San Francisco won my heart in 2006. It was the year I finally left the increasingly bleak and boring woods of Tahoe — where I was raised — to move to what I felt was a vibrant city full of art, film, and excellent curry. It’s been almost a decade since and I no longer live in San Francisco. A host of other people have left the city as well, but many not by choice. Instead, longtime residents have been evicted from their homes to make way for the new — the tech kids with money.
In Alexandra Pelosi’s new HBO documentary, San Francisco 2.0, she explores the tech takeover of her hometown and how the sharing economy has changed San Francisco — and many other cities — causing a dramatic shift between the rich and poor. Pelosi spoke with tech industry leaders, the residents who have been forced out of their homes, and politicians about the impact of the city’s tech revolution. The changes in San Francisco have been dramatic and swift over the past few years. In my time there I worked at a gothic bakery in the Mission District, an area where it seemed a new restaurant appeared on a monthly basis. Walk down Valencia Street with a friend who has either been abroad for a few years/has been in prison/mysteriously disappeared for a while, and they will feel like they’ve stepped into a new world, a city unrecognizable to its former self.
I spoke with Pelosi about the changes of the city, the good, the bad, and what we’re supposed to do about it all.
I moved out of San Francisco a couple years ago.
Where do you live now?
I live in Los Angeles.
Lucky you. What’s the temperature today?
Around 85. It’s not very comfortable. It’s been really hot, up to 100. I miss San Francisco weather. It is ideal.
It’s a slice of paradise. I have this postcard on my refrigerator that says, “There may not be a heaven but somewhere there is San Francisco.” It is a little slice of heaven.
When I moved there I felt more at home then I ever did where I grew up.
That’s so weird, that’s how I feel about New York. That’s how I feel about Greenwich Village. I grew up in San Francisco at a time where it really was a sleepy town and I always had the fantasy of moving to New York. San Francisco in the ’70s was really sleepy and New York felt like where all the action was. Now [San Francisco is] a rockin’ town and everyone says, “Why don’t you move back?” I’m like, “Because I couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco now.”
Living in New York, was it easier for you to see the changes in San Francisco? When did you start noticing the tech takeover?
Because I visit San Francisco on a regular basis, every time I go back things seem to have changed a little bit more. And you can see what I call the growing pains. Now this neighborhood is having a fight and now these people are angry at these people. It’s all very local. I always thought it would be an interesting documentary but it wasn’t until I saw Robert Reich give a speech about this… He was giving a speech on the sharing economy and how it’s really Darwinian. If everyone’s working from gig to gig and there is no safety net then what is our society? And everybody feels happy about the fact that they can use their car to become a taxi driver. But in the end there’s no future in the job for them. They have no union, they have no job protections, they have no job security. And he has a new book out about it. So once I heard him speak about it I thought, well, if it’s good enough for Robert Reich to write a book about it then I think I could get away with making this short for HBO.
Did you anticipate that this change would lead to people being evicted from their homes and that even neighborhoods like Hunters Point would be making room for more luxury condos? Did that surprise you?
The only surprise to me in the story of San Francisco 2.0 is how the tech companies haven’t acknowledged that they have a PR problem. They seem like they’re having their moment in the sun and life is beautiful when you’re beautiful. They’re living the good life. And it seems like they’d be a little more sensitive to the fact that they’re uprooting middle class families that have been living in San Francisco for generations. You’d think they’d be a little more sensitive to that and give back more to the community. So what I keep saying to them is the tech companies need to start looking at San Francisco as their community, not as their playground. I keep saying this to everyone I know who works in tech.
I work for HBO, it’s not exactly a little start up. It’s a big multinational corporation, Time Warner. But they give back so much. Every day when you’re standing at the elevator they have, “We have a backpack drive this weekend for kids who don’t have backpacks. We have an AIDS walk.” They’re conscious of their image so they invest in community relations so the whole world doesn’t hate them. It’s something grown-up companies have learned that they need to do.
And these companies don’t even realize yet that that’s something they need to do.
They’ve been hiring some big-name political people. In fact, on the night of my screening a friend of mine told me she couldn’t come but she didn’t tell me why. And, sure enough, she got hired at Facebook. She’s leaving The Washington Post to go work at Facebook communications. So I’m like, oh wow, they are hiring really legitimate people. So maybe they are starting to catch on.
With the people you interviewed in tech, did you know any of them before? And were there people who denied your interview requests?
Well it’s pretty clear when you see the film that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invite me over for coffee to chat about Facebook and the community. I went to Yahoo, I went to Twitter, but none of the name-brand CEOs are really present. But it doesn’t matter because Mark Zuckerberg is on the cover of Vanity Fair right now, so it’s not as if he needs any more good press. The tech CEOs are getting plenty of good press. Everybody loves them. As a filmmaker I was trying to shine a light on the dark side of progress. Not to say, “Hey look at all these happy people becoming millionaires and living the dream.” I think we’ve seen enough of that.
I wanted to call attention to the fact that there is a dark side and that people should be conscious of that because in the end the movie’s not really about San Francisco. It’s about every city in the world. Cities are becoming gated communities. It’s about the middle class having access to our cities and who’s going to decide who’s going to live in our cities. That, to me, is the bigger question. It’s about the new rules of the new economy, the sharing economy. With Airbnb and Uber, you have billion dollar companies that are not paying taxes and not playing by the old rules. So we need the rules. I focus on Jerry Brown and old mayors of San Francisco for a reason, I was trying to make the point that I’m focusing on the elected leaders who are going to have to come up with solutions to these problems. We need to make rules so that it’s fair for everyone. That’s more what I care about than what Mark Zuckerberg’s having for breakfast. I haven’t read the Vanity Fair article, but I’m sure it says what he eats for breakfast.
