Over the past decade or so, an influx of young professionals has transformed the character of faltering urban neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Bushwick and working-class preserves in Chicago and Atlanta. This wave of gentrification received a lot of attention last year when D.C.'s black population slipped below 50 percent, prompting a lament in The New York Times bidding "Farewell to the Chocolate City," while Atlantic Cities, in a historical corrective, opened with the question, "Is bemoaning the gentrification of Washington, D.C., a genre past its prime?" (Short answer: yes.)
This is the gentrification debate as most of us know it: whether poor, largely minority families are being uprooted from their communities by developers and government policies, or whether they are seizing opportunities—like selling their homes for a profit—and leaving by choice; and whether the largely white middle-class residents who are taking their place are complicit in this transformation, if not downright guilty of cultural appropriation.
But not in San Francisco. Here, the debate is dominated by fierce new champions of the anti-gentrification cause who aren't concerned so much about the truly poor being forced from—or tempted out of—their neighborhoods. In their view, the victims of gentrification are also affluent, just less so than the people moving in. And the consequences are supposedly catastrophic not only to these relatively well-off people who are living amidst people even more well-off, but a mortal threat to nothing less than the rebel soul of San Francisco.
An article published last week in The East Bay Express, “The Bacon-Wrapped Economy,” encapsulated the injustice this way: “Old money is being replaced by new, but it's a new kind of new, one that has different values, different habits, and different interests than the previous generation. The very rich have always, to a greater or lesser degree, been guilty of excess, but what's changed is that the Bay Area's new wealth doesn't necessarily have the perspective, the experience, or the commitments of the group it's replacing.”
Articles decrying San Francisco’s economic vitality have begun to appear fairly regularly. In February, the London Review of Books published a long, dismayed essay on “the fate of a city that poets can’t afford.” Last August, Peter Orner, a novelist and professor at San Francisco State University, wrote in The New York Times on the plight of a young couple who rented in his prosperous Bernal Heights neighborhood. Their landlord had decided to sell the property, and the couple, whom neighbors tapped for emergency babysitting, came close but ultimately was unable to come up with a downpayment for a mortgage. “I fear that the more affluent this area becomes, neighbors—people who look out for each other—will become fewer and farther between,” he wrote. “Lately in San Francisco, we seem to be comfortable tackling every progressive cause except for the question of where middle-class people … are supposed to live.”
In San Francisco, anti-gentrification is a progressive cause to save financially viable people like the above couple from losing their lease on a rental property in an already gentrified neighborhood. In the best of times, it’s hard to envision a lot of people shaking the rafters for this one. But in a national economy sputtering out of a historic recession and a catastrophic housing bust, good luck convincing the masses that vibrant urban neighborhoods shouldn't experience population churn, that current residents should try to keep out new ones, and that residential property ownership is a pretty lousy idea.
But an argument unappealing to the broad public and an affront to people dealing with serious financial problems can still define the terms of debate, and suck the air out of a reality-based conversation about affordable housing for the truly vulnerable. Especially when it is coopted by a city’s middle-class intelligentsia—the writers, professors, and veteran neighborhood-preservation fetishists with media access—to serve their own real-estate interests and parochial cultural predilections. Indeed, the depressing consequence, say grassroots housing advocates, is that people whose concerns are shared by almost nobody have hijacked an important policy debate.
“The people who get hurt the most by an ignorance of the way development happens are not the ones who write articles,” said Peter Cohen, the executive director of the San Francisco Council of Community Housing Organizations. “There are a lot of annoying opinions out there on both sides of the debate and some people try to sound smart on the issue of gentrification—it’s a kind of softball, anyone can hit it—but there are real people”—poor and working class people—“who actually get hurt while all this shit is getting written,” he said.
