Boom asks "What's the matter with San Francisco?" and offers insightful answers


“What’s the matter with San Francisco?” asks the Summer 2014 issue of the Boom: A Journal of California, a quarterly magazine produced by the University of California Press, tapping an amazing array of writers to explore the struggle for the soul of San Francisco that has captured such widespread media attention in the last year.

The question on its cover, which all of the articles in this beautifully produced 114-page magazine explore from varying perspectives, is a nod to Thomas Frank’s insightful 2004 book, What’s the matter with Kansas? And the answer in both cases, argue writers Eve Bachrach and Jon Christensen in their cover story article, is the people.

“Specifically, the people who act time and again against their own interests, people who adhere to a narrow political line, whether it’s antipopulist in the nineteenth century or antiprogressive in the twentieth. By focusing on one set of values, this analysis asserts, the people don’t notice what they’re really losing until it’s too late — and San Francisco is no different,” they write.

At this important moment in time, San Francisco is fighting to retain the last significant remnants of the cultural and economic diversity that have made this such a world-class city, with today’s hyper-gentrification building off of previous waves of displacement to change the city in fundamental ways.

Sure, this struggle between capital and community has been part of San Francisco since its founding, a dynamic that animates our civic life and feeds important political movements that trickle out across the country. And local writer/historian Chris Carlsson has a great article documenting those movements, from the Freeway Revolt of the 1960s to the pro-tenant and anti-displacement activism around the last boom.

“Read one way, this short history demonstrates the relentless power of money in defining who is a San Franciscan and who can stay and who must go. But read another way, this history shows that there is historic precedent for optimism that the worst consequences of today’s creative destruction of the city can be averted if we know and use our history,” Carlsson wrote.  

But in a Q&A interview with author Rebecca Solnit, both celebrates that dynamic and explains why things are different this time: “You can image San Francisco as full of dynamic struggle that’s been pretty evenly matched between the opposing sides since the Gold Rush. There have always been idealists and populists and people who believe in mutual aid in the City of San Francisco. And there have also been ruthless businessmen and greedy people: the ‘come in and get everything and be accountable to nobody and hoard your pile of glittering stuff’ mentality has been here since the city was founded. But it has not been so powerful that it has rubbed out the other side.

“Now, however, it feel like Silicon Valley is turning San Francisco into its bedroom community. There’s so much money and so much power and so little ability to resist that it is pushing out huge numbers of people directly, but it is also re-creating San Francisco as a place that is so damn expensive that nobody but people who make huge amounts of money will be able to live here.”

After building off of previous gains, the capitalists of today, those who refuse to even acknowledge the political landscape and dynamics that have been developed over generations, seem to be moving in for the kill, armed with more powerful weapons of accumulation and displacement than their predecessors had or were willing to deploy.

“So what’s the matter with San Francisco? It’s becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, while Silicon Valley becomes a global power center for information control run by a bunch of crazy libertarian megalomaniacs. And a lot of what’s made San Francisco really generative for the environmental movement and a lot of other movements gets squeezed out. And it feels like the place is being killed in some way,” Solnit said.

Yet the issue pointedly avoids falling into us-vs.-them traps or trite demonization of techies, ultimately seeking to provide a more nuanced look at the city’s current cultural and economic clashes than the various East Coast publications have brought to the task. And the best of it is “The Death of the City? Reports of San Francisco’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

Written by Rachel Brahinsky, a former Bay Guardian staff writer who is now a professor at the University of San Francisco, the article echoes other concerns about the threats and challenges facing San Francisco, but she finds a potential “seed of the solution” in the city’s current zeitgeist.

For one thing, she challenges the convenient blaming of “techies” for the problems facing San Francisco, noting that some of the city’s best progressive organizing has been done by those with skills and/or jobs in the technology sector, often by people who despise the corporate managers and investors who run the industry as much as outsiders do.

“The problem isn’t tech, but corporate tech,” she writes.

Brahinsky also urges readers to broaden their lenses to consider San Francisco as part of the broader Bay Area, which now much confront the growing challenges of rising economic inequality and gentrification as a region, using the clashes here as a catalyst to finally pursue what she calls “ethical urbanism.”

