The "Anti-Tech Backlash" is over, now let's talk San Francisco housing

By Dan Raile , written on February 17, 2015

From The News Desk

Gentrification is a big word, a loaded academic concept and an impersonal, observable force acting upon urban centers around the globe. Despite its ubiquity and its many ideological opponents, there is no known antidote.

Any localized discussion of gentrification is prone to divisiveness, pitting recent arrivals against long-time residents. To have such a discussion without it devolving into a shouting match requires some forethought, but it’s not impossible.

At Pando’s inaugural Don’t Be Awful event last month, Erin McElroy of San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project dropped by to share her work: a series of maps and tools her group has developed to highlight some of the more egregious aspects of the accelerated gentrification besetting San Francisco.

It’s been over a year now since the “anti-tech backlash” became a meme in the Bay Area, and McElroy has spent a good deal of that time behind a bullhorn, leading a number of direct actions in the city’s streets, at the Googleplex, outside the site of the Crunchies awards, and elsewhere. She’s been profiled by Pando as well as Business Insider and the San Francisco Chronicle. As much as anyone, she became the face of the “backlash.”

Yet McElroy and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project never positioned themselves as ‘anti-tech,’ a fact she reiterated when we spoke at Don’t Be Awful. Protesting “tech”, much like protesting gentrification, is a pointless exercise, like protesting the tides. Instead, the group has been using software and data to visualize the impacts of specific policies and the extent of specific abuses and illegalities concerning housing. Which is to say, she’s been running a “tech” outfit all this time.

One of those maps, cataloguing the number of no-fault evictions occurring within close proximity to corporate shuttle stops, addresses the issue of the misleading “anti-tech backlash” brand head on. The bus protests which started cropping up last winter have been the most visible manifestation of that supposed backlash. As mentioned, McElroy was instrumental in organizing several of them and regularly appeared in their media coverage.

These actions were not primarily “symbolic,” as was widely reported. Rather than protesting the success of the tech industry, McElroy and her co-organizers were protesting the unlicensed use of public infrastructure with the tacit approval of the city’s political leadership, and the impact this novel private transit solution has had in exacerbating the city’s housing problems.

Former and long-time San Francisco Bay Guardian Editor Tim Redmond was on hand at Don’t Be Awful as well. He provided historical perspective to the city’s housing crisis and discussed a proposed code of ethics for newly arrived tech industry workers.

Redmond, too, finds himself at the helm of a tech startup of sorts. He left the Bay Guardian in 2012 when it was purchased by the deceptively-named San Francisco Media Company, and has since launched a startup online news site from his basement. His site, 48 Hills, is his answer to San Franciso’s lack of a progressive, independent daily paper in the wake of the Guardian’s demise.

In recent weeks, a survey conducted by the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, and a slew of follow-on articles, have declared the end of “the anti-tech backlash”. Which is great.

Now city reporters can stop chasing an ephemeral “anti-tech” bloc and get to work reporting the sometimes negative consequences of this boomwave without reverting to a broader narrative of entrenched conflict, class warfare, and caricature.

Meanwhile, tech workers can abandon a reflexive, defensive posture and join the discussion without feeling preemptively vilified, and anyone can inveigh against an aspect of the tech industry without getting lumped with other arguments made by other people.

Now that the “anti-tech backlash” straw man has been duly eulogized and laid to rest, maybe it is possible to have more productive conversations in a less stigmatized context, identifying where we agree and where we don’t, and hearing people out rather than shouting over them. The issues themselves haven’t gone away, but hopefully the practice of couching their discussion in the language of warfare has.

“If you live in San Francisco, you are part of this community,” Redmond said. His proposals for addressing the housing crisis include registering to vote and pledging not to move into properties cleared by no-fault eviction. Some of McElroy’s “12 Ways to Be Less Awful”, which she read aloud, are to meet your neighbors, learn about the history of your neighborhood, and frequent local businesses.

Don’t Be Awful was a good start to the post-backlash era, demonstrating something we should have known all along: when you get people together in a room and allow them the opportunity to present their arguments, the results are a lot more interesting, nuanced, and actionable than would be the case if that discussion took place remotely between isolated actors at their respective keyboards.

[image via wikipedia]