On a Sunday morning, at a cavernous performance space in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, a group of social workers, artists and community activists sit around on flea-market furniture to plan a counterattack on the infiltrating enemy -- the hordes of well-heeled newcomers, many of them dot-com yuppies, gentrifying the neighborhood. Kevin, aka the anarchist Nestor Mahkno, alleged founder of the Yuppie Eradication Project, chivalrously pulls up a seat for me.
In the past two years, my neighborhood has become a battle zone in the gentrification wars transforming America's inner cities, and I have been trying to understand it from the trenches. Real-estate developers and the young cyber-professionals who buy homes in the Mission have become the enemy. White artists -- many no doubt graduates of the same tony, liberal arts colleges that the young cyber-professionals attended -- and old-time residents, mostly white and Latino community workers, have forged a precarious alliance against the moneyed intruders.
Some would consider me the Internet vermin that's ruining San Francisco. Sure, I moved here as a writer and artist, but now I work at Salon.com, and even own a home in the Mission. Am I now the enemy? Hanging around the anti-gentrification movement, and supporting at least some of its goals, has let me answer "no" -- until recently.
Like so many left-wing organizations, this one has been foundering with internecine strife from the beginning. There are too many good ideas -- and each one has ideological underpinnings that offend somebody. They all agree they want to preserve the "old neighborhood": ethnic diversity, working-class small businesses, affordable rents, art spaces, live-work studios for writers and artists. But how to achieve these goals is an ongoing source of contention.
Some would like to blow up buildings; others to draft planning legislation; others to lead whimsical anti-gentrification tours. The Yuppie Eradication Project, a radical anarcho-propagandist group, posts flyers urging vandalism against yuppie vehicles and elite restaurants in the neighborhood. Not everybody here supports that.
"We just need something simple to say who we are and what we want," says Jonathan, the boyish founder of Cell, the community art/performance space where we sit. "What makes sense as an overall slogan?"
"Resistance to Gentrification," offers Kevin, adjusting his black-rimmed librarian glasses.
"Too negative," complains a gray-bearded Latino man. "How about 'Mission Visions'?"
"Too obscure," a middle-aged, short-haired painter says. "Why not just say what we want? 'Save Our Neighborhood.'"
Deciding on a slogan was supposed to take only a minute; already it has dragged on for more than half an hour.
On my right, Kevin mutters something about tedium and shakes his head. As the presumed front man of the Yuppie Eradication Project, he maintains a certain precarious prestige within the group, even among those who disagree with his tactics. After all, gentrification happens every day in neighborhoods across the nation, but his antics put our little Mission Beanfield War on CNN and in the pages of the London Times. Yet, as a strident anti-capitalist, anti-nationalist, anti-democratic ideologue, he also represents a political fringe that few of these activists condone.
Deborah, the director of a local arts organization, perches quietly on the other side of the circle, her hands glimmering with silver rings. As the group continues to argue about the historical implications of the word "resistance," and then "gentrification," Deborah and I exchange uncomfortable, complicitous smiles. We both have been coming to these meetings for the past 18 months; we are both long-term residents of the neighborhood who have devoted years to the local arts community. But, like me, she is one of the enemies within: a young professional who bought a home in the 'hood two years ago.
But if she's an enemy, I've come to feel like a double agent, a traitorous spy who represents everything that these good souls despise. As a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, community-volunteering, social-working artist, I was once a member of the endangered species that these activists are so diligently trying to save from extinction. What happened? I got a job -- in the scurrilously libertarian Internet sector -- that allowed me to buy a home. That alone has transported me across the battle lines.
That's not all: I also bought a flat on a gang-infested corner, in a controversial arrangement known as a tenancy in common -- in which a group of people buy and share a set of flats. TICs are both the closest thing to low-income homeownership in the city and a buzz word for the evil that the new economy has wrought. Because owner-move-in evictions remain the only sure-fire way of ousting tenants from rent-controlled apartments, TICs have become the primary means by which once-affordable apartments have been transformed into pricey middle-class pads.
Then I bought a new couch. More than anything else, that pea-green, ultra-suede purchase sealed my initiation as a yuppie. For months I didn't sit on it, but just looked at it every day -- marveling at how high I'd risen and how low I'd sunk. I even had a recurring nightmare that Kevin discovered it and realized the depth of my iniquity.
Like a giant meditation altar, my couch got me thinking about the changes in the city and the war that has descended on the 'hood. The discussions about gentrification, the influx of capital from high-tech companies, dot-com yuppie scum and the loss of San Francisco's "true spirit" have led many to paint a black-and-white portrait, when increasingly all I can see are shades of gray.
Yes, many, many people have been unfairly evicted from their homes; yes, young, arrogant Richie Riches have brought a culture of rampant consumerism to what was once a romantic mix of cultural experimentation, progressive politics, ethnic diversity and cheap food. But when one looks more closely at these broad stereotypes, another story emerges, one that is less easy to cast in a drama between light and dark.
Some say that the gentrification of the Mission is essentially a form of racial cleansing -- driving blacks and Latinos away to make room for more white people. I wonder how my friend James feels about this. The founder of a two-man software company, he just moved into the neighborhood and bought a home. With his cell phone and fancy car, he's the closest thing I know to a real, infiltrating Mission yuppie. He's also African-American. An exception to the rule? Sure, but it's odd how peopled with such exceptions my world is.