“What is to be done? There is no lone policy shift that will salve these corporate tech wounds. There are many good solutions under debate now; with continued pressure they may become law in the same way that rent control moved from impossible to mainstream in 1978,” she writes.

The prescription she then offers includes fostering greater community engagement, developing regional policies that promote “community development without displacement,” not blaming techies for the sins of landlords, finding ways to increase the density of development without displacing or sapping vital public services, using open source tech tools to increase awareness and broaden the progressive movement, and “you need to fight like hell for the kind of city you want.”

Finally, in closing, she writes, “The San Francisco region’s most potent dreams are made of the kinds of struggles that refuse the sweeping change brought by the economistic forces of urbanism. What we witnessed in the winter of 2014 was a reawakening of this side of ‘San Francisco,’ a part of the city as mythic and real as the Gold Rush. The ongoing cacophony of protests, corporate tech-activist happy hours, housing lectures and forums, and the ballast of anti-eviction committees brought together by two months of tenants conventions are all signs of this legacy regathering steam. What happens next?” 


Why has progressive, neighborhood, popular and populist resistance faltered over the past ten years to the extent that one side is about to rub out the other?

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

being talked down to?

Is it the Peoples Front of Judea vs the Judean Peoples Front nutty quality of of SF progressive in fighting?

Is it the disaster that is union owned politics, are the citizens burned out on fees and fines in a city with a budget more than some states?

City schools treating kids like lab rats, sending them across the city for the sake of a PC objective.


The marginalization of progressives and their self pity might be the result of their actual works and actions? And not the actions of the other side?

Or as the article suggests, just the stupidity of the lumpen masses too stupid to vote progressive?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

And because they are all too self-absorbed to be effective.

They lose because the majority want them to lse. By definition, the majority cannot be extremists.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 6:42 am

Except that progressives won most elections 15 years ago by majority vote and then began to lose elections. What changed and why and how do we do something different to change things forward to win again?

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 6:57 am

I learn something here every day.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 7:35 am

Most elections are not for mayor.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 7:50 am

As the CEO of the city, he drives the agenda. Lose that and the rest is fluff. And you always lose it.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 8:23 am

Control of the BOS is not "fluff." And there was Agnos and Moscone. And many progressive priorities that mayors refused to enact, got enacted by ballot measure.

The mayor is not the CEO of the city. This isn't a corporate dictatorship.

Posted by Greg on Jun. 21, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

That's all you got? Agnos and Moscone??? Agnos was close to 30 years ago (and a one-termer at that who crashed and burned under the cluster fuck that was "Camp Agnos"). Moscone was 40 years ago. If your side can only pull out two wins in 40 years and 10 elections, it means that your candidates and their platforms don't resonate with the majority of San Francisco voters. Progressives continually fail to understand that.

But this is pointless trying to explain this to Greg. He thinks communism was and is a viable, if not ideal, form of government.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 21, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

win the top job in the living memory of most of us. He knows that is the ultimate test of whether SF is a progressive city, and it has shown repeatedly that it is not.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 22, 2014 @ 9:10 am

Hmm... the mayor makes many appointments including the chiefs of the PD and FD, appoints the replacement for any major municipal position, including Supervisor, if they leave their seat early for whatever reason, and sets the agenda for the city. Please explain how he is not like a CEO?

Mayor=CEO. BoS=Board of Directors. Or would you prefer this analogy Greg? Mayor=General Secretary. BoS=Politburo.

