Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

A two-state solution for San Francisco

Is the City by the Bay losing its soul? If so, Google buses are not the problem but the beginning of a solution

September 14, 2014 6:00AM ET

SAN FRANCISCO, the Patent Office — San Franciscans woke up Tuesday to find the local tech community vanished, apparently raptured away into the clouds. But anyone who thought the long civic nightmare of hoodied millionaires and skyrocketing rents was over was wrong. The digipreneurial class had simply decamped for the day 45 miles south to Apple HQ in Cupertino, like salmon to their spawning grounds, to gape at such wonders as a larger iPhone (like a mini iPad Mini but with a phone number!) and a less dorky smartwatch. Whereas salmon shoot their seed into gravel beds and promptly die, the tech elite shot theirs into Twitter and returned home flushed and radiant, readier than ever to innovate, disrupt and gentrify.

And the city’s gentrification crisis is far from winding down. It’s not even plateauing. Rental market reports from last month put San Francisco’s median rent at $3,200, an 8 percent increase from this time last year. “We’re living in a boom town, and this is how a boom town acts,” former mayoral candidate “Chicken” John Rinaldi told me. “If you can’t figure out how to be here, then get the fuck out.” Many are doing just that. With each busload of arriving techies, a BART-load of struggling artists departs for Oakland; before you know it, there’ll be a there there and no here here. The New Yorker says the difference between the two groups is “less one of substance than of style,” but as Oscar Wilde said, in matters of grave importance, style is the vital thing. And surely no point of style is at once as vital and grave as the one distinguishing a five-figure monthly paycheck from an eviction notice.

Analogies with ethnic conflict come closer to the mark, for protesters vomiting onto the windshields of Google buses and coders riding inside are not searchers of a shared language. They are distinct peoples, locked in enmity. They do not need a civics lesson about “getting from the self-improving pluribus to the self-sovereign unum”; they need separation and self-determination. A city with two poleis needs a bipolar solution, by which I don’t mean a moody or erratic one. I mean something stable and lasting, like the Middle East peace process, which set up a two-state vision 21 years ago and hasn’t gone anywhere. Let’s do this, people.

The advantages are obvious. With separate, not exactly equal but definitely overlapping infrastructures, a handful of watchtowers and several metric tons of security fencing, San Francisco could have the best of both worlds. Brilliant, successful tech people could enjoy the authenticity and shabby allure of the city’s traditional life while protecting themselves and their gleaming young from an increasingly restive local rabble; meanwhile that local rabble could regain unfettered access to the cheap rents, dive bar glut and irregular work hours that form their cultural patrimony. 

Jigsaw infrastructure

Since the whole point is to save San Francisco’s soul and preserve its character, and since diversity is key to both, there would be no neighborhood deportations or forcible transfers. Instead, the two populations simply slither through and past one another, mutually insulated, like electrical currents in the thicket of wires behind your home entertainment system. Think Hebron but without the short circuits and flare-ups. To some extent, this is already happening. What my plan does is formalize it through discrete but interlocking legal, economic and judicial systems and a form of electrified cattle fencing that does what it needs to do without spoiling the city’s views or its sense of togetherness.

Consider, for example, the tech bus system currently in place. It’s gotten bad press, but as the shrieking subsides and the vomit dries, we can see it for what it is: a great example of how a healthy bipolis (pronounced BIPP-uh-liss) with overlapping infrastructures can work. Just as residents now have buses boardable only by tech workers stopping every 10 minutes at the same bus stops where Muni buses boardable by regular people stop every hour or two or three or never, they could also have:

• Separate ambulance networks operating out of the same dispatch center, offering different levels of service but sharing overhead

• Queue-jumping codes for 911 calls

• Elite public schools for tech offspring, which foster diversity by inviting other children to Skype silently into the classroom as auditors

• Smart streetlamps that turn on only when a tech worker walks beneath them, but whose momentary glow allows those in adjacent cantons to get their bearings at night

And so on, for the possibilities of functional coexistence and resource sharing are limitless. Such measures build trust between communities, bringing them together in myriad daily ways. Remember that in municipal services, just as in laissez-faire economics, inequality is a stimulus and a rising tide lifts all boats.

What's at stake is something irreplaceable: the soul of the city, in other words, a kind of brand.

Bohemian reservations

In addition to trickle-down service benefits, the city’s yippie old guard would enjoy zones of autonomy, where they can sell T-shirts, vintage bric-a-brac, free-verse poetry chapbooks and assorted other crap tax-free. NGOs will assist them in creating sustainable tourist economies centered on aspects of their traditional culture, such as ironic cabaret or themed orgies. Just as firework stands and casinos in the Mojave Desert still evoke the dignity and grandeur of Native American life before the European conquest, these areas will preserve the pulse and vitality of old San Francisco.

This gift is in the spirit of a signing bonus. What’ll bring the old guard to the table in the first place is the instantaneous reining in of gentrification citywide. Since the civic divide will not be a bold bright line like the Berlin Wall but a squigglier, jigsawn, altogether more devious thing like the West Bank separation barrier, it will be possible for nontech locals to find affordable rents even in emerging neighborhoods like Dogpatch and Bernal Heights.

Everyone complains that when the Google bus starts stopping on your block, rents skyrocket, but logically that can no longer be the case when dense nests of concertinaed razor wire mean not being able to reach it in the first place. You will see and hear it, though, and the soft whistle and sigh of its pneumatic brakes will add subtly to the prestige of your neighborhood without pricing you out of it.

“It’s really mixed here,” you’ll say to brunch guests as the thing hisses to a stop nearby. “Artists, families, professionals. The girls upstairs are in a band. The guy behind those coils started Yo. He seems superchill. We love it.”

For if good fences make good neighbors, then something this complicated can make truly superb ones. 

Optimism of the will

I know how utopian it all must sound. The city’s dynamic new elite and its aging, erstwhile creative class can never truly coexist, you’re thinking, not even with a politically progressive, functionally seamless system of segregation in place.

And maybe you’re right. But pessimism of the intellect can cloud the vision like a big goopy cataract. When the Oslo Accord of 1993 was signed, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said wrung his hands so obsessively about its supposed flaws — it was designed for delay, to accommodate Israeli territorial ambitions, to leave a “disabling discontinuity between the main centers of Palestinian population” and so on — that he failed to celebrate the new era of collaboration and mutual recognition it promised. Do we want to make the same mistake?

To those who say it’s too little, too late, that the city’s character is already irreversibly changed, I suggest a little historical perspective.

“San Francisco is always transforming,” says Sarah, a 40-year-old friend of mine with soft eyes, a frowsy mullet and one of the last rent-controlled apartments on Guerrero Street, in the heart of the once-Latino Mission District. “My neighborhood has been gentrifying for the last 50 years, but still there are crappy little bars and plenty of places to eat that give you diarrhea.”

Such equanimity and broadmindedness eluded one of the Bay Area’s storied writers, Jack London, during a similarly dark period in the city’s past. “San Francisco is gone,” he groused in 1906. “Nothing remains of it but memories.” He was wrong.

Granted, as London wrote those words, an earthquake and fire had just left 3,000 dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and 80 percent of the city destroyed. But houses and people are physical things and when cut down tend to grow back, like mown grass. What’s at stake now is something by contrast irreplaceable: the soul of the city, in other words, a kind of brand. We can save it, America, but that means shoulders to the wheel, and not tomorrow but today.

Curtis Brown is a writer based in Montreal. His work has appeared in Bidoun and the Beirut Daily Star.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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