Review: ‘Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area‘ (PM Press, 2018) (by Richard A. Walker, Prof. Emeritus of Geography, UC Berkeley).
On Thursday, June 14th 2018, London Breed was finally declared mayor of San Francisco, after a hard-fought campaign and close election that would have been historic in any possible outcome: Breed is the first African-American female mayor of the city, but opponent Mark Leno would have been the first gay male and third place finisher Jane Kim would have been the first Asian-American woman. As such, the birthplace of American identity politics revealed a very identity-political outcome. All three candidates shared a similar platform – namely, cleaning up the streets and dealing with the large homeless population and addressing the housing affordability crisis – though Breed offered a slightly more aggressive approach toward the homeless, a hot-button issue and one around which liberal San Franciscans are losing patience. The intractability of the homeless problem is just one of the reasons that Breed has a daunting job ahead of her. San Francisco, and many of its suburbs, are in danger of slipping completely out of reach to not only the poor and working class, but the middle (and even upper-middle) class as well, fueled by a relentless economic boom that has come to be known as ‘San Francisco 2.0’. Yet, as an historian knows – booms don’t last forever, and the Bay Area has always hit higher-highs, and lower-lows, than many other American city-regions, back to its early days as a rough-and-tumble gold-mining and shipping center. Creative production here is more fervent, but creative destruction, all the more violent.
Fittingly, and in this context, Geographer Professor Emeritus Richard A. Walker released what may be his magnum opus a few months prior: ‘Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area‘ (2018 PM Press). ‘Gone City’ reads in some parts like an election primer, thematically organized around many of the key issues facing San Francisco and the wider Bay Area, a Manichean and messy urban conglomeration which Walker presents as a double-edged sword of unimaginable progress and innovation alongside incredibly troubling poverty, homelessness, and inequality.
The professor of Urban Studies at the University of San Francisco and gentrification scholar Rachel Brahinsky rightly accused Walker of being something of a ‘Marxist Booster’ (while reviewing the same volume at the AAG Annual Meeting in New Orleans, April 2018): Walker seems torn between a lifelong love affair with the Bay Area’s golden mythology and promises at the same time that he skewers and vilifies the current state of the region. This is one rather strange contradiction in a book full of (economic) contradictions, and there are a few other drawbacks, which I will return to later.
Yet, as an anatomy of the economic geography of America’s tech hub, the book succeeds on many levels. It is timely, ambitious, and thorough, realized through Walker’s decades-long expertise in the region and avuncular familiarity with the region’s key players, politics, and quirks. Firstly, the (urban) scale addressed in the book is comprehensive and larger than many studies of San Francisco, which tend of focus on and fetishize the 49-square mile city which is really just a dot in a massive sprawl of more than 8 million people. Walker takes a bird’s eye view from Santa Rosa in the North, devastated by wildfires in Fall 2017, all the way down to Gilroy (and beyond) in the South, a distance of more than 100 miles (for British readers, a slice of land that would extend from London to Birmingham and beyond). It is at these far-flung exurban clusters, Walker argues, that the new, multi-racial working class and working poor are increasingly gathered, serving the economy of the network of cities comprising the Bay Area. Likewise, Walker’s overview spans from the beaches of the ‘Penninsula’ – that silicon-encrusted, moneyed hub often representing the core of the tech industry and ethos (Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, et al.,) – eastward beyond Oakland to Stockton and Modesto, fringe cities that have suffered in poverty and structural sclerosis at the same time that San Francisco has gone from ‘rich’ to ‘super rich’. This region-level thinking is welcome, and missing in planning, policy and politics in an area where topics like housing and transportation often end (inefficiently and frustratingly) at municipal boundaries and county lines. It may be that only an economic geographer and lifelong Bay Area resident like Walker can zoom out, and in, so effectively, and the book succeeds thus.
