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A gag quiz from 1985 says a lot about how we talk about gentrification

CrossFit, Inc.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or so it would seem — at least when it's related to the very hot topic of gentrification in San Francisco.

John Metcalfe over at Citylab points us to a terrific old newspaper clip that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1985. Dug up by Devin McCutchen, a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA, it's a gag gentrification quiz that allowed residents of the city to tally the yuppie quotient of their neighborhood.

Gourmet cookie shops, cheese shops selling Argentine Parmesan and newsstands plying the London Times and the Village Voice all drew a high of 10 points apiece, as did restaurants that served seafood "flown in from the East Coast daily." Aerobics gyms and designer chocolate "shoppes" each earned 5 points. (You can see the whole quiz at the bottom of this post.) A video rental outlet scored just two points.

The quiz is funny since it is both of-the-moment and totally out-of-date. We live in a time when everyone and his mother has written or is currently writing a think-piece about gentrification in San Francisco. But no longer does the American petite bourgeoisie fetishize jet-setting seafood (now it's local, local, local). Nor do they rent videos (hello, streaming) or do aerobics (burpees at CrossFit, or don't even bother talking about what kind of unfashionable exercise you do.)

For his Ph.D., McCutchen has been studying San Francisco's urban planning during the postwar years, from the 1940s to the '70s. It was in doing some research at San Francisco's Planning Department (where he is working this summer) that he came across a binder full of old clips on gentrification, including the quiz, which he promptly tweeted. The piece struck him because it was funny. But also because it represented a shift in the ways that gentrification had been historically discussed.

"In the '70s, the battles weren't about neighborhood gentrification," he explains. "It was about downtown development. It was a conversation about the skyline — the skyline as a symbol of how the city was changing to serve a particular type of white-collar work. The Transamerica tower was a big part of this. You had battles about height limitations and wind effects, etc. It was all this modern and postmodern high-rise construction. And that was a proxy conversation for how the city was changing, in the same way that the Google bus is a proxy for those conversations today."

"Into the 1970s, there is a lot of talk about the anti-Manhattan-ization of the city," adds McCutchen (whose family hails from the Bay Area). "You had all these stories about the replacement of single-room-occupancy buildings being knocked down to put up towers, and stories about old pensioners who are no longer going to have space. But there was a moment when this type of story became about the commercial storefronts: the gourmet cheese shop and other things that the wealthy can afford."

At its core, these debates — whether it's about highfalutin cheese or big and boxy office towers — are about the same thing: how cities change and who that change will benefit most in the end. In other words, it's hardly new. As long as we have cities, it's a debate we will continue to have — and not just in San Francisco.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

A quiz on gentrification in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1985 Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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