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High Tech Boomerang: A Techie Tale of Two Cities As the Haves and Have-nots Face Off

December 12, 2013
by Ben Christopher

Nothing seems to capture the nation’s collective odium these days quite like a self-entitled techie.

That may be the lesson of this week’s local news cycle. It began on Monday morning, when a group of anti-gentrification activists blockaded a Google bus in San Francisco’s Mission district to protest the tech industry’s unregulated use of municipal transit infrastructure, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian posted a video depicting a shouting match between an apparent Google employee and a protestor.

“This is a city for the right people who can afford it!” the self-styled bus rider screamed. And that bit of unabashed misanthropy unleashed a torrent of online traffic and social media fury, crashing the Bay Guardian web site and sending the video ricocheting around the Internet from the New York Times to CNBC.

If the indignant bus rider seemed to play only too perfectly the role of the socially oblivious tech worker, that’s because he was. It was soon revealed that the reviled Googler was none other than Berkeley-based Max Alper, a union organizer trying to convince the rest of the city that the invading venture-funded techies are every bit as reactionary and socially corrosive as many have feared.

He needn’t have bothered. Had Alper waited until Wednesday morning, he would have found that tech entrepreneur Greg Gopman had done that work for him. As published by ValleyWag, Gopman, founder of AngelHack, apparently forgetting that other people can actually read the things that you publish online, took to his Facebook account to complain about poverty—or rather, about the poor—in San Francisco.

Unlike in other cities, he carped, where “the lower part of society keep to themselves” and “realize it’s a privilege to be in a civilized part of town…In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas.”

“There is an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class. There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us,” wrote Gopman. Joining the ranks of techie super villains before him such as Peter Shih, the founder of the payment start-up Celery who retracted his online diatribe enumerating the 10 things he hates about San Francisco, Gopman has since apologized on social media—to the satisfaction of absolutely no one. Indeed, the story of the insufferably out-of-touch tech worker was again taken on a media whirlwind, where it received mention at Slate, Business Insider and The Economist.

Coming just days after more substantial think pieces in the New York Times and National Public Radio on the discontents of San Francisco’s tech boom, one might wonder why our homegrown A Tale of Two Cities has, a few years into the telling, now become a national story.

That really shouldn’t surprise us, writes Berkeley sociology professor Claude Fischer.

“That thousands of well-heeled buyers and renters are choosing inner-city San Francisco—as many others are choosing inner-city New York or Chicago—illustrates a trend that has been going on for quite a while and that has been accentuated by the Great Recession: affluent Americans moving and segregating themselves to pursue the lifestyles they associate with particular places,” Fischer wrote on his blog last week. 

Our gentrifiers may wear hoodies rather than pinstripes, in other words, but the economic tensions and social insecurities that comes with new money displacing old tenants are familiar in metro areas across the country. And that trend, writes Fischer, is having a dramatic impact on the economies, the cultures, and even the geographies of our biggest cities.

“Americans as a whole are moving less and less,” he writes. “But where the remaining movers—both those forced by poverty and those liberated by affluence—are moving is reinforcing the economic and, increasingly, the cultural separations among us.”

A new study published by the Pew Charitable Trust provides more evidence in support of just that view. Authored by Bryan Graham, an associate professor of economics at Berkeley, and New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey, the report found that economic segregation on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis has increased dramatically in the United States since the 1970s.

Much more worrisome still: increased economic segregation is linked to decreased economic mobility.

“We had some notion of this before we looked at the data ourselves, but it was still quite surprising to see the scale of what’s going on,” says Graham. All the more so because racial segregation has declined in the majority of the 96 metro areas they studied. These days, he says, income is becoming the prime determinant of where an American urbanite lives, with the rich clustering into “rich neighborhoods” and poor into “poor neighborhoods.”

In trying to quantify how economic segregation has changed over the past four decades, Graham and Sharkey ranked each city’s “Neighborhood Sorting Index”: a measure of whether a metro area’s economic diversity is reflected within its various neighborhoods or only between them. In other words, is a city composed of many microcosms of itself—neighborhoods that reflect the broader metro area in all of its diversity—or is it composed of a patchwork of income extremes?

In New York, the country’s most economically stratified metropolis, the study found that in 1970 “24 percent of the variation in income occurred between the city’s neighborhoods, but by 2000, that figure was 37 percent.” That is, the city’s division into income-determined enclaves had intensified significantly. New York is not alone in this trend. “From 1970 to 2000 it increased from 15 to 22 percent in Tallahassee, FL, from 20 to 28 percent in Memphis, and from 19 to 28 percent in San Francisco,” the study continues.

That’s particularly troublesome because, as the study claims, increased economic segregation means decreased economic mobility. As for why those two things are related, Graham insists that he and Sharkey have not “proven” anything. But they can certainly hazard a guess.

“Imagine a city where there’s mixed income housing everywhere and every neighborhood is a miniature replication of the city,” says Graham. “In that case all neighborhoods are going to have similar housing stocks, similar crime rates, are going to be similarly resourced, the kids will go to similar schools. In that setting there might be a lot of income inequality across houses, but there’s not going to be this neighborhood-level inequality. In a city where there’s lots of sorting by income, any sort of resource that is delivered or constructed at the neighborhood level will be distributed unequally—whether that’s school quality or parks or crime.”

And the quality of schools, of local amenities, and of neighborhood public safety can make or break a person’s prospects for economic advancement. Kids who grow up poor in a poor neighborhood may be at a significant disadvantage compared to similarly poor kids growing up in a mixed income area.

As a matter of policy, geographically entrenched inequality is a daunting one. Here, the Pew study limits its recommendations to two: expand affordable housing options and increase access to high quality education.

“If you’ve got this massive influx of highly paid worked that want to live in San Francisco, there’s just a huge incentive for landlords to respond to that increased demand and tailor to that market,” he says. “This might be an example where there are some externalities associated with that.”

That is, where the machinations of the piping hot real estate market are levying costs on neither the buyer nor the seller, but on society at large.

“There might be some value to diversity and I think it’s perfectly reasonable for cities and municipalities to realize that and to try to formulate policies that make it viable,” says Graham, pointing to regional urban planning initiatives like Plan Bay Area.

Easier said than done. There’s only so much that even the most sincere city or regional planner can do to implement “anti-sorting” policies in the Bay Area, where housing is restricted by both geography and politics, and where development and planning battles are notoriously bitter and prolonged.

Of course, the idea of public policy influencing who you live with and where is very controversial,” says Graham. “But at least at the margins there are things we can do.”

In the meantime, anyhow, that may beat blockading buses.

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