Secondly, the book covers a lot of topical ground, peeling back layers of the tech economy that span the social, structural, spatial, environmental, and political. What gentrification looks like in San Jose versus Oakland; the texture of the region’s unique multi-racial dynamic (majority non-white, and increasingly so); the ecological and natural consequences of so much money concentrated in one place; and perhaps most thoroughly, why the Bay Area housing market (and associated problems) has no American (and few global) comparisons. For example, Walker has the best explanation I have yet come across of why the local housing market is a demand, rather than supply, problem. Walker argues, convincingly, that too much demand (at the high end), fueled by an overheated tech job market, means that no amount of housing supply will result in socially-just housing processes. This needs to be argued more frequently and forcefully, and as convincingly, among local policy circles and among the chattering classes of the pseudo-progressive, pro-growth governing elite – including the new mayor, London Breed, who maintain that increased supply is the key to curing the affordability problem. This is also the line of the dominant local urban think tank, known as ‘SPUR’, and what has become known as the ‘YIMBY’ (‘yes in my backyard’) coalition. Few, other than Walker, are suggesting that there are simply too many high-paying jobs.
Where the book falls short, in addition to Walker’s somewhat rose-tinted glasses of the overall allure and innovation of the region over it’s history (an attitude that is frequently ingrained among those remaining Marxist-daydreamers who struggle to move beyond Berkeley, 1967) – is its optimistic assumption that ‘Left Coast Values’ will win the day and present unified, radical solutions. Walker identifies, in early chapters, a vast, multi-racial, multi-cultural working class, which, in his framing, spans restaurant workers, teachers, delivery drivers, and even mid-level professionals who would be ‘elite’ in any other metro but in San Francisco struggle to pay basic housing costs. This Bay Area working coalition will, in Walker’s hope, unite across racial, class and cultural lines and implement a more equitable future (or, ‘tech-uitable’, to use local parlance). To make this case, he points to several turning points where various cities have taken steps to roll-back some of the excesses in development and growth (such as San Jose / Santa Clara County putting in anti-sprawl regulation, spending on light-rail, and densifying in a new-urbanist way from the 1980s-present; or the rent controls and workers’ protections erected in cities like San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland). Walker seems to buy into the current California self-image of being a sort of progressive reaction to all that is wrong with the rest of America, but this viewpoint is too temporal, too ‘Trump vs. the West Coast’, and too reliant on the flickering, dimming candle of Governor Jerry Brown, finishing his final term. It is no accident that Brown was first governor in the 1970s, when Walker was enjoying his Marxist reading group as a young Berkeley scholar. Walker writes (what may be) his last book as Jerry Brown finishes his last pieces of idyllic legislation. Walker acknowledges that Brown, and other California progressives, have not exactly shied away from neoliberal tendencies like increasing the prison population, rolling back environmental regulations, and maintaining a pro-growth (business-friendly) agenda – but he could be even more expository of the multitudes of hypocrisies, back-peddling and self righteousness that are endemic to Northern California politics. And a little self-reflection, Richard: how lovely is the view from your home, high in the Berkeley hills (or wherever it is?)
I am not convinced of the (social, economic) resilience of the Bay Area, nor of California’s potential to be a progressive beacon moving forward. I have come to know too many desperate souls who would live anywhere else, if only they had the means to do so. I have also come to know my own students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and who do not share the 1960s-Summer of Love or Berkeley-radical values set of Walker and his cohort. These students, quite understandably so, want a better life for themselves and are aiming not to transform the region in some sort of unified working class uprising, but to pay off their debt and bring home a paycheck.
Finally – Walker may be slightly (and only slightly) nearsighted to overlook the racism that permeates, sometimes violently, the interstices of the Bay Area’s fabric. Walker paints a picture of a harmonious (if unequal and structurally-divided) metropolitan example of a post-racial America, a vision of things to come, when whites will no longer be a majority. I see, almost daily, a deeply suspicious white community; an equally suspicious community of color; and feel that racial strife is never far beneath the surface (here or anywhere). Just this week, a white woman was caught on camera verbally lambasting a Filipino-American family at the checkout counter of a supermarket in working-class (and extremely racially diverse) Daly City, in San Mateo County. I often tell my friends, and believe strongly, that if there is a race war in America, it may just as easily stem from the Bay Area as from Michigan, Alabama, or the Texas-Mexico Border. There may be a time, in the future, where Bay Area residents are ready to move beyond their identity politics, but I am not convinced that time is soon.
But even though this on-the-ground view may be obscured in Walker’s bird’s-eye-approach, the book is important, and should be required reading for London Breed and all others seeking to understand this complicated, beautiful, ugly region. And lessons learned in the Bay Area can, and will, apply to other cities and regions- especially as information which is defined and developed in these silicon circuits increasingly comes to shape and define humanity, delivered by a drone.