“I think the American dream is a load of crap… it’s a nightmare for most people,” says a burly, 61-year-old former banker who now eats at soup kitchens. He’s talking to Alexandra Pelosi towards the end of her short but affecting documentary, San Francisco 2.0, airing on HBO tonight. The film provides a compelling, clear overview of the effect of the tech boom on Pelosi’s home town, a place with “[a] long tradition of embracing nonconformity.”
The film also makes the same point that the down-on-his-luck banker does: that what’s happening in San Francisco is representative of other trends, namely the gentrification and stratification of cities around the globe, the widening income gap, the troubling implications of late capitalism and the vanishing middle class.
San Francisco 2.0 offers viewers a quick review of the proud countercultural history of San Francisco, from flower power to gay pride. This leads into an explanation for what’s happening now: “incubators,” start-ups, angel investors, all the elements of HBO’s merciless fictional sitcom Silicon Valley. But now, the tech bros have been enticed out of that valley and onto the streets of San Francisco’s historical neighborhoods, drawn by the offer of tax breaks from the city. This influx has reduced unemployment and brought in revenue to the city, but caused its own share of problems, which Pelosi thinks might steal away the “heart and soul” of Saf Francisco.
Pelosi’s jaunty interview style gets amazing results. She gets one tech bro to exult about the lack of “older people” or “kids ” in downtown San Francisco: an awesome bubble of youth! She comments to a major venture capitalist, Ron Conway, that “I barely recognize my home town,” and he cuts her off — “That’s called progress,” he says caustically, before acknowledging, “we do have a housing affordability issue that we have to deal with.” Oh right. That.
Exploring that “dark side of progress” is where San Francisco 2.0 gets powerful. Pelosi’s interviews with families that have faced eviction or near-eviction, along with longtime non-white residents of gentrified neighborhoods as well as small business owners and artists, will break viewers’ hearts. This city, these neighborhoods, are the home of the people on screen, and often have been for decades. Yet there’s very little they can do as no-fault evictions skyrocket and glassy luxury high-rises go up at a breakneck pace.
Instead, they mourn and paint more of San Francisco’s traditional wall murals to lament their community’s plight. “The city is being taken over by the one thing I thought the city always hated, money,” a working-class college student tells Pelosi. Their conversation takes place in his family’s apartment, from which they were recently threatened with eviction.
“A city is a fragile pact,” Salon co-founder David Talbot tells Pelosi, suggesting that if the immigrants, the artists, the musicians, and the working class leave, “San Francisco will become a bland, monotonous, tech-oriented city.”
Pelosi seems to want the government to come in and regulate the tech industries, none of which want to be regulated at all (see recent fights over Uber and Airbnb). She interviews former mayors Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom and Art Agnos, along with Californian governor Jerry Brown. While they all express concern, Willie Brown is the one with the most dramatic long-term predictions. He thinks the city needs to protect the middle class because some of these tech guys are going to fall into it. “The angel investors will be gone,” he says. “These young people will be at a loss, but they’ll be in our city.”
One of the questions driving the short film is whose fault, and whose responsibility, this situation is. Most certainly, the city’s tech workers could stand to be far less entitled, more aware, and more responsible citizens of their neighborhoods — but are they themselves the problem? Even the local residents being displaced by these people are wise enough to see the bigger picture: it’s all about the bottom line. Greed is the force driving them from their homes, most obviously in the form of the giant developers who cozy up to the tech companies and offer them space, quietly sweeping longtime residents away. In other words, it’s unfettered capitalism.
One of the most charming things about San Francisco 2.0 is its willingness to say the c-word again and again, pointing to San Francisco’s stratification as an inevitable result of our current economic situation. “San Francisco is London, it is Manhattan,” says Robert Reich in one of the most (unsurprisingly) forceful interviews. “As we separate by income and by place, as we segregate geographically, as we lose contact across classes… can we maintain a sense of being one people? I’m worried about a city that is becoming uniformly wealthy and out of reach and out of touch.”
Reich and Pelosi posit growing income inequality as a national epidemic, with San Francisco as ground zero. Pelosi’s final plea is that the “innovators” in San Francisco try to use their savvy to tackle this problem.
Will they do so? I’m not so optimistic. Indeed, the unspoken irony of the film is that all this inspiration, genius, and life-hacking has created dozens of new ways for wealthy people to order pizza and get errands done, but done absolutely nothing to keep the neighbors of the coders and techies from being thrown out onto the street.