Embracing Change in San Francisco

One day this winter, I was working on the house, getting it ready to sell, when I noticed a spray-painted stencil on the sidewalk on Jackson Street. “Tenants were forced out here,” read the black words above a depiction of a suitcase. It was the handiwork of anti-eviction activists, a screaming scarlet E notifying all who passed that an evil, evicting landlord lurked here.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ve lived in San Francisco for 40 years, most of that time as a renter. I’ve been a lifelong supporter of rent control and strong tenants’ rights, even when it was against my own self-interest to be so. When I said goodbye to one of the middle-aged women who lived in the top-floor apartment, she put both hands over her heart, smiling, with tears in her eyes. She didn’t know enough English to tell me what she wanted to say, but I understood. We had been forced to sell our house, the home we had hoped to leave to our kids, in part because our lives had changed, and in part because our tenants’ rents were so low. I accepted that. Those were the rules of the game. But now I was being publicly shunned and shamed for having removed renters from a house that I had bought a dozen years ago and lived in ever since.

The day before the first open house this January, I bought a can of gray spray paint and covered over the stencil. As I stood there, bent over, spraying gray mist onto that accusatory black suitcase until it disappeared like a container ship into the fog, I thought, This is one messed-up town.

Gary Kamiya has written a thoughtful and provocative, though reasonable, essay about gentrification and the fate of San Francisco. Kamiya, while fearing that his city will turn into another Manhattan, argues that the city will change, as cities do, and rather than creating a futile us vs. them dynamic, we should accept the inevitable and maybe give the dreaded techies a chance to not be assholes before we dismiss them.

I’m all for rushing the barricades when there’s an enemy to fight and a battle that can be won. I’ve engaged in my share of such battles. But it’s time to reckon with reality: There is no enemy here. Or if there is, it’s an enemy that won’t be defeated. What has hit San Francisco in the last couple of years can be summed up in one word: capitalism. And that is a tsunami that no seawall can keep out.



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