With all cities facing this problem of dealing with a new economy, is there anything different or unique about the changes happening in San Francisco?
I live in Manhattan and it is a tale of two cities, we all know that now. There are rich and there are poor. That’s Manhattan. To me it’s really interesting that that’s happening in San Francisco. I think it’s happening in all the big cities around the world. Last week I was on Bill Maher. After I went on and talked about the show, the next morning my inbox was just flooded with emails: “You should come to West Palm Beach,” “You should come to where I live in Michigan.” Everybody sees it in their own community in different ways. So it’s an epidemic that’s happening across the country, the new segregation between rich and poor. That’s what I think it is. San Francisco is a microcosm of that because it’s such a small peninsula. You see it, it’s so stark. But it is happening all across America and all across the world. And the sharing economy is really having an impact on that world. Every city has to deal with the sharing economy and the impact it’s going to have on the rest of the world.
It’s interesting too because people love the alternative that the sharing economy has provided them and it can’t be taken away from them now.
They got away with it for a long time, they should be happy. But now we need some rules so that everyone has to play by the same rules, so that our society is fair. Otherwise, all the immigrants that came and saved every penny to get a medallion to be able to drive a taxi, they’re getting screwed. Everyone hates politicians. It’s really in vogue to hate politicians. But we actually need our elected leaders to come up with rules and set the rules.
What industries would you say are most doomed by that divide between rich and poor and the collapse of the middle class?
[Laughs] What does America make anymore? We don’t make anything! We don’t even make our iPhones here, we make them in China. We make nothing. We come up with ideas, which is good, but at some point we’re going to run out of apps. Our phones can only take so many apps. At some point this whole tech boom is going to run out. What are we going to make next to stay relevant, and where are the young people going to go to do that? It’s like the hot club, at some point San Francisco is going to lose its cool and all the young kids are going to want to go somewhere else. And hopefully that’s in America because we need the the tax revenue.
How much more of a life do you think tech has?
God, isn’t that the billion-dollar question? I wish I could answer that. It’s taken over our lives, how much more addicted could we be just staring at our iPhones? And how many more apps can they make? How many more ways can be invented to deliver your dinner?
When you look at the cultural history of San Francisco with beatniks, hippies, and artists, do you find the artistic community disappearing?
Yeah, I mean, so the artists and documentary filmmakers can’t live in San Francisco. Boohoo. But what about the teachers and the firemen and the police who are there to keep us safe, who are there to protect your family? Don’t we want them to be close by? I know nobody really cares if the artists can’t live there — so they make better art in Oakland. But you should care when it’s people that you need. Maybe the tech bros don’t need artists but they do need firemen, they do need police, and they do need manicurists. They do need bartenders. Bartenders can’t afford to live in San Francisco 2.0. If you asked me, I’d say the most important person in my life, besides my husband and children, is my barista. And I think it’s important to protect the baristas. I’m not being ironic, I mean it. A good barista is hard to find. In theory there are more jobs but you have to pay people fairly, so they can afford to live there too. Who wants to live in a city of all white tech bros? You need musicians, and artists to keep it interesting. And that’s why people want to live in San Francisco anyway!
So it’s becoming boring.
Boring. And that’s the meanest thing I could ever say. The meanest thing that I could ever say about anyone or any place is it’s boring. In my opinion that is the biggest insult.
Are there any neighborhoods in San Francisco that have been left untouched?
It’s everywhere now. The irony to me is I grew up in Pacific Heights, and they always had rich people there and you’d see what you could call a mansion. But now the techies are moving in and turning them into McMansions. It’s just funny because they’re putting swimming pools in the basement and 4th and 5th floors on top. They’re upgrading the already upgraded. You see it creeping in everywhere. Hopefully they’ll clean up the Tenderloin.
In the film you mentioned a $50 burger at a restaurant in the Mission. I’m wondering about the culinary industry, which is quite strong in San Francisco and a main draw for people to live and visit the city. How do you see this changing economy affecting the culinary landscape?
There’s a whole foodie movement in San Francisco, I didn’t even touch that. I mean, I interviewed a guy who opened up markets in the Mission but people spray paint “Yuppie go home.” People scream at him. It’s a terrible thing. But they opened a chain of artisanal markets in the Mission, which, good for them. Eating organic. God bless them. But for generations of people who live in those neighborhoods who don’t even have enough to feed their kids, that’s when we start talking about class warfare. It’s all about taste. There is a really interesting foodie movement in San Francisco and there are some really nice restaurants. I mean, I love coffee. Coffee to me is proof there’s a God. And San Francisco has some cathedrals to coffee. Better than New York. I am jealous of their coffee. But you got to make a lot of documentaries to drink that kind of coffee every day. The happy few are living the dream and eating well. And you’re supporting the farmers, so that’s good. It’s a complicated conversation, though. We’re going into a wormhole. You could make a 12-part series about this.
I’d love to see that. Make it.
You may be the only one who wants to see that.
(San Francisco 2.0 premieres on HBO on Monday, Sept. 28th)