A tale of two cities

Head in the Cloud

Photo of Bianca Lee

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One of my favorite spots in San Francisco is Crissy Fields. On one side, I’m able to see the entirety of the Golden Gate Bridge. On the other are the signature San Franciscan pastel Victorian houses, set against the backdrop of the Salesforce tower looming in the distance. 

This image represents San Francisco today: It’s an inescapable metaphor for the cultural tension between the idyllic years of the past versus the flood of tech culture that’s blindsiding the city. For years, the character of the city lay in its fickle weather and sloping hills that drop into the glittering sea.

But now, rather than parks being adorned with colorful flora and fauna, we see scenery such as Salesforce Park, which is adorned with colorful corporate logos instead. The counterculture movement that took place in the Bay Area was overridden by the dot-com boom, and the vibrant lifestyles of the Mission District were replaced by high-end yoga studios and sleek coffee shops.

Aesthetic transformations only skim the surface though. With the ubiquitous presence of tech companies in the city, tech employees have contributed to more traffic and skyrocketing rent. And they’ve reconstructed the city’s economy, population and culture too. 

Now, the city feels like an awkward mashup of distinct cultures. Traffic is made up of traditional San Franciscan streetcars alongside a lane of electric scooters. Dolores Park is populated by circles of people smoking weed and project managers hosting happy hour. A tech office could be located in the pagoda in Chinatown right next to a barre studio. Tech managed to rewrite the cultural narrative of the city, inserting itself within the pages of San Francisco’s history, which was once written by artists, activists and other people on the fringe.

Somehow, along the way of building communities online, tech companies decided that they’re able to build our communities in the real world too. Facebook has developed plans to build Willow Village, a new campus that is supposed to have 1,500 units of housing and a shopping district within a walk’s distance. Decked out with a neighborhood market, Main Street gathering area and an elevated park, it sounds almost akin to a futuristic utopia. For a brief moment, I could almost see myself living there too.

Yet as aesthetic as the development plans look, I can’t help but feel like Facebookville merely looks like a bland and generic blueprint of what cities “should” look like. Add onto that the fact that Facebook’s new village will be built at the cost of driving a wedge between the predominantly Hispanic communities of Belle Haven and East Palo Alto, and it simply doesn’t seem justifiable.

Beyond rewriting the history of the cities that we live in, the gentrification and expansion of the tech bubble to other cities is also indicative of the types of cities that tech companies expect people want to live in. Even nontech companies participate in this, such as one in Tempe, Arizona, that is slated to build a new utopian community called Culdesac, promising its residents a car-free neighborhood where everything they need is within five minutes of their homes. When tech companies build communities where the commute to work is merely five minutes away, tech villages unabashedly rewrite the values of a community by prioritizing work over neighbors, subsequently tying people’s work even more strongly into their identities. And the fact that the entire neighborhood would most likely be people from the same economic status and educational background poses the dangers of uniformity that tech is notorious for.

We’ve inadvertently allowed tech to build the spaces that we live in — online and offline. But the problem is that tech has a blatant disregard for the context that it’s in, merely steamrolling over everything else so that it can expand. 

In any capitalist society, production and consumption go hand in hand, and unpleasant areas of production need to exist for the shiny areas of consumption to exist. And as tech pushes the less glamorous areas to the fringe, it falsely creates the illusion that the world that we live in is already a utopia when there is still much work to be done.

It’s saddening to see the city’s personality dominated by tech’s pursuit of wealth and power. And at my favorite scenic spot at Crissy Fields, I’m reminded of that more than ever. 

As much as tech was able to successfully build our virtual spaces, I don’t want it to dominate our physical spaces too. Fortunately, some of my favorite parts of the city remain untouched by tech’s impact. I’m still able to hike amid redwood forests, walk through bamboo groves and enjoy the Pacific coast sunset within the same day in San Francisco. 

But so long as tech campuses continue to disrupt neighborhoods and build utopic elevated parks such as Salesforce Park mere blocks away from homeless tents, the divide between tech and organic communities will only become more prevalent. San Francisco’s culture is already being overpowered to make room for tech’s culture. More and more, it’s like we’re being written into a tale of two cities.

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.