The cultural gentrification of San Francisco is unyielding

A monochrome poster showing a dapper gentleman in Civil War-era military dress. Beneath him lies the text: EMPEROR NORTON LIVES.
Source: “Greg Hill’s Emperor Norton Poster” on the blog Historia Discordia

The other day, I was chatting with an online friend about Burning Man. She’d heard of it in the early 2000’s and had wanted to attend it ever since. I couldn’t deny that there was part of me that saw the appeal, and yet…

<@Chronos>: Yeah, there’s a part of me that wants to go… until I realize that
            if I don’t have a cool art project to show off, it’s basically
            camping in the desert, and if I do have a cool art project, it’s
            showing off while camping in the desert.

But Burning Man has changed over the years. Salon recently did an article about how Burning Man has gentrified over the years, transforming from a festival of strange and unusual art into a playground for the upper-middle-class. A large part of this probably follows from the gentrification of San Francisco, the original home of Burning Man before it moved out to the Nevada desert and still the primary source of participants.

From there, our conversation turned toward what one might call “weird culture”. Weird culture is the positive valuation of the strange, the unexpected, the non-conforming — the things that are, in a word, counter-cultural. Discordians, LSD users, pop surrealists, squatter communes, radical nudists… the people who look at mainstream culture — husband, wife, 2.5 kids, dog, picket fence, white collar job, father knows best — and react with a dismissive hand gesture and, possibly, a fart sound.

As with Burning Man, weirdness itself is becoming gentrified.

Here in the Bay Area, weird is no longer a culture that people live. Weird is now a brand that you go out and buy. Weird is a hat that you put on for the weekend, then take off when you go back to brewskis and brogramming. Weird is an aesthetic you seek out, not because you think it offers a valuable way of looking at the world, but because it helps you maintain your hipster cred.

Long before it was known for the tech industry — hell, long before it was known as a gay mecca — San Francisco was the capital of weird.

To pick one example: San Francisco is the home of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (reign 1859–1880).

In his life before fame, Norton was a somewhat successful commodities trader, but he lost it all trying to corner the SF market on rice. A five year legal battle ensued as he tried to squirm out of a contract, but Norton lost and was forced into bankruptcy. No one today is quite sure of the soundness of his mental state during this period, but by the end he had transformed into an eccentric who proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States”, an event which local newspapers reported on for the amusement of readers.

As Emperor, Norton quickly became a local fixture in 19th century SF: he was a destitute man who wandered the streets daily while issuing “imperial” proclamations on seemingly trivial matters, but he nonetheless knew how to charm a crowd. And through it all, his proclamations showed his deep love and compassion for the people of San Francisco, and they loved him right back. He was penniless, sure, but the people were eager to provide their Emperor with fine clothes and free meals, and liked him enough that they honored his imperial currency when he started printing bank notes for his empire.

Once, Norton chanced upon an anti-Chinese riot: the poor white rioters were about to descend on a group of Chinese immigrants, taking out their frustration at their own poverty on innocents who were most likely in at least as much poverty as they were. Norton stepped between the rioters and their would-be victims, acting as a human shield to protect them while reciting the Lord’s Prayer in an attempt to calm and disperse the attackers. It worked: no one was hurt, and the rioters dispersed.

Norton was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being ‘let him be emperor if he wants to.’ San Francisco played the game with him.”
— Isobel Osbourne, stepdaughter of Robert Louis Stevenson

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Norton was delusional and truly believed himself to be Emperor, or if it was all an act put on to amuse onlookers and provoke sympathy. It’s beside the point. Norton was a stand-up gentleman and a goddamn hero in my books.

In the time that I lived in SF, the only person I’ve ever heard spontaneously mention Emperor Norton was herself a peninsula native. When I think of that fact, it always makes me a little sad.

Let’s set aside the economic and demographic sides of gentrification — the incessant upward pressure on housing prices, people priced out of the neighborhoods where they’d lived for decades, the Ellis Act evictions, the inexorable disruption of racial and ethnic enclaves as they’re forced to flee to the suburbs and the least accessible, least desirable parts of the city. Those are real problems, don’t get me wrong — but aside from reiterating “build tall, build dense, ignore NIMBYs”, I don’t have anything meaningful to say on those matters.

Instead, let’s talk about something that is more often overlooked: the cultural side of gentrification.

It starts with a dream. Folks from around the country hear snippets and tidbits about life in San Francisco, and they find those snippets and tidbits agreeable, so they dream of moving here. So far, so good.

But not everyone is drawn here by the same things. Some like the weirdness. Some like the remnants of hippie culture — overlapping with, but distinct from, weird culture — which has continued to grow and transform in strange and curious ways over the decades since the intersection of Haight & Ashbury became world-famous. Some like the city’s zeitgeist, which is either “what are you doing to improve yourself?” or “what are you doing to change the world?”, depending on who (and when) you ask. Some like the casual approach to office attire. Some like the emphasis on leisure. Some like the brunch.

When the City by the Bay calls to us loudly enough that we move here, our views from outside are never quite clear enough to prepare us for the real thing — at best, they’re narrowly focused on the one aspect that we think we’ll like. Then we arrive, and we are newbies immersed into a culture that we inevitably find off-putting, and our subconscious begins the dance of adaptation until, a year or five down the road, we restore our sense of normalcy and feel comfortable calling the City “home”.

