San Francisco; or, How to Destroy a City

We’re on break until Labor Day. Meanwhile, please enjoy some of our most-read articles since last summer. Today’s originally appeared on March 27, 2019.
As New York City and Greater Washington, DC, prepared for the arrival of Amazon’s new secondary headquarters, Torontonians opened a section of their ...

As New York City and Greater Washington, DC, prepared for the arrival of Amazon’s new secondary headquarters, Torontonians opened a section of their waterfront to Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, which plans to prototype a new neighborhood “from the internet up.” Fervent resistance arose in all three locations, particularly as citizens and even some elected officials discovered that many of the terms of these public-private partnerships were hashed out in closed-door deals, secreted by nondisclosure agreements. Critics raised questions about the generous tax incentives and other subsidies granted to these multibillion-dollar corporations, their plans for data privacy and digital governance, what kind of jobs they’d create and housing they’d provide, and how their arrival could impact local infrastructures, economies, and cultures. While such questioning led Amazon to cancel their plans for Long Island City in mid-February, other initiatives press forward. What does it mean when Silicon Valley—a geographic region that’s become shorthand for an integrated ideology and management style usually equated with libertarian techno-utopianism—serves as landlord, utility provider, urban developer, (unelected) city official, and employer, all rolled into one?1

We can look to Alphabet’s and Amazon’s home cities for clues. Both the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle have been dramatically remade by their local tech powerhouses: Amazon and Microsoft in Seattle; and Google, Facebook, and Apple (along with countless other firms) around the Bay. As Jennifer Light, Louise Mozingo, Margaret O’Mara, and Fred Turner have demonstrated, technology companies have been reprogramming urban and suburban landscapes for decades.2 And “company towns” have long sprung up around mills, mines, and factories.3 But over the past few years, as development has boomed and income inequality has dramatically increased in the Bay Area, we’ve witnessed the arrival of several new books reflecting on the region’s transformation.

These titles, while focusing on the Bay, offer lessons to New York, DC, Toronto, and the countless other cities around the globe hoping to spur growth and economic development by hosting and ingesting tech—by fostering the growth of technology companies, boosting STEM education, and integrating new sensors and screens into their streetscapes and city halls. For years, other municipalities, fashioning themselves as “the Silicon Valley of [elsewhere],” have sought to reverse-engineer the Bay’s blueprint for success. As we’ll see, that blueprint, drafted to optimize the habits and habitats of a privileged few, commonly elides the material needs of marginalized populations and fragile ecosystems. It prioritizes efficiency and growth over the maintenance of community and the messiness of public life. Yet perhaps we can still redraw those plans, modeling cities that aren’t only made by powerbrokers, and that thrive when they prioritize the stewardship of civic resources over the relentless pursuit of innovation and growth.

Nearly 20 years ago, long-time San Francisco resident Rebecca Solnit, in her Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, described the coming gentrification, privatization, and homogenization and subsequent hollowing out of a vibrant metropolis. This prescient book of linked essays, illustrated with photographs by Susan Schwartzenberg, was reprinted in 2018. As we reencounter Solnit’s resonant lament, we meet a host of new San Francisco characters in Cary McClelland’s 2018 Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley. McClelland, a one-time San Franciscan, interviewed more than 150 regional residents and laborers—from angel investors and ER doctors to Uber drivers to longshoremen. His edited transcripts of those conversations offer a prismatic view of this economically stratified and segregated metropolitan region.

While McClelland presents a loosely stitched-together quilt of San Franciscan subjectivities, Berkeley geographer Richard Walker, another Bay Area fixture, has produced the kind of book only an embedded scholar with enviable endurance can create: a deep, virtuosic saga supported by mounds of data and fieldwork. His Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area echoes and updates many of Solnit’s and McClelland’s subjects’ laments, while also explaining, in great detail, how the conditions for their shared concern came to be: how San Francisco became a hotbed of counterculture, environmental activism, and technological innovation, and why those distinctions are now in tension and under threat.

Finally, urban historian Alison Isenberg, in her Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay, turns to a different set of sources—archival records, the alternative press, unpublished manuscripts, and old architectural renderings—to rewrite a chapter of the city’s narrative that can’t be told through economic data, macroscale maps, or tech company profiles. Focusing on a selection of large-scale Bay Area urban redevelopment projects from the 1940s through the 1970s, Isenberg argues that the assemblage of agents and concerns shaping the modern city’s form and character was much broader than what we find portrayed in dominant East Coast development narratives, like Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Robert Caro’s profile of planning mogul Robert Moses.4 In short, she demonstrates, urban change isn’t driven solely by developers and preservationists.