Where the bohemian romance ended and the Internet scam began is also difficult to delineate. The Mission District has always been a haven for an indulgent idealism and scam-artist ambition. When I was a member of a 17-person anarchist performance collective, we were trying to save the world and become fabulously famous at the same time. But we had difficulty with the notion of simple hard work. Like the starry-eyed, optimistic Internet moguls, we were often sure that a get-successful-quick scheme was just around the corner. No, we weren't aspiring to wealth or mainstream glamour, but our ambition had the same impulsive, individualistic frenzy.
That the Internet boom happened in San Francisco is no accident. The city has been a haven for underemployed, underpaid thinkers, scientists, artists and writers for years, and many of these cherished oddballs helped ignite this sweltering economic climate. Others simply benefited from it. I know of two local dot-coms that have staffed virtually their entire art and editorial departments with the most unconventional performance artists, spoken-word poets, community activists and painters that the city has to offer. Are they all traitors to the cause of poverty? Too bad they like to eat; the city was so much more picturesque with only gaunt, wolf-eyed creatures in torn clothes and tattoos.
The problem is that in San Francisco downward mobility had become a lifestyle choice every bit as self-indulgent as upward mobility. I know because I was one of the voluntarily low-income: lionizing the working class, despising my "white-skinned" privilege, camouflaging the capriciousness of my aesthetic tastes, nursing a love-hate relationship with the middle-class identity my parents imbued in me. There is a real pleasure and even, I think, a virtue in that kind of voluntary poverty, but it really doesn't have much in common with the poverty in my neighborhood.
Sometimes the gentrification even helps my less well-off neighbors. Manuel, the Salvadoran gardener who owns the duplex next door, bought the building decades ago when it was worth next to nothing. Since then he's been renting to fellow immigrants for far-below-market rates. Now his father is sick in El Salvador and he's decided to sell the building. Is he simply a pernicious landlord trying to capitalize on his profit margin or a man trying to help a very needy extended family?
Likewise, the Salvadoran family that lives below me has little reason to romanticize poverty, unemployment or a flagging economy. Four adults and one toddler live in a dilapidated one-bedroom apartment. But as soon as they could afford one, they bought a used SUV. Julio, their 18-year-old son, seems to embody everything that the elegists of the old neighborhood are mourning. At 13, he walked alone across Guatemala and Mexico, then paid a coyote to sneak him across the California border. He's poor, hard-working and incredibly sweet.
But he's also fast becoming a very American teenager. First he bought an expensive bicycle, then a nearly new Nissan Maxima -- all purchased, I assume, on credit. When I encountered him with a broken nose and bruised face, waiting to go to the clinic, I worried that he had been beaten up by hoodlums on his way home from his dishwashing job. Later I learned that he'd decided to get a nose job. Now he's been promoted to waiter and is studying computer programming at night. If he has his way, he's not going to stay in the working class.
The people who bemoan the dying "diversity" of our working class/bohemian neighborhood may not appreciate Julio's material ambitions. And indeed, I can't help but see his nose job -- transforming his flat Indian nose into a slightly more European beak -- as internalized racial self-hatred. But I've never met a teenage boy with a more unlined brow or a more generous mien. Julio's not just a representation of oppressive forces, he's an individual who will pursue an individual life. Progressive political measures may help him hold onto a rent-controlled apartment, but they won't change his desire to grow up and become a homeowner.
Every industry-specific boomtown benefits some people while leaving others behind. So this is not the story of the Internet so much as just another tale of the free market's mad, mad world. But here in San Francisco, where radical political ideas have been able to survive in the pristine petri dish of nostalgia and theory, the struggle over the Mission District feels both historically significant and hopelessly theatrical. No one knows quite where they stand in reality, but they're still using the old language of revolution to stake out a position. Hence the ongoing struggles over language. The world has changed but our words have calcified.
Later in the Cell meeting, no consensus has been reached, and Jonathan decides that he'll just have to decide the slogan on his own. So we break up into groups to fight the "multimedia-zation," as one man put it, of the neighborhood. The groups are "direct action," "vision" and "outreach." I begin in "direct action" and migrate to "outreach." By the time I arrive, the members have created a list of the predictable groups that each person can target, to build a constituency to stop the neighborhood takeover: the Latino community, elderly renters, poor artists, community activists, nonprofit workers.
"But how can we let them know that they aren't welcome?" someone is saying. This statement about "them," which I've heard a hundred different times since I've been coming to these meetings, would suggest something altogether more chilling if expressed in an all-white enclave in Birmingham, Ala., or a gentile quarter of Berlin circa 1935. I'm finally realizing that while the situation is different because the newcomers have the power of cash, the xenophobic impulse is the same.
Deborah takes a deep breath and says: "What I just don't understand is what we mean when we say 'us' and 'them.' I don't think you can assume that just because someone is poor or Latino, they don't like the changes. We were talking about all the working-class bars that were closed down to become yuppie drinking holes and they really thought it was an improvement. By the same token, we shouldn't assume that someone who works in the multimedia industry doesn't appreciate diversity or rent-control laws."
There is a brief silence, and then conversation continues as before, invoking the us/them dichotomy at every turn.
"But who is 'them'?" she asks again.
People look at her, perplexed. One woman shrugs. "Anybody who owns a home or works in the industry." Others agree.
Deborah and I lock eyes. "Them" is clearly "us," and with each meeting and protest I attend, that fact becomes more impossible to ignore. My dear friends shake their heads. "You're not a yuppie, Carol," they say. "You ride a bike and only have two pairs of shoes. You're nice."
But I know better. For the people who believe in the romance of bohemian impoverishment, who feel self-righteous about demonizing newcomers, who extol the morality of renting over owning a home (thereby depending upon and giving profits to a landlord), I am the very scum of the new cyber-economy -- and I'm not ashamed to say so.