Saturday, March 25, 2017

San Francisco

The following is not about photography, it is photography. Or something. I am going to try to get around to publishing this thing as a magazine, and perhaps even making it available for sale. I welcome opinions, reactions, and so on. Do please note that your advice if offered might get ignored, but your reactions will ceretainly not be. Thank you for your consideration, and respond (of course) in absolutely any way you choose.

I have visited San Francisco regularly for something like 25 years, and lived there for 6 of those years. It's never really been my city, but it's a place I know well, and which I have observed from the outside for half my life. I had occasion to return there a few days ago and, circumstances being willing, performed my preferred flânerie with more intensity than usual.

I will likely get many of the details wrong, but what follows should be right in broad strokes.

Capitalism has baked in to it the idea of constant growth, constant change. Competition drives growth and change. Enterprises of various sorts grow or die, and eventually, all die and are replaced. It includes a built-in inflation, exacerbated locally by fads, by abrupt changes in technology, by growth of industry, and so on. I am no economist, but these things all seem to be true, and I gather that they are essential parts of the capitalist system. Mostly, it works fairly well. When one region experiences one form of growth or another, let us suppose that wages rise, expenses and incomes more or less rise roughly together.

When income rises, especially rapidly, within a group or region, though, it can forces prices up across a larger context. This, in turn, makes the have-nots have somewhat less, in relative terms, arguably twice over. Not only has their income not risen correspondingly, but everything costs more now.

San Francisco has always been a city of change, and has for much of its history been a city of a sort of hyper-capitalism. Wave after wave of newcomers arrive. Each wave more highly paid than the last, while some of the previous wave are cashing out their stock. Rents and purchase prices for homes ratchet upwards to newly surprising levels. Each generation of newcomers, the cry rises, ruins the city for the previous waves, driving out marginal businesses, rendering non-viable everything that made the city desirable in the first place. I was in the wave of newcomers that arrived after the first dot-com boom imploded, and I left shortly before the current bubble really got frothily under way. I did my bit, ruined the city for the remaining, scarred, survivors of the first dot-com bubble, and then I left.

In San Francisco, prices are always rising faster than in the region. Always.

Each wave makes everything, especially living quarters, less affordable to all the non-wealthy people. Each wave of newcomers to San Francisco is part of a phenomenon which drives the less affluent further and further from the city, out into increasingly remote suburbs. Each wave, interestingly, tends to be instantly recognizable on the street. You can tell at a glance who is new and who is not. Not, of course, with 100% reliability, but you can get a general sense that most of this mob arrived in the last couple years, that group over there is from before 2010, that guy was probably here before 2000, that guy might even be a native. Your guesses will be interestingly better than random. In part it's simply age. People tend to arrive in San Francisco when they're about 25 years old.

The men seem to be more identifiable than the women, possibly because the women adopt a broader range of styles, and possibly because the women are (appear to my eye to be) more ethnically diverse. My efforts to photograph the women of the current wave crashed up against the unpleasant truth that, insofar as there is a visual archetype here, it is largely coincident with the rather nasty "Basic Bitch" stereotype, which you may google if you like. The men are simpler, and seem to my eye to fall in to either "Tech Bro" or "Finance Bro" without many exceptions.

4th street, through SOMA, has always been central to my conception of San Francisco. It is the path from Caltrain (commuter rail from points south) to the core of the city and further transit options, and it is generally walked by all, there being no particularly convenient option. 4th separates the growing side (1st through 4th) of SOMA from the slum side (5th through about 10th).

4th street is, I think, where the Friends of Photography Gallery was in the early 1990s, when I went to see the Ansel Adams and the Magnum exhibit there on one of my first visits to the city. It remains the central corridor of the new wave, as it always was. People live south of the city and come in to work, and vice versa. Housing and technology companies exist at both ends.

4th street connects Mountain View, Palo Alto, Sand Hill Road, to the desirable condos of San Francisco. It also connects,, and the offices of a 100 other funny named companies to the less expensive houses and apartments in Burlingame, South San Francisco, Foster City.

I had occasion recently to re-acquaint myself with the story of Thorstein Veblen, who seems to have been the first to really study the idea of conspicuous consumption, the idea that certain goods experience increased demand as the price rises, the so-called Veblen good. Veblen, to my amusement, died more or less a pauper, in a shack, on Sand Hill Road, now ground zero for the Veblen Good. Venture capitalists are starting to leave the cozy nest on Sand Hill, though, and open offices in San Francisco, off the cutest park in the middle of the hottest neighborhood.

