San Francisco's cultural revolution is getting bought out by a digital revolution, making it difficult to afford the city's exorbitant cost.
There is no doubt that it would be difficult for most to afford any type of real estate, rent or buy, in many major metropolitan areas in the United States—for the starving artist it poses a huge problem.
With costs per square foot in New York City reaching $1400, it is hard to imagine anything short of a steam grate and tarp. While the expense of living in New York has always been a controversial and ever present pressure, its society has adjusted to the craziness; it has always been the case, it is part of the culture, co-existence of all walks of life is expected no matter how expensive.
How about a city where the primordial DNA doesn’t come from High Finance, the Titans of Industry, Broadway and Andy Warhol—a city and society that rose to fame from a bohemian culture born of the revolutionary sixties? I'm talking about San Francisco, California.
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The West Coast’s Big Apple
Long timers of San Francisco have complained that the city is becoming the Left Coast’s version of NYC with a square foot costing as much as $1000, crowds dawned in black and construction everywhere. Quoting Kevin Roose at New York Magazine, “In many ways, San Francisco is the nation’s new success theater. It’s the city where dreamers go to prove themselves—the place where just being able to afford a normal life serves as an indicator of pluck and ability.”
This doesn’t sound like a good place to throw your guitar case out for tips and experiment with interpretive dance, but that is what San Francisco once was, with a thriving arts culture and extensive bohemian community.
Where survival and hard scrabble living for wannabe artists, performers and musicians has always been a characteristic of the Big Apple, San Francisco has been a respite for the same, though slowly losing its ability to coddle its creative forces. What has changed? The big money brought to the table by Silicon Valley has had a severe impact as tech startups and venture capitalist invade the city itself.
The cultural revolution has given way to a digital revolution that is pumping so much money into the economy it is becoming difficult to provide safe haven for artists and the culture that is the hallmark of San Francisco. Steven Jones at 48hills.org writes, “The rapid development of market-rate housing in the Mission District is squeezing out the art, community, and light industrial spaces that have helped create its vibrant grassroots culture. It’s the story of San Francisco’s colorful past and high-stakes future—and it’s a tale that can be told through the proposed demolition of the place called InnerMission and the entire block that surrounds it.”
The city has attempted to stem the tide of destruction and made considerable political investment over the years in projects like InnerMission, a performance and event space, but even this is under siege as there is just too much money to be made by developing the property. City officials say that there are rules about displacing art space (much like a Wetlands Act) but there is no understanding of how compliance is defined or enforced. There seems to be no end.
This Tech Invasion is Different
During the dotcom boom, real estate was at a premium in San Francisco because it was a place folks wanted to be—it was cool—the Bay, St. Francis Yacht Club, Mount Tam, Sausalito, Golden Gate Park, Fisherman’s Wharf, The Grateful Dead.
In the early days, folks loved its European ambiance and cheap rents. As demand soared for this paradise people who could afford the city came for immersion in the artistic and bohemian culture while financially supporting the same.
Image via Housman Weir Investments
Tech startups tended to settle in the outskirts; Palo Alto, San Jose, you know—the Silicon Valley. For big tech names (Sun, Oracle) that required a campus and San Francisco prices were way out of reach. Set the clock forward a couple decades and inhabitants are there for a different reason—money—but now, many startups can also afford the city’s big rents (unlike their profitless ancestors of the dotcom era).
Larger technology companies are establishing a presence there as well; like LinkedIn, Box, Google and Salesforce, for example. The Silicon Valley is moving to San Francisco and the artists are moving out, not by choice, being displaced by a basically unaffordable city.
I Left My Heart in Austin, Texas
San Francisco isn’t the only city in the United States that will have to deal with the Yin and Yang of cultural identity and the desire to bring in big bucks. California doesn’t have the most hospitable business environment in the US, and while cities like San Francisco are extremely desirable and have a massive technical talent pool, sometimes plain old financial sense rules the day.
Texas has been hungry to establish a technology corridor for years and is making some great strides, particularly in Austin, Texas. Apple, Microsoft, AT&T and Samsung have headquarters there and many bio-tech startups have established themselves in this growing community.
The cost of living is still reasonable, if not low, the culture superb and the music—out of this world. Austin prides itself in its art community and is acclaimed worldwide as a musicians’ sanctuary, “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
How will Austin respond to the same pressures that the Bay Area is enduring now, will we lose another cultural icon to the almighty buck? Will technology prevail?