Solnit, McClelland, and Walker join in celebrating San Francisco’s history of racial and socioeconomic diversity, cultural inclusivity, and technological innovation. “We were a sanctuary for the queer, the eccentric, the creative, the radical, the political and economic refugees, and so they came and reinforced the city’s difference,” Solnit writes. McClelland extends the list, adding a couple of the city’s less noble accomplishments: “It bore witness to the Gold rush, the Transcontinental Railroad, Japanese internment, the Beat poets, the free speech movement, the AIDS crisis and modern LGBTQ politics, and the birth of the semiconductor and motherboard.” This mix of factors—along with the region’s clustering of complementary industries (“agglomeration economies”), its “liberation from rigid corporate culture,” and its mix of cyberculture and counterculture, military contracts and university research, progressivism and libertarianism—made the Bay Area a fertile ground for the growth of Silicon Valley, Walker argues.

What does it mean when Silicon Valley serves as landlord, utility provider, urban developer, (unelected) city official, and employer, all rolled into one?

Today, Walker continues, “the bay region is one of the prime generators of new wealth on the planet, and home to many of the largest and richest corporations astride the globe. It is, moreover”—still—“a place in the vanguard of many political and cultural movements, sending forth ideas that are changing life far beyond its borders.” Yet such material wealth and intellectual and cultural richness have generated their own problems, both in the world beyond its borders and, especially, at home: sprawl, a dearth of available housing, widespread homelessness, debilitating air pollution, more frequent and deadly wildfires, water scarcity, and insufficient resources for all the low-wage workers—often women and people of color—who support the everyday material operations of the tech industry and the city that houses it. “Think of San Francisco as both a laboratory of the new and a preserve for the old subversive functionality of cities,” Solnit writes. Now, “Think about what happens if both these aspects get bulldozed by the technology economy.”

“For San Francisco to become a place that just provides opportunities to buy pet food online is, to say the least, a decline whose effects will be felt far away,” Solnit says, referencing, the signature “bust” story of the first dot-com boom. The Bay Area’s consumption of resources impoverishes the surrounding region, and its concentration of wealth and talent leaves less for other cities, Walker notes. We also can’t ignore Silicon Valley’s powerful cultural imperialism, whose effects are felt both locally and globally. McClelland quotes Alex Kaufman, who runs a design team at Google: “It’s this messianic tech thing. We’re saving the world mostly making useless products that solve problems that real people don’t have—it’s problems rich twenty-year-olds have.” He laments tech’s widespread “callousness” and “oversimplification of political problems.”

Almost two decades ago Solnit saw that the efficiency-minded tech industry was framing the messiness of public life as comparatively inconvenient and inefficient, and that the sector thus played a key role in “accommodating spatial privatization and speeding up an economic privatization.” What results, she argues, is a Hollow City, one whose colorful Victorian homes and corporate workspaces mask its increasingly monochromatic populations and cultures. Paul Gillespie, a cab driver quoted in McClelland’s book, wonders: “If you are riding the Google bus, and you are looking on your cell phone for stories that are tailored just for you, and at night you are taking an Uber to a nightclub or restaurant with a lot of other people just like you, where is the interaction with everyone else? Where is the knowledge of what other people are thinking or what’s going on in the world?” Walker likewise acknowledges the tech industry’s role as global evangelist for the exploitative sharing economy, the Californian Ideology, and neoliberalism, and its failure to address privacy breaches and fake news and technological solutionism—all of which have shaped politics and economics around the globe.

These authors lament the Bay Area’s increasing gentrification and homogenization, the displacement of the poor, and the increasing marginalization of the unorthodox and the radical within a Silicon Valley monoculture—all common refrains in political-economic chronicles of modern capitalist urbanization. (And all, we must admit, products of some degree of romanticization; Solnit acknowledges that “what one remembers [in a city] is not necessarily primordial, and all cities sit atop erased landscapes.” The “golden ages” whose passing we lament had themselves erased earlier pasts.) Yet we must remember, as Walker does, that the Bay Area is still “remarkably open to new people and ideas; it is politically and intellectually in continual ferment; and it repeatedly reveals new possibilities of human achievement and social justice” and environmental stewardship.

We must also recognize the ferment and diversity inherent in Bay Area urban historiography, even in the chronicles of its large-scale development projects. Isenberg reminds us that even within the institutions and companies responsible for redevelopment, which are often vilified for exacerbating urban ills, we find pockets of heterogeneity and progressivism. Isenberg seeks to supplement the dominant East Coast narratives, which tend to frame urban renewal as a battle between development and preservation.

In surveying a variety of Bay Area projects, from Ghirardelli Square to The Sea Ranch to the Transamerica Pyramid, Isenberg shifts our attention from star architects and planners to less prominent, but no less important, contributors in allied design fields: architectural illustration, model-making, publicity, journalism, property management, retail planning, the arts, and activism. “People who are elsewhere peripheral and invisible in the history of urban design are,” in her book, “networked through the center”; they play critical roles in shaping not only the urban landscape, but also the discourses and processes through which that landscape takes shape.