But that subconscious adaptation isn’t a one-way process, of the mind adapting to the new environment. On an instinctual level, humans abhor change, and the subconscious will fight tooth-and-nail to change the environment to adapt to the mind. Old habits will peek out; old value judgements will rear their heads; old biases will keep us from checking out events that we really would enjoy, if only we gave them a chance.

As people are drawn to San Francisco, they change it. If the migration were on a smaller scale, then perhaps the influx could be assimilated before significant change was wrought… but the tech industry has pulled in such an influx, at such a rate, that San Francisco’s culture has been, and shall continue to be, unavoidably warped by the migration. The resulting culture isn’t ipso facto bad… but like an endangered species, something unique and precious is being lost, something that cannot be found in any other city and that someday may not be found even in this one.

Tech culture itself already knows about this process, and has a name for it: Eternal September, or more poetically, The September That Never Ended. This refers to the Usenet culture of the 1980’s and early 1990’s — Usenet being a predecessor to modern forums and comment threads — and how that culture was forever altered by AOL users when AOL pointed its ravening hordes of technically unsophisticated customers at Usenet and said “this is yours now”. The old hands of Usenet were well-familiar with the annual influx of college freshmen each September, most of which were experiencing the Internet for the first time, and had organically devised a systematic process for inducting them into “netiquette”, the mores and ethics of Usenet culture. But the influx of AOL users — arriving, appropriately enough, in September of 1993 — was too much for the existing Usenet population to handle.

(If you look hard enough, you can see in the Eternal September era the seeds of what would later become the lulz culture of the 2000’s, and later the PUA/MRA/Gamergate/alt-right gestalt of the 2010’s.)

In a sense, the gentrification of San Francisco by the tech industry is a repeat of the Eternal September. Tech industry gonna tech. We can’t stop that. But what we can do, is try to consciously assimilate — to preserve as much of the culture as we can by making it our own and carrying it forward.

What can you do?

  • Learn about SF history. Read about Emperor Norton and Mark Twain and the Gold Rush and the Chinese laundries and the race riots. Read about the Freeway Revolt and Executive Order 9066. Read about the Beatniks and the Hippies. Read about Harvey Milk and the Twinkie Defense and the White Night Riots. Read about Jonestown and Jackie Speier. Read about Hayes Valley and the Loma Prieta quake. Read about AT&T Park and the Crazy Crab Sandwich. Read about Sutro Tower, and the debates on whether or not it’s about to stalk down the hill and attack the Golden Gate Bridge (and whether that’s a plus or a minus).

  • Follow SF politics. If you live here — especially if you vote here — you should know about homelessness, Ellis Act evictions, tenants’ rights issues, affordable housing, the neighborhood-vs-city fights over building upward, who the big names are in the city’s political machinery, the differences between a liberal and a progressive and a socialist, and a bunch of other important political issues.

  • Check out the SF weeklies and culture blogs. The Chronicle and the Examiner are fine for what they are, but they’re very much pushing an upper-middle-class “not too weird” NIMBY/centrist agenda. Even if you’re not a leftist — why are you in San Francisco, again? — you should read the SF Bay Guardian’s endorsements, where they do the in-depth research and reporting on candidates and propositions that no other newspaper does. They have an agenda, but they’re open about it and they explain their reasoning well on each position.

  • Buy a Street Sheet now and then, and read it. You can afford your daily venti double-shot latte no whip, so you can afford to give a homeless person a buck or two a few times a week.

  • For fuck’s sake, don’t gripe about public nudity. If you’re a techie transplant, public nudity has been a part of this city for a lot longer than you have. (My personal interest in casual nudity is negligible, but I’m still pissed about the 2012 ban on public nudity in SF, just because it was a significant piece of SF culture.)

  • Likewise, don’t pull the “oh, I moved in next to a nightclub, and it’s too loud, the city should shut down the nightclub” routine. Learn the personalities of the neighborhoods and pick one that fits you. Don’t move somewhere because it’s “hip” or “trendy” and then act all surprised that it’s loud, it’s busy, it has drunk people, it has homeless people, etc etc etc.

  • Oh my god, not every old building is historic. I know this sounds backwards, but SF is a vibrant city where people create new things. Getting buildings declared historic is mostly a gimmick to increase property values, which lines the pockets of the monied NIMBYs while pricing poor people out of a neighborhood. You want historic? Go look at the Painted Ladies or check out the Presidio or something. This city already has plenty of historic buildings without needing to declare more.

  • I’ve been guilty of this in the past, but… don’t go to Folsom just to gawk. Participate or don’t.

You coming here brings inevitable change to San Francisco culture. That in itself is neither good nor bad — every culture has its pluses and minuses. But it’s your responsibility to be aware of what effects your actions have. For each thing you’re pushing back against, do you understand why it might appeal to others? Even if it’s not something you personally enjoy? Are you pushing back against it because it hurts someone, or are you pushing back because it’s strange and unfamiliar? Are you sleeping through your assimilation, or are you taking an active role in guiding it?