One can view 4th street as the pipeline through which wealth is pumped out of the disadvantaged and into the pockets of the already wealthy, if one is cynical enough. I am.

It should not have come as much of a surprise to me to see that homelessness is worse than ever. Tent cities are common. Guys sleeping on sidewalks are more common than they were in 2009. The numbers are larger and to me they feel a little crazier, a little more over the edge. The same areas of town smell like piss, the same areas of town are economically non-viable. The police presence is greater. Perhaps I got lucky, but I observed in two days what might have been a month's worth of crazy in 2007ish, when I lived two blocks off the Tenderloin.

Small businesses in the core area of growth, along Market St, mostly on the SOMA side, have suffered. There are more chain stores, there are more dark wood and stainless steel restaurants that will sell you baby arugula salads roasted in ovens fired with artisanal pecan shells. Sky scraping office towers are going up like weeds. At a furious pace, at any rate, for a geographically tiny little town like San Francisco.

I noticed a couple of restaurants that were excellent 10 years ago, who have actually migrated closer to the core. Apparently they are still excellent, or at any rate have sufficient reputation to move up in the world.

Has this generation, the generation of "tech bros", finally killed what makes San Francisco great? Of course not. It's just the same thing all over again, a wave of destructive renewal, leading to one more layer of generic high priced bullshit spread over the 150 year old bones of an interesting city. Get away from the core, and the place is much the same as it was in 2009, or 2003, or 1990, or I dare say earlier as much as any city is. Little shops and cafes die and are replaced, out in the Sunset District, but at a more normal pace. The good ones are still there, the dubious ones are tottering or gone, replaced.

Bookstores are fewer, but some remain standing. Video stores are gone, I think. Signs o' the times, and not much to do with San Francisco as such, but still disappointing.

Public transit strikes me as having fewer white men (almost none, that is, as compared with "some" in 2009), and I assume that this is largely due to the massive herds of Uber and Lyft cars roaming the streets. Women and people with melanin still ride public transit, though, in vast numbers. I like public transit and despise both Uber and Lyft. The latter I suspect, among their many sins, to be partly responsible for the weirdly monochrome car population in downtown San Francisco. Virtually all cars are white, grey, or black. There are a few slate blues, and a rare muted red. Almost literally nothing else. This might be Uber/Lyft, it might be local fashion, it might be simply that everyone drives late model cars and these are the colors in fashion At The Moment. It's extremely weird once you notice it.

The downtown cultural institutions seems to be doing OK. New money is still money, and these things live on massive donations from the vastly wealthy, of which there is an increasing supply to be tapped by the savvy fundraising team. The SFMOMA has recently completed a staggeringly huge expansion, rendering its space a vast, incomprehensible temple to Art. Enormous volumes seem to have been built for no purpose except to impress the visitor, although I suppose you could hang some art, if it were the size of a bomber, from the ceilings. I assume that the opera and the ballet, as well as the other institutional museums are doing OK as well. I approve, despite my cynicism.

But still. The process resembles globalization, except on a tiny scale, and at greater speed. The central core, where the high wages are, is driving up prices across the city and across the region, where wages are not rising at the same pace because, capitalism. Each wave of newcomers to San Francisco, to the Bay Area, drives the inequalities to a slightly more unequal state. The homeless population rises and gets more desperate. The workers who roast your salad in the pecan-fired oven have to commute in a bit farther.

Every week, the city gets ruined for someone when some institution they loved goes under. Every day another house or two is remodeled from something with problems and character into a featureless white box trimmed in stainless steel and heavy glass, like some South American despot's idea of a museum. The well-fed technologists and bankers gradually but inexorably rise and rise up the economic ladder while, just as inexorably, everyone else slips lower and lower. It's happening all over the world, but just a little faster in San Francisco.

What does seem to be genuinely happening is that these people are ruining the world in an effort to get rich. I was there too. When I wrote games 30 years ago, we worried a little about anonymity and privacy, but not enough. We worried about social impacts, each of us knew someone who had self-immolated playing games on the internet. But we rationalized and didn't worry about it much. I wrote software to make government networks more secure. 30 years later, a couple of generations down time, the kids don't care at all about privacy, or security, or social impacts. Each generation grew up with the fruits of the previous one, and pushed it a little further in the pursuit of the big stock cash-out.