For instance, debates over public art in Ghirardelli Square—particularly Ruth Asawa’s mermaid sculpture, which featured breastfeeding lesbian mermaids—“provoked debates about gender, sexuality, and the role of urban open space in San Francisco.” Property manager Caree Rose, who worked alongside her husband, Stuart, coordinated with designers to master-plan the Square, acknowledging that retail, restaurants, and parking are also vital ingredients of successful public space. Publicist Marion Conrad and graphic designer Bobbie Stauffacher were key members of many San Francisco design teams, including that for The Sea Ranch community, in Sonoma County. Illustrators and model-makers, many of them women, created objects that mediated design concepts for clients and typically sat at the center of public debates.

These creative collaborators “had the capacity to swing urban design decisions, structure competition for land, and generally set in motion the fate of neighborhoods.” We see the rhetorical power of diverse visualization strategies reflected across these four books, too: Solnit’s offers dozens of photographs, by Susan Schwartzenberg—of renovations, construction sites, protests, dot-com workplaces, SRO hotels, artists’ studios—while Walker’s dense text is supplemented with charts, graphs, and clinical maps. McClelland’s book, with its relatively large typeface and extra-wide leading, makes space for his interviewees’ words to resonate, while Isenberg generously illustrates her pages with archival photos, plans, and design renderings, many reproduced in evocative technicolor.

By decentering the star designer and master planner, Isenberg reframes urban (re)development as a collaborative enterprise involving participants with diverse identities, skills, and values. And in elevating the work of “allied” practitioners, Isenberg also aims to shift the focus from design to land: public awareness of land ownership and commitment to responsible public land stewardship. She introduces us to several mid-century alternative publications—weekly newspapers, Black periodicals, activists’ manuals, and books that never made it to the best-seller list … or never even made it to press—that advocated for a focus on land ownership and politics. Yet the discursive power of Jacobs and Caro, which framed the debate in terms of urban development vs. preservation, pushed these other texts off the shelf—and, along with them, the “moral questions of land stewardship” they highlighted.


See How The City Divides Us

By Sam Holleran

These alternative tales and supporting casts serve as reminders that the modern city need not succumb to Haussmannization or Moses-ification or, now, Googlization. Mid-century urban development wasn’t necessarily the monolithic, patriarchal, hegemonic force we imagined it to be—a realization that should steel us to expect more and better of our contemporary city-building projects. Today, New York, Washington, DC, and Toronto—and other cities around the world—are being reshaped not only by architects, planners, and municipal administrators, but also by technologists, programmers, data scientists, “user experience” experts and logistics engineers. These are urbanism’s new “allied” professions, and their work deals not only with land and buildings, but also, increasingly, with data and algorithms.

Some critics have argued that the real reason behind Amazon’s nationwide HQ2 search was to gather data from hundreds of cities—both quantitative and qualitative data that “could guide it in its expansion of the physical footprint, in the kinds of services it rolls out next, and in future negotiations and lobbying with states and municipalities.”5 This “trove of information” could ultimately be much more valuable than all those tax incentives and grants. If this is the future of urban development, our city officials and citizens must attend to the ownership and stewardship not only of their public land, but also of their public data. The mismanagement of either could—to paraphrase our four books’ titles—elongate the dark shadows cast by growing inequality, abet the siege of exploitation and displacement, “hollow out” our already homogenizing neighborhoods, and expedite the departure of an already “gone” city.

As Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti muses in his “Pictures of the Gone World 11,” which inspired Walker’s title: “The world is a beautiful place / to be born into / if you don’t mind some people dying / all the time / or maybe only starving / some of the time / which isn’t half so bad / if it isn’t you.” This is precisely the sort of solipsism and stratification that tech-libertarianism and capitalist development promotes—and that responsible planning, design, and public stewardship must prevent.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. As Fred Turner argues, in Silicon Valley’s engineering culture, ethics are reduced to pragmatism and functionality, and politics are equated with infrastructural engineering. “Don’t Be Evil: Fred Turner on Utopias, Frontiers, and Brogrammers,” Logic, issue 3 (2018).
  2. Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Louise Mozingo, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes (MIT Press, 2011); Margaret O’Mara, “Landscapes of Knowledge and High Technology,” Places Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 (2007); Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  3. Margaret Crawford, Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns (Verso, 1995); Oliver J. Dinius and Angela Vergara, eds., Company Towns in the Americas: Landscape, Power, and Working-Class Communities (University of Georgia Press, 2011); John S. Garner, ed., The Company Town: Architecture and Society in the Early Industrial Age (Oxford University Press, 1992).
  4. Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961); Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Knopf, 1974).
  5. E.g., Nick Tabor, “Amazon Is an Infrastructure Company. The HQ2 Bids Were Reconnaissance,” Intelligencer, December 3, 2018.
Featured image: San Francisco Skyline at Sunset. Photograph by Tony Webster / Flickr