial sites that peddle Usenet posts to browsers and browsers’ eyeballs to advertisers.

Worse, when the free services couldn’t make a buck after all, they stranded Usenet contributors by cutting back. RemarQ dropped free browsing and posting. recently took over Deja’s discussion archive, making it available again. That’s good, but nothing says Google won’t yank it off the Net when they discover they can’t profit from it.

Another shock was finding that the commercial end of the Internet can’t tell news “content” from publicity “content.” In Spring 1999 I worked a temp assignment at a multimedia company. In the lobby was a display with the company’s publications and a plaque bearing the advertisers’ code of conduct. I reported to the “marketing manager” and she put me to work word-processing product reviews with no discernible sense of a conflict of interest. (It was not a hedonistic experience—the air smelled like hot photocopiers and I left with a whopping headache.)

At one point I applied to work for The Mining Co., since renamed, which hires freelance writer/editors to manage specialty links sites on topics from Canadian real estate to Transgender Life. I didn’t ask for the labor issues spot—too sharp an irony. The job was basically on straight commission, no promise of any particular wage. Payment according to popularity with viewers as measured in “hits.”

They did find a labor freelancer after all. Eventually a nice Labor History links page appeared, courtesy of “a mild-mannered librarian in a quaint metropolitan library.” After accepting or canceling five profile-tracking “cookies,” you could read about the Everett Massacre and the Pullman Strike alongside advertisements for Headline News, Shopping.About, and something called It was an attractive site. Probably a labor of love. The guy’s a hobbyist to himself, but he’s a temp to

Joel found a programming job in a semi-academic research office and now can justify his shelf space. He’s kind enough to justify mine as well for now. We feel less close to being moved out ourselves. At Joel’s new job they gave him an employee benefits packet called “The Benefits of Belonging.” Its contents included:

Investing for Tomorrow’s Retirement … Today!

Your Group Insurance Plans

Ensuring Your Doctor is a Good Fit to Your Needs

How nice. For us, that is. I hear they’ve ended free pharmacy service at General Hospital. Thanks to which a neighbor living on disability benefits has gone for months at a time without his seizure medication.

On those conditions, in these times, do we want to belong?

Driving home one night, Joel said quietly, “I never thought I would resent the computer industry.” He learned programming in the early Eighties, as a nerdy hobby barely more serious than “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Now some of us are watching cheerfully as the whole dot-com hallucination and its tin-eared libertarianism begin to fall apart. Maybe we can rebuild us a democracy out of what’s left. Already there are signs this city is tired of being a boomtown. This winter we elected a pro-tenant majority to the Board of Supervisors, which promptly slapped a moratorium on loft development.

Still, Joel and I have talked about moving. Maybe the rest of America is no better than San Francisco, but at least in my New England hometown the policemen don’t swagger on Harleys, and wealth isn’t so openly defended against poverty.

I keep thinking about a nameless quiet rainy place with no millionaires, plentiful roofs, and modest policemen. We could do with a change of scene.