Cohen met me in the newly dubbed “Mid-Market” neighborhood near downtown San Francisco that's haltingly undergoing luxury re-development. Sitting in the worn lobby of a hotel patrolled by security guards near Twitter’s new corporate headquarters, and armed with documents showing statistics on skyrocketing rents and rising tenant evictions, Cohen came to talk about disenfranchised people struggling to keep financially afloat and about the legal intricacies of deed-restricted affordable housing. He said he expects to have an uphill climb to reach new residents obsessed with buzzy restaurants and city officials in thrall to new tech business interests, but now also struggles to be heard over the din of middle-class residents moaning about the "gentrification" of their neighborhoods—residents who themselves may have been gentrifiers, or more likely followed in gentrifiers' footsteps.
Though severe in San Francisco, this phenomenon is beginning to infect places far from the Bay Area, with pockets of outraged middle-class neighborhood revanchists surfacing even in struggling cities, like in Louisville, Kentucky. The result? Middle-class anti-gentrification activists in places without gentrification. “The idea, the fear of gentrification reaches even places where there’s not much threat, such as in Louisville,” says Jane Walsh, director of strategy and development at a large community-organizing group in Kentucky called Network Center for Community Change. “In Louisville that kind of noise displaces other issues, like race. We talk about neighborhoods gentrifying but they aren’t—we have neighborhoods that are quickly becoming decimated by vacancy and neglect, and I’d rather talk about that.”
And even in places, like San Francisco, where the more affluent actually are moving into middle-class neighborhoods, social scientists do not consider it to be a form of gentrification at all. “Middle-class people being bought out by upper-income people—that may be a political issue, but it’s not what we would call gentrification,” says Robert J. Sampson, an urban sociologist at Harvard University. “The affluent moving in—that’s an urban battle, but not gentrification.”
Misnomer or not, middle-class anti-gentrifiers were bound to find fertile ground in San Francisco. The compact city has a long history of clubby NIMBYism and knee-jerk preservationist politics that torpedoes even the most sensible development projects. In a crime-engulfed tip of the Haight-Ashbury district where a boarded-up, blighted structure stood for years, a proposed mixed-use building was derailed by street protests, a 32-month city review process, and a punitive $6 million in city fees. Activists objected to the gentrifying effect from owners of the proposal’s 62 condos and the environmental degradation caused, in a city with almost a half million registered vehicles, by 182 parking spaces designated for a Whole Foods on the ground floor. The issue at stake, for some, seemed to be the very idea of residential home ownership: Early in the development process, Calvin Welch, the head of the organization spearheading opposition to the project, was quoted in SF Weekly: “Just as San Francisco has traditionally thought of itself as other than America and revels in its dreams of being other than American, home ownership in San Francisco has never, ever, been anything San Franciscans have dreamed much about until recently.”
San Francisco’s anti-gentrification argument mainly cleaves to two foundational imperatives: the forever rights of renters to neighborhood incumbency, and the importance of protecting San Francisco’s liberal political character from outsider dilution. David Talbot, the founder of Salon.com, penned a 4,300-word bromide against new arrivals in October's San Francisco magazine that pitted “a city of enlightenment” against “a city of apps,” and called for more civic engagement, less corporate cocooning, and more of the hell-raising—more of the “brawling city,” as he put it to me—that has set San Francisco apart from other American cities.
Talbot is a nimble conversationalist, and I found myself feeling churlish at faulting his vision of a brassy, insurgent city. “San Francisco—and New York—is becoming a sort of precious preserve of the tourist and foodie class,” he told me over drinks at Café Zoetrope, the tony North Beach restaurant owned by Francis Ford Coppola. “But San Francisco used to be a city where people came not because of the hills and the trolley cars but because of the vibe. Now you have a dull city.”
Talbot was careful to stud his argument with nuance and caveats. Immigrants are good. New blood in general is good. But “these people moving in, they give me the creeps on one level; their default philosophy is libertarianism, they don’t want anything that impinges on their personal and entrepreneurial freedom,” said Talbot. “I’m aware that they bring economic benefit to the city, but there is a San Francisco exceptionalism that prevails here, that I think is worth fighting for. The country needs a laboratory where new ideas are tested. They need to be open to infection from what has made San Francisco a progressive bedrock.”
