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The Geography of Anti-Gentrification: Google Buses and the World Trade Center

Why aren't Google and Twitter welcome in San Francisco?
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The day after the 9/11 attacks, I had an opportunity to teach 250 students how geography could help make sense of the tragedy. Putting aside the whodunit, I asked my audience to think through the why of the where. Why was the World Trade Center a target? As a class, we covered the geography of anti-globalization. I drew a distinction between blowing up a bomb at a McDonald's and trying to overwhelm an embassy. The WTC wasn't a typical icon of power. I asserted that the act of terrorism was a form of resistance to economic globalization and challenged the undergraduates sitting in the room to argue otherwise.

Today, I'm using the same approach to better understand a much less tragic outcome: the protests against gentrification. Why is Google (or Twitter) setting up shop in downtown San Francisco such a flashpoint? From Allison Arieff, editor and content strategist for the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR:

There’s been no shortage of published laments on the changing nature of San Francisco over the past several weeks, so I’m loath to add another complaint to the list. And yet ... I keep coming across instances where the tech sector flocks to the city and talks of community yet isolates itself from the urban experience it presumably couldn’t wait to be a part of. The other week, for example, I had an appointment at Hills Plaza, a waterfront complex that quietly houses an ever expanding Google outpost. A year or so ago there was a Starbucks at street level, and while that in itself is of course not unusual, there weren’t any other cafes in the neighborhood, so I’d often walk the two blocks from my office to get coffee there. It was a nice excuse to take a walk and interact with the world outside my work space.

Today, that Starbucks is gone. So is the popular brewery that was next door to it. The sandwich shop across the plaza is closed, as is the salad bar. It’s not that any of these businesses were particularly distinctive or delicious, but they provided a valuable service — lunch — and also some social connection among the building’s tenants and people in the immediate neighborhood.

Gone also is any sign of life the plaza ever had. Google leased as much of the complex as it could get its hands on — and the correspondingly skyrocketing rents accelerated the closing of all the ground-floor businesses, even a short-lived outpost of The Melt (a franchise that serves uniformly grilled sandwiches made with a high-tech — and tech-industry-financed — piece of machinery). In place of Starbucks there is now something called the Mozilla Community Space — that isn’t open to the community. You need to be a registered “Mozillian” (whatever that is) to gain access.

This consumer city, the San Francisco Google is killing, is the dominant urbanist paradigm. Jobs follow people. I find Arieff's criticism to be strange, like telling banks to get out of the central business district. Arieff's San Francisco is an adult playground, not a place of work. But hold that thought while I transition to the producer city.

Urban amenities, conspicuous consumption, follow jobs. Without those jobs, the consumer city isn't sustainable. Is the city boom real or a bubble? The gentrification test:

Realtors and locals, of course, have a vested interest in turning into a neighborhood's most ardent gentrification evangelists. It can be easy to point to one trendy coffee shop, a new mass-transit stop and a few old buildings as bellwethers that a neighborhood will be the next big thing.

Some basic economic data can help cut through the spin. "First and foremost, buyers should be looking at employment," says Mr. Rutherford, the developer from Dallas. "If you've got an urban area that's anchored by jobs, it can weather any storm."

He says one revitalization effort in an old warehouse district in Kansas City, Mo., didn't pan out because the area didn't develop enough solid jobs or housing. Because people ended up driving in from the suburbs to shop or dine and then driving home, the neighborhood couldn't sustain the strong nighttime population that Mr. Rutherford says is so necessary to the development of an underperforming area.

Emphasis added. In all the Creative Class hype, we've lost sight of what makes cities go. Thriving cities are producer cities, refineries of talent. The current romantic urbanist image is the consumer city of the manufacturing era, ethnic and authentic. Rust Belt Chic. As industrial employment declined, city residents were divorced from household income. A monthly check from parents in a wealthy suburb plus a few shifts in an upscale restaurant can be formidable competition for long-term locals who saw their jobs leave decades ago. What kind of employment is connected to your neighborhood? The piece of advice from Mr. Rutherford to real-estate investors is to make that the operative question. If they are able and willing to migrate, people follow jobs.

Now I am ready to explain Google buses as sites of violence. This exclusive transit connects urban residents in San Francisco with Silicon Valley wages. These wages bring substantially more money into the city for housing and amenities. Those checks from mom and dad won't cut it. You can't afford to work at anymore. You take out your frustration on a bus.