Is gentrification necessarily a bad thing?

Katie Holmes/Staff

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Several blog posts have already been made in response to The Daily Californian’s recent piece, “Breeding the tech elite.” Generally, these responses attacked the article’s author, Libby Rainey, for drawing on and perpetuating stereotypes of “techies” as snobbish, unkempt and socially unaware. And verily, Rainey’s drawing on these stereotypes has done much to alienate readers in the electrical engineering and computer sciences community as opposed to tuning them in to the issues the article meant to address.

So, due to my sincerely acknowledged privilege as a UC Berkeley student who has been a part of the EECS community, the last thing I want is to come off as narcissistic, elitist and willfully socially ignorant by focusing merely on Rainey’s controversial rhetoric as a personal affront to the EECS community. I’d like to get this much-talked-about discussion started in earnest.

For the most part, gentrification is here to stay. In early 2011, San Francisco passed legislation that offered tax breaks to tech companies such as Twitter as an incentive for them to move into long-blighted areas such as the city’s Tenderloin district. The opportunity to experience San Francisco for relatively cheap housing, under the incentives the city itself provides, will remain, and tech employees will continue to exploit this. But is gentrification necessarily a harmful thing?

An extremely enlightening online San Francisco magazine article published in October expressed guarded optimism that, far from perpetuating class warfare, gentrification could be just the change needed for the city’s Tenderloin district. The author, Gary Kamiya, notes that many city officials, nonprofit leaders and police staff are on board as well and hope to see the Tenderloin benefit from the influx of businesses.

“The key to the scenario,” Kamiya writes, “is that these newcomers, rather than demanding that the police alone solve the neighborhood’s problems, shoulder a lot of that burden themselves . . . The new stakeholders work closely with the nonprofits, with law-abiding members of the (Tenderloin) community, and with the police . . . Gradually, the worst corners — Turk and Mason, Turk and Taylor, Ellis and Jones — are cleaned up. This brings in more middle-class people and businesses. In the end, the scenario posits, the neighborhood stabilizes into a functioning crazy quilt: a block-to-block, building-to-building patchwork of wealth and poverty, blacks and whites, Asians and Latinos, SROs next to renovated apartments, supportive housing beside new condos.”

It’s not difficult for the cynical to dismiss this vision as simple utopian fantasy. But with companies like Twitter and Zendesk agreeing to community benefit programs in exchange for their tax breaks, there are many similar steps left to take in the right direction before we can rightfully call such a vision impossible. And with proper care on the part of tech businesses, the steps need not entail the displacement of low-income natives but rather will allow for the creation of a unique, diverse, mixed-income community.

“Most people in tech want to humanize technology, to do something bigger than themselves,” Zendesk social responsibility director Tiffany Apczynski tells Kamiya. “Why can’t we use the kind of innovation we use in our work life to change the city to help the neighborhood?” And indeed, with tech companies gesturing to their new communities, perhaps this vision could be more than just a pipe dream. But this depends on the sincerity of the new transplants and on their long-term dedication to immersing themselves in their new neighborhoods as members of the community.

I mention all of this merely so that we, as future members of the “tech elite,” might aim for a better-case scenario, if not the best case altogether. So what will it be, Berkeley? Will we go on to tragically prove optimists like Apczynski wrong? Or will we manage to uphold their vision? We can choose to disown the stereotypes that have been made of us; we can convince people that we are indeed socially aware and that we do indeed have others’ interests in mind as well as our own.

But whether we have truly disowned these stereotypes cannot be decided here at UC Berkeley, no matter how hotly this issue gets debated. This is rather something we must evaluate for ourselves after we’ve graduated and realized the incredible gulf between us and others in terms of fortune and opportunities; after we’ve appreciated the delicate complexity of the socioeconomic situations in cities such as San Francisco; after we’ve watched local businesses surrender to chains and after we’ve watched modern apartment complexes take the places of cheaper SROs. Will we go on to ignore it all, like the countless others before us? Or will we — in the true spirit of our historically socially outspoken university — choose to prove our critics wrong?

Geraldine Jorge is a third-year UC Berkeley student.

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