The idea that San Francisco’s liberal politics are being wiped away by a bacon-wrapped engineering class fuels a sense of urgency among the middle class anti-gentrifiers, but the evidence points the other way. A higher percentage of people in San Francisco voted for Obama in 2012 than voted for any Democratic presidential candidate in the city’s history. And while other cities have undergone dramatic demographic changes—D.C., Atlanta —San Francisco has basically stayed the same, with similar percentages of racial composition, foreign-born residents, and educational levels over the past ten years. When San Francisco media publishes supposedly biting satires about gentrifying hipsters, the portrait that emerges is pretty much identical to the stereotype of an under-35, technology-forward, upwardly mobile individual in any other big American city. I was urged to troll Valencia Street at night to see for myself how the Mission District had been transformed. It looked to me about the same as when I last walked the street in 2005.
Ironically, the anti-gentrifiers themselves undermine San Francisco’s liberal ethos. Opposed to newcomers? Wary of people whose values you don't understand? Critical of young people for not living up to an older generation’s ideals? It all sounds very reactionary and close-minded. In fact, it’s difficult to see this kind of anti-gentrification argument being called a “progressive cause” at all. It is, rather exactly, William F. Buckley’s famous rallying cry for conservatism, that it “stands athwart history, yelling 'Stop.'"
Dawn Phillips’s eyes narrow when I bring up San Francisco’s middle-class anti-gentrifiers. The co-director of programs for Causa Justa, a neighborhood organization responding to resident displacement in Oakland, Phillips is currently trying to save an 87-year-old woman from losing her house after taking on a predatory loan for roof repair. “There is a lot of focus on the crazy people on the left,” says Phillips. “It’s a good way to delegitimize us.”
In Phillips’s world, the urgent issue isn’t whether the Bay Area’s new wealth has the same perspective and experience as the old. Nor is Phillips losing sleep over where in the city middle-class people are supposed to live. Rather, for Phillips, the gentrification problem concerns government policies that for decades disinvested in neighborhoods, only to turn around and encourage real-estate investment when richer neighbors moved close. This, Phillips argues, systematically pushed vulnerable, disadvantaged people to the geographic margins, where there is little work, community resources, or personal networks.
For these people, leaving San Francisco carries a higher cost still, argues Gen Fujioka of the Chinatown Community Development Center, because the city proper offers extensive social services. Targeted economic development creates narrow employment in the knowledge sector, which pays for public services no longer provided by the federal government and funds the amenities that bring in still more knowledge workers, but also drives up rents and displaces the poorer people who need San Francisco’s resources the most, he says.
“The families who we represent who are displaced are really fighting for dear life,” says Fujioka. “They get their health care here. People with AIDS—they’re served here. Because opportunities are diminishing elsewhere and the best locations have been staked out, poor working people have fewer and fewer places to go except for the periphery.”
Fujioka isn’t the first to notice that American cities are looking more and more like European ones, with inner cities becoming rich while poorer people migrate to the outer-ring suburbs. The city, of course, benefits from large inflows of immigrants, a decreasing crime rate, changing attitudes on commuting—no shortage of factors contributing to what Sampson, the Harvard sociologist, calls the “new social transformation in the city. All these forces are going on and fuel what people are calling gentrification. Part of the problem is defining it. You can have gentrification without displacement. You also have an ironic NIMBY syndrome going on—people want to live in a hip gentrifying area, then a Starbucks moves in and they suddenly call it gentrification and they’re against it.”
Even housing advocates like Cohen concede a hard ideological approach loses hearts and minds. “I also understand that we have a changed disposition toward cities. How can you find a sweet spot between these two forces—how do you bring in this creative class, but also make sure that people who toiled in the weeds are not simply squeezed out? How can you sort it without just saying that the market will take care of everyone, when obviously it won’t?”
Middle class anti-gentrifiers don’t have the answers. They’re not even posing the questions—perhaps because the people who toil in the weeds were never their neighbors in the first place.
Ilan Greenberg has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate, and teaches writing on international affairs at Bard College.