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Posted by Information about China and Hong Kong on Wiki on Aug. 04, 2014 @ 6:05 am

More of the clueless, out-of-touch insights academia is famous for. The so-called hyper-gentifrication of urban centers--starting with New York, San Francisco, and others--is the inevitable and reasonable response to global warming, oil resource exhaustion, and the collapse of capacity of our freeway systems. People who can afford it will compete to live in the cities where they work. The days of urban cores as low-cost bastions for artists, public welfare recipients, political activists, and other people who don't work there are over, or will end soon, as anyone would agree they should, if they give a crap about the environment instead of the preservation of the progressive voting base, like Rachel does.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

People are flocking to gentrify SF because of sea level rise and oil shortage? Okaaaaayy... :)

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 9:35 am

The poor live in the flatlands and are therefore more exposed to floods and earthquakes.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 9:41 am

No, because gas prices are going up, freeways are jammed, and a long public transit commute puts you at the mercy of aging infrastructure and transit worker strikes. But yes, warm fuzzy feelings come for the affluent as well when they live a relatively car-related lifestyle and can consider themselves on the moral high ground, environmentally speaking.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 10:44 am

because they typically have to live further out.

That's why the transit/bike lobby are considered privileged white elitists by many people.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 11:22 am

were the progressives, their self pity mixed with knowing how we should all live our lives to serve their sensibilities.

We should all strive to be academics pontificating on "what is to be done."

Let me shorten this entire complaint...

"When will the butt stupid workers wise up and listen to their intellectual overlords?"

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

Where is the opening of this year's SF Mime Troupe since Dolores Park is all torn up for the summer?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

Is this the same Rebecca Solnit that sold her TIC to a Google engineer and then pontificates on the evils of gentrification?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

It looks like she wrote it herself.

"She credits her education in journalism and art criticism with strengthening her critical thinking skills and training her to quickly develop expertise in the great variety of subjects her books have covered."


Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

The same Solnit that believes that to name injustice is sufficient to contest injustice and to end injustice, and takes any suggestion that we actually do something substantial to fight corporate power as typical male aggressive mansplaining.

The literary equivalent of saying, "there, there, I feel your pain" as her friends smother San Franciscans with a pillow over the face.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 5:35 am

You are a clear example of typical male aggressive mansplaining. That is different than a normal person debating strategies. Any objective person could see that Solnit has done much more to mobilize people to fight corporate power than you will do in 100 lifetimes.

Posted by Haha on Jun. 22, 2014 @ 11:04 am

If it's true she bought a TIC then Solnit is just as heinous as any other douche buying former rent-controlled apartments. Maybe she's worse because she is often writing about the demographic changes happening to the city yet is part of its worst trend, converting rent-controlled buildings to TICs and condos, which automatically changes a housing unit so that only the most wealthy will ever be able to afford it. She's not alone. There's a street near Dolores Park where at least eight units were converted by people who consider themselves "progressive." I suppose it makes them feel better than calling themselves "gentrifier" and hypocrite.

You're right that Marcos is one of the most visible "progressive" hypocrites, although if Solnit is going around town talking about "corporate power" without also talking about the much more pernicious non-corporate gentrifiers and landlords, then she's talking nonsense and stupidity. Hopefully no one is listening to her. Most corporations produce goods and services that consumers are free to purchase or not; gentrifiers and landlords - who are almost always non-corporate entities - exist solely by extracting more rent and wealth from working families and they create nothing for society since they didn't build the housing units in the first place. One hundred new corporations is far better for society than even one non-corporate gentrifier.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 22, 2014 @ 11:55 am

Solnit makes people feel good about feeling outraged, as if they are doing something. Anyone who questions this feel good version of non-activism is a mansplainer.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 24, 2014 @ 9:36 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2014 @ 9:56 am

Progressive politics has been reduced to storytelling.

When I worked on campaigns, we won more than we lost. Since me and people like me have been driven from progressive campaigns by the poverty professionals, we've lost more than we've won.

Solnit is quite a talented writer. But naming something that most everyone already understands gets us nowhere but sure puts a shit ton of money in her pocket.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 24, 2014 @ 10:09 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2014 @ 10:29 am

In a fight to the death over who is the most righteous antigentrification gentrifier

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2014 @ 9:07 am

he posts 24/7 on every local blog that hasnt banned him.