Now we have young men gathering endless data one everyone they can find, correlating it, and packaging it. This is sold to business partners, given to the government, and stored in poorly secured databases so any hacker on earth can gather it up by the terabyte. The only person who can't have your data is you. At the same time we have a trend to "disrupt" businesses, which means to destroy the incumbents and replace them with what will surely mature in to a more expensive, inferior, or perhaps non-existent substitute. Uber, AirBnB, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and so on, all appear to be aimed at pulling a Walmart on the entire economy. Underprice the incumbents until they die, and then stand around in the ruins looking dumb. The young men not gathering your personal history or disrupting you employer's business are probably trying to figure out how to more efficiently deliver more intrusive advertisements to every device in your orbit which consumes electricity.

Not all the young men, to be fair, but enough of them. Too many of them.

It's no-one's fault, it's just capitalism.

Globalization does all these same things, at scale albeit often somewhat more slowly, and one feels that it cannot be sustainable. In the same way, San Francisco's apparently endless frenzied growth and "innovation" feels likewise unsustainable. How and when it crashes down is hard to guess. Every turn of the crank feels like it must surely be the last, and yet, I have personally witnessed enough of those turns to wonder if it must end at all. Perhaps it can go on forever, getting incrementally more and more weird.

There is no rule that says that our society will necessarily evolve and survive this. There is no rule that says humanity will survive it. There is, luckily, also no rule that says the contrary. There aren't any rules at all, this is unprecedented. It's never been tried, it's big, and we don't have a clue how it's going to fall out.

I certainly don't know. I do know that for a few years it angered me, but I have found a kind of peace with it now.


  1. oooooowwwoooowww!!!
    San Francisco written… I will WRITE Waikiki!! I will WRITE Vancouver!!
    I never thought of that.
    makes me think of "…a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light…" - we love our towns...

  2. The essay outshines the photographs. Are you using that Dropped Nikon?

    1. I am not, there is NO glow! In fact, I used a rather beautiful specimen of the classic AIS 50/2.0 which I deeply adore.

      But it has no glow.

  3. I remember when 4th street was referred to as the Combat Zone, there were no-zero- high tec companies and financial services drove the economy.

    Today Oracle down the penninsula is moving all their inside sales much if their back office jobs and corresponding payroll to Austin - my company did same for many internal back office functions 4 years ago.

    The cost of living is still explodeing! The editioral comments er hear in Austin today are the same we heard in the 1980's -yes before there was muchn of a silicone valley -at least there were oarcards left back then ---where is affordable housing????

    Even Tech companies aare feeling the pinch of their own growth!

  4. I found the essay very interesting.

    As for the pictures, well, that mlk one and the house are nice. The storefront thing I've seen ten million times already, but it is appopriate. I don't like all the blurry people photos, I don't understand what they achieve. The uber, lyft one is cool, reminds me of a magazine I read. The rest are... forgettable.

    1. It feels to me as if you are looking at the pictures one-by-one, perhaps. I am not interested in making pictures that stand alone -- partly because I am not very good at making pictures that stand alone.

      Taken together, they're supposed to add up to more than the bits and pieces, which I freely stipulate are not much of anything.

    2. Hmmm, I think, If I had ever been to SF, those people shots would mean a lot more to me. As is stands, it's just blurry people walking around. The towers and buildings and such I understand, I can see the very same thing in the buildings around me. Indeed, the one I live in right now!

      In my opinion, the homeless and unfortunate, whose photographs you consider trite an unnecessary, provide important context for people like me, who really don't know anything much about America or the story of its populace.

  5. Just about the best piece of your's I've read so far.

    Well done.

  6. I am deeply gratified to find that the writing is being well received. Thank you all for that.

  7. I live in the area and visit the city regularly and see much the same thing, but you've nicely stated and illustrated the process/situation. But there's something unsettling, in a different way from the other photos, about that last picture. The tower and the plane being highlighted makes my brain go straight to 9-11 and I'm not sure that's the intention. For me it distracts.


    1. It wasn't, but what an interesting observation! The plane in flight was, as you might guess, accidental.

      Noticing it, though, I liked it (and picked that frame over others with no plane). I was thinking more of departure, or perhaps arrival.

      But by god it could also be some kind of subconscious "burn it to the ground" impulse that made me select, and then emphasize, the plane.

      I'm delighted! I always sort of hope that people will find things that I don't in my work, as well as, of course, seeing much of what I saw.

      I hope we don't wind up on some no fly list, of course.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed your take on the city, and the photos as well. Nice work on this.