By now you must have heard the rumblings coming from the West Coast about “the battle for the heart and soul of The City.” Not a week goes by without a headline about the growing pains brought on by the tech Gold Rush in San Francisco. For my ninth HBO documentary, San Francisco 2.0, which premieres Monday, September 28, at 9 p.m. on HBO, I chose to point the camera at my beloved hometown, where the influx of tech money and the sharing economy are disrupting the natural order of things.
Inside San Francisco, it’s impossible to talk about progress without stepping in a messy local streetfight. As the natives try to encourage the techies to see The City as their community, not their playground, a backlash against gentrification has erupted. But the rest of the country can look at the vanishing middle class of San Francisco to see our fate—the new segregation between rich and poor that is emerging in San Francisco 2.0 is the challenge of the new American economic reality.
“I’m worried about a city that is becoming uniformly wealthy and out of reach,” former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich explains. “San Francisco is London, it is Vancouver, it is Manhattan, it is places that are increasingly desirable to live in, that are becoming gated communities.” Have middle-class Americans lost access to their cities? Who gets to live in The City? Will middle-class people still feel like they belong? Or will our cities be for only those who can buy their way in? This is not simply an economic question, it’s also a spiritual one: What is the price of change? And what will the growing divide between rich and poor do to the fabric of America?
As we struggle to come up with fair answers to these questions, we must embrace the fact that you can’t fight change. You can’t refuel a city by standing still. San Francisco is not a boutique, it’s a center of commerce with the highest median tech wage in the country. No one can deny the benefits the tech boom has brought to San Francisco—all the new money is clearly good for the city’s tax base. “Every mayor in America would die to have these problems,” my uncle, Tommy D’Alesandro, says. He, like his father, served as mayor of Baltimore during much more divided times in American history. We must be grateful to the tech companies for bringing jobs and tax revenues and cleaning up their neighborhoods. New jobs have trickled down.
For each new tech bro hired, there are new job openings for baristas, manicurists and personal trainers. This is the new feudalism of San Francisco 2.0, the landed gentry need more people to service them. So we need more bartenders, and they can't afford to live in the City…but what about the schoolteachers? Or the fireman and police who protect our families? Don’t we need to make room for them?
For some, the only way to hold on to the city with its skyrocketing home sales and rent prices is to join the sharing economy. Renting out their apartment on Airbnb or driving for Uber. But as Reich asks, “What happens to the widening inequality? What happens to job security? Everybody who becomes more of a contingent worker, more of a precarious worker—whether you’re an Uber driver or you are an Airbnb proprietor—your source of income is that less certain. A freelance economy can be a very cruel economy. It can be a form of social Darwinism.” This is the dark side to progress. For capitalism and democracy to actually work, we need new rules to make the playing field fair for everyone.
At a time when it is in vogue to hate our politicians, we need our elected leaders now more than ever to write the new laws that will guide us into the new frontier. As we try to figure out how to manage all this change, we need to make sure we don’t destroy the character of our communities. As more cities become a Tale of Two Cities, in which the class warfare between the haves and have-nots rages, and income inequality becomes a national epidemic, we need to find solutions that will keep our country together.
We are all looking West for solutions to these epic challenges of how to learn to share, manage change, and evolve as a community. And if any city can solve these problems, I’m hoping that my progressive hometown will lead the way into the new world economy—without leaving its heart and soul behind.