Solnit initially got the benefit of the doubt until we figured out she's just as big a hypocrit and gentrifier as marcos is

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2014 @ 9:24 am

As expected, or no surprise I should say, the Journal is primarily composed, I imagine, of privileged white writers who were not born or raised in San Francisco, but have an extremely impoverished understanding of the multiracial history of resistance in the formation and evolution of San Francisco. Brahinsky, there was nothing "mythic" about the Gold Rush for Mexicans, Chileans, Native Americans, African Americans and Chinese immigrants. What was real? The Mexican-American War, labour exploitation, lynchings, rapings of women of colour, racist vigilantes, the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850, and the xenophobic denial of civil and human rights to thousands and thousands of people of colour.

Posted by richard marquez on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

No surprise here that this Journal, predictably, is composed largely of white privileged writers that were neither born or raised in San Francisco and have no substantial multiracial understanding or experience of the City's history, evolution and resistance by communities of color in the fight back against dispossession, displacement and gentrification. For the record, Rachel, there was nothing "mythic" about the Gold Rush for Mexicans, Chinese folks, African Americans, Chileans and Native Americans during that historical period of the Mexican American War, racist vigilantes, raping of women of colour, deportations and round ups, lynchings, labour exploitation, the Foreign Miners Tax, and Native American resistance.

Posted by richard marquez on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 11:09 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 6:35 am

about Gold Rush as she does, it effects your life as much

Granted white liberals are a comical lot, but when you spout this mush about race and the gold rush, it effects her life as much as it does yours, zero.

This is just in fighting, race obsessed white liberal vs race obsessed non white. You two are on the same intellectual island.

Peoples front of Judea vs Judean peoples front.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 6:52 am

"Yet the issue pointedly avoids falling into us-vs.-them traps or trite demonization of techies."

Something Steve does regularly.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 6:24 am

Stop complaining please. I love the tech people / industry. I'm a progressive, gay teacher too - so, that means it's all good! :)

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 7:39 am

makes no more sense than hating people based on race, religion or any other attribute.

SFBG claims to hate stereotypes and yet is often quick to resort to them when it suits them.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 7:59 am

"We need to change things back to the way they were. We're afraid of change!"

There's nothing "progressive" about clinging to the past while the world races by you. Good riddance.

Posted by Chromefields on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 9:28 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 9:40 am

There's also nothing progressive about letting the landlords and corporations call the shots at City Hall, which is the world you seem to be supporting, Chromefields, in this strange little straw man argument of yours. Progressives understand that the struggle for equity and justice is long one. We aren't longing for some bygone day, because the world we seeking has never existed in this country. But we also understand that this world of yours (unfettered crony capitalism that is rapidly firing through important natrual resources and cooking the planet in the process) that is racing past us is headed off a cliff at full speed, and there's much work to be done to prepare for what comes next. 

Posted by steven on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 11:08 am

society ever existed?

When was that?

And what was the eventual outcome?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 11:23 am

Winning elections is hard work but it happens in real time with the gratification of victory augmenting itself.

This is not some leftist revolution in which we are another link in the chain, it is liberal reformism in local government that we have dominated before to work our will and can dominate again.

"headed off a cliff at full speed, and there's much work to be done to prepare for what comes next."

No, the work to be done is to stop the damn train so we don't careen off of the fucking cliff.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 11:47 am

You need to have winning ideas that appeal to the majority. And leftist ideas have rarely been popular in America. We appear to prefer capitalism, property rights and personal choice.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

Except when progressives are able to put aside their prejudices and appeal to the voters in ways that are successful. When given consideration by non-corporate political operations, voters are more likely to vote against corporate dominance. But so many progressives are incapable of doing this, viewing anything short of running their ideas off of a cliff as capitulation, hence the patterns of failure.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

because of tactical failures rather than ideological unpopularity.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

The progressive model assumes otherwise.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

We win elections when the voters' priorities are our priorities and lose elections when we ignore the voters' priorities and run on our priorities.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 1:26 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

San Franciscans voted against neoliberals 15 years ago, neoliberals counter revolted and coopted progressives. Hence electoral excommunication.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 24, 2014 @ 9:58 am

The demographic changes that continue to happen to this city make a future progressive victory increasingly unlikely.

The trend is not your friend as the poorer folks decamp to Oakland, to be replaced by affluent white and asian moderate voters.

You had your chance and you blew it.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 24, 2014 @ 10:12 am

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