I’m from San Francisco, land of the techies.
Years ago, I could have ended that sentence very differently. I’m from San Francisco, land of the hippies. San Francisco, land of immigrants, land of artists and musicians, working-class families and clog-moms. However, San Francisco, like all cities, is in a constant state of flux.
The new wave of people who flooded into the city as the Silicon Valley tech industry boomed are a typically single, young, wealthy crowd. Locals call them “the techies.”
This change can especially be seen in the Mission District, a once working-class Latino neighborhood that I grew up in. For the past decade, its 99 cent stores, local markets and rent-controlled apartments have been vanishing in favor of artisanal chocolate stores, $9 Pressed Juiceries,and Mark Zuckerberg’s apartment. This change especially hit home with the news that Thrift Town, a 45-year old San Francisco institution, had closed last Wednesday.
The iconic Thrift Town on 17th and Mission was a non-profit thrift store, open since 1975, that served the needs of the diverse community. It had a historic tradition of serving the needs of locals shopping for everything from day to day clothes to burning man outfits. However, due to increased rent prices in residential and commercial zones of the Mission, Thrift Town, like many other local businesses, was forced to close its doors.
As a longtime Mission resident told SFGate, “It’s been a nonstop parade of funerals for these kinds of businesses here. Twenty years ago, we came here to make culture, not money. The culture is still living in some places, but it’s on life support” (SFGate, “Rumors Confirmed: 45-year-old Thrift Town Closed Today,” 03.29.17).
Gentrification is both a long, scary word and a complex, scary, violent process.
According to the Zillow Home Value Index, rent prices in the once working-class Mission District, once primarily home to Mexican, South American and Central American migrant families, now averages over $4,000 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. This price is way beyond what is affordable for the average working family.
Rent-controlled apartments in San Francisco, as well as in gentrified cities across America, are an increasing novelty, due to landlords’ taking advantage of tenancy laws like the Ellis Act.
When abused, the Ellis Act “allows real estate speculators to purchase rent-controlled buildings, evict longtime tenants, and sell shares to people who can afford to own their own homes” (Newsweek Magazine, “Tech Boom Forces a Ruthless Gentrification in San Francisco”, 4.15.14). This combination of the eviction of locals and the closing of commercial businesses, like Thrift Town, that once created the rich, distinct culture of a neighborhood, changes the landscape of the neighborhood and makes it so that only a select few can afford to live there. The beauty of cities and neighborhoods is in their diversity—diversity of people, language, incomes, cultures. This is one of the many violent byproducts of gentrification, byproducts that must be constantly confronted, critiqued and actively fought.
However, I don’t want to oversimplify the process. Gentrification is not a simply black and white, zero-sum issue. Complex histories and sociological phenomena inform the process of gentrification, a process that cannot be reduced to a single motivation or action. My family moved away from the Mission in the early 2000s because there were frequent violent outbreaks near our street and high rates of gang activity near my elementary school.
Along with the wave of techies came cleaner streets and more money put into neighborhood revitalization projects.
In an interview with Steven Fowler of the Hudson Valley, Lisa Silverstone, the executive director of Safe Harbors of the Hudson, a non-profit arts and housing redeveloping project working to provide affordable housing throughout the Hudson Valley, responded to the question of “how do you draw the line between renewal and displacement?”–effectively, when do you know if you are revitalizing an area or gentrifying it–with something that stuck with me. She said, “When people who have lived in neighborhoods for years start losing the ability to pay rent, when you start losing the unique character of your neighborhoods…that’s when the alarm bells should go off. The alarm bells shouldn’t go off when buildings start being rehabilitated. That’s a good thing” (Hudson Valley, “Gentrification of the Hudson Valley”, 11.18.2016).
While I, as both a West Coaster and only recent Vassar student, am not at all qualified to talk about the changing demographics of the Hudson Valley, I immediately drew parallels between the situation here and the situation in San Francisco.
An article in the Poughkeepsie Journal discusses Poughkeepsie’s own dilemma: “There’s a delicate balance between the need for urban revitalization and preventing displacement of those who may no longer afford to live there. How do we walk the line?” (Poughkeepsie Journal, “In cities, the Hudson Valley is struggling with its potential and realities” 1.5.2017).
This tough question is being approached through projects like the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory, a revitalization of the old abandoned factory on Main Street that which opened its doors on March 30th and now houses local businesses and a remodeled interior, in hopes of revitalizing the surrounding area (Poughkeepsie Journal, “Underwear Factory opens as latest revitalized Poughkeepsie property”, 3.30.2017).
In order to “walk the line,” as shown by San Francisco’s current gentrification crisis, affordable housing is of central importance. Crossing the line between revitalization and gentrification occurs when local residents can no longer afford to live in their own city. While Poughkeepsie and the Hudson Valley should have the opportunity to enjoy benefits of revitalization through projects like the Underwear Factory, the Hudson Valley must be careful not to succumb to a culture of evicting local residents and making the city virtually unaffordable to those who once lived there.