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Surviving in the Shadow of Fortress Twitter

Twitter reportedly received tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks to stay in San Francisco. Has it given anything back to the community?
(Photo: Elizabeth Fladung)

(Photo: Elizabeth Fladung)

In January, the New York Times surprised many Californians with the announcement that San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood had acquired a new nickname: The Twitterloin. Turns out the first person to have mentioned “Twitterloin” on Twitter itself was Josette Melchor, executive director of the non-profit Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. At the time of her tweet on July 31, 2009, Melchor’s group had been installed for just one month in their new Tenderloin offices at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets.

Melchor doesn’t remember exactly what led her to tweet that morning, but it may have been a premonition. Gray Area had come to the Tenderloin at the behest of then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office, which had been seeking to revitalize the area—it’s the poorest neighborhood in downtown San Francisco, and where many of the city’s homeless congregate. Gray Area rehabilitated an old porn theater, leaving intact its euphemistic “Art Theater” sign, and got to work producing and enabling what was once called “computer art”—art that engages with technology in new ways; the group sponsors exhibitions, theater, and performances, plus hackathons and community outreach.

Twitter’s new headquarters isn’t quite in the Tenderloin, but a few blocks south in the bustling commercial Central Market District, occupying the old San Francisco Furniture Mart on Market and Ninth streets. It’s an Art Deco jewel that had been vacant for several years before Twitter moved in, in June of 2012. The building still falls within the Central Market Street and Tenderloin redevelopment area, for tax purposes. When, in 2011, Twitter began making public noises about moving out of San Francisco, the city provided the company with payroll tax breaks worth tens of millions of dollars in order to persuade the company to remain—which then encouraged Zynga, another tech start-up, to demand similar concessions (before turning around and laying off 520 workers).  In exchange, Twitter is mandated to provide the community with entry-level jobs for disadvantaged and displaced workers, support for the arts, affordable housing, and legal assistance, according to a formal Community Benefit Agreement that went into effect just this year.

“Tech companies make it so comfortable for you not to leave the confines of your office building. There’s food, there’s places to nap, there’s places to have drinks and socialize and it’s like you never have to leave ... it works negatively against the local community.”

In other words, Twitter’s commitment to civic responsibility in San Francisco is a matter of compulsion, not culture.

Because the handsome building was restored rather than built from the ground up, its presence is looming but not an eyesore, unlike much of the new construction in this area. There’s plenty evidence of poverty around, but it’s not quite as pee-scented as the Tenderloin proper; a fancy food market on Twitter’s ground floor offers every kind of opportunity for artisanal gluttony—handmade French truffles, a well-stocked wine shop, a massive U-shaped marble bar serving wine and tapas. “Three or four people are escorted out of here every day for stealing,” our bartender said.

Gentrification has necessarily caused real estate prices to rise. Ellis Act evictions, by which owners simply take their rental properties off the market in order to cash in, led to property values shooting up in the area the year after Twitter moved into its new headquarters.

“Twitter was born in San Francisco, and from the start, our employees have cared about being a force for good here. With more than 2,000 employees based in our HQ office, we’re deeply ingrained in the life of the city.”

So begins a recent post on the Twitter blog from Colin Crowell, the company’s vice president of global public policy. The $25 billion company was founded in 2006. Twitter’s employees may care about “being a force for good” in the city (for example, by surprising a local homeless man with a $192 Walgreens card and a cake on his birthday). But the mandate to care is so vague as to seem unenforceable, and so far, there is not much to show that Twitter does, in fact, care. The company has been in the city for nearly 10 years: Where is the evidence that “from the start,” the company has been a participant in the civic life of San Francisco?

Multiple requests to meet with Twitter representatives in charge of community outreach were refused, ignored, or “fell below the fold.” Eventually, I was sent a few links from Natalie Miyake (“from Twitter comms”): one to the “Twitter for Good” blog, and the announcement that in the summer of 2015, the company will be opening the Twitter NeighborNest, across the street from Twitter headquarters, where locals will be able to come to learn computer skills (“will have more news to share then.”)

Alas, the head of community outreach, whose name was not shared in email responses, would be “unavailable” at the time of our visit to San Francisco. “I hope this helps!” chirped Natalie. No alternative dates or email addresses for other possible contacts were offered. I wrote back again. Nothing.

It doesn’t look as though this “community outreach” reaches out very far, at least not where transparency and the press are concerned. Meanwhile, Twitter continues to enjoy its handsome tax breaks, its vast headquarters, and its “arty” log cabin lunchrooms.

“Tech companies make it so comfortable for you not to leave the confines of your office building,” said Gray Area’s Melchor of Twitter’s headquarters. “Have you been in there? There’s food, there’s places to nap, there’s places to have drinks and socialize and it’s like you never have to leave ... it works negatively against the local community and culture that’s existing.”

According to Twitter’s website, community giving last year came to $300,000. The Community Benefit Agreement with the city, which covers the years 2015-18, is somewhat short on exact figures (though some, such as a minimum of $3 million commitment for the NeighborNest, are provided). But it appears that the sums required of Twitter won’t come anywhere near matching the tax breaks they’ve been provided by the city. It seems that companies are now to be rewarded merely for “providing jobs” in some unspecified future, as if this in itself were a favor and not a responsibility to the communities where businesses headquarter themselves.

Development in the Tenderloin has continued to increase and, a few years after Melchor’s fateful tweet, her non-profit was eventually priced out of the neighborhood. Still, Twitter would court Gray Area, whose “Tweet Street” project proposed to dedicate Twitter’s ground floor to an art space. The design included visual photo-booth-like kiosks, and projectors to send digital images and messages out onto the street. Twitter provided Gray Area with a promoted tweet program and, according to Melchor, the project was supported enthusiastically by Twitter staff all the way up its chain of command. But then Twitter abruptly put the Gray Area collaboration “on hold indefinitely.”

“I think they ended up investing in their big sign that says ‘@Twitter’ instead,” Melchor said.

This post originally appeared on Capital & Main, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Surviving in the Shadow of Fortress Twitter." It is part of a month-long series exploring how economic inequality is transforming California, and what can be done to rebuild our vanishing middle class.