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Anger at tech industry for gentrification nothing new

Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons

An anti-Google bus in San Francisco created by protesters on June 30, 2013

In the 1980s, it was in style to demonize Wall Street workers and the excessive lifestyles they lived.

But now there's a growing trend to turn that judgmental eye towards Silicon Valley.

In places like San Francisco, for example, local activists have protested the buses provided by tech companies to ferry their workers to and from their jobs. These activists see them as symbols of the class divide that's pricing other people out of the city.

RELATED: Eviction protesters block Google bus in San Francisco

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Ellen Huet has been documenting this increasing scorn directed to the tech industry, and she says there's a more complex story at the heart of this that goes beyond the haves and have-nots.

Her latest piece is "How tech became the enemy — then and now," and she describes how this anger towards gentrification is nothing new for the city.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Tech wasn’t always the enemy in San Francisco, right?

Right. There was a funny thing we didn’t get into the story, but there are some stories from 1985 that mention gentrification of North Beach and the city at large, and the people who are the villains in that story are lawyers moving into lawyer lofts. So, clearly, gentrification is something that’s been happening in San Francisco for many years. But you see technology because it’s sort of a major employer in the area, moving up through the dotcom boom and today, and it’s only getting stronger.

Can you talk about the nature of the demonstration then (before the first dotcom bubble burst) and what the issues were?

We see a lot of the same issues. Displacement, especially in really tight neighborhoods like the Mission. The Mission Anti-displacement Coalition took over the offices of bigstep.com, which were at 22nd and Mission. They were mad that the office had pushed out some of the earlier tenants in order to make space for the new company.

How is what you are seeing now like what you saw then, and how is it different?

What might be different are the companies who are most likely to be protested today are pretty serious moneymakers. Nobody thinks Google is going away or Facebook is going away. This is not as much of a bubble as the other ones were.

And what we saw the same were concerns about people moving into areas where there aren’t a lot of space and with an advantage, which is a lot of money. 

This time around, there are different sources of people’s frustrations. One of them is the Google bus, the shuttle the company dispatches to pick up employees and take them to work. There was a big protest that got national headlines, and you spoke with two women on either side of the protest. What did you learn about the nature of the debate from talking to them? 

I met a girl who was riding on the bus; she’s 30, she’s a fashion blogger, and she was tweeting from the bus. People started sharing her tweets and saying some pretty mean things the day of. I think she’s a great example, because she’s 30, she’s black, she’s a contractor, which makes a big difference when you think about tech company employees, because a lot of the full-time employees get a lot of the perks you hear about. So I think a lot of them are more in line with the economic interests of the people who are concerned about housing changes.

The activist that I interviewed was also about the same age: 31, college education. When I talked to both of them, I got the feeling that they might have had more in common than they might have expected. I thought it was worth it to show the range of people we are dealing with here.

The protesters said it’s not so much that they were upset with individual workers, but that it’s technology and the effect of these companies as a whole.

But how are you supposed to protest that … and gentrification? It’s this nebulous specter. So instead, you go with the people. And media plays a role, too. We cover this stuff with a frenzy, and that makes activists decide, "That was successful. Let’s focus on tech again." And then the people working in tech end up feeling personally hurt.


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