Gentrification’s Price : S.F. Moves: Yuppies In, the Poor Out
After living 35 years in the same North Beach apartment, Frances Brandolino and her husband discovered there was no longer room for them in this city.
A group of lawyers bought the 17-unit Victorian building in which they had been living to convert it into offices. Unable to find a place they could afford in San Francisco, the Brandolinos ended up in the suburb of Brisbane, where the $500-a-month rent still is more than twice what it was in their rent-controlled North Beach apartment.
It isn’t that the family is poor. Frances Brandolino, 62, part owner of a small North Beach hamburger stand, and her husband, a printer, earn about $30,000 a year. But the family simply could not afford apartments that in North Beach go for "$900 or $1,000 a month,” she said.
Story Is Typical
The Brandolinos’ story is being repeated throughout San Francisco, where a decade-long building boom has transformed the city’s skyline and its population. One example is the Brandolinos’ old neighborhood, once a thriving Italian district, later an enclave for beatniks, now home to chic restaurants, high-rent apartments and increasing numbers of offices.
In short, San Francisco has become perhaps the most gentrified large city in the nation. Districts that a decade ago were blue collar are now ghettos for young urban professionals, who have spawned a consumptive economy in which one highly successful new chain mass markets croissants, sort of a Yuppie version of Winchell’s doughnut shops.
The change has created a new vocabulary: Yuppification, croissantification, Manhattanization. City Planning Director Dean Macris calls it the “boutiquing of San Francisco.”
Whatever its name, its result is spiraling housing costs, clogged traffic, an exodus of middle-class and poor families and declining black and Latino populations. And the trend seems certain to continue despite a new effort by the city to limit growth, restrain housing costs and preserve neighborhoods.
Some social scientists call San Francisco the “archetypical post-industrial city,” one with an economy based not on steel plants or breweries, but on silicon chips, corporate headquarters, international trade, banking, law. And its residents reflect that.
Several other big cities--Boston and Philadelphia, among them--are experiencing similar changes. But here, the difference is in degree.
“It is clear to me that San Francisco has experienced each of these changes . . . earlier and to a greater extent than any other area in the country,” said demographer Kevin McCarthy of the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp.
Of the 13 largest cities in the nation in 1980, San Francisco (current population 706,900) had the largest percentage (22%) of residents between ages 25 and 34, the segment of the population most likely to have children. It also had the lowest percentage of children 13 and younger.
Of those 13 largest cities, San Francisco was one of only two that showed a drop in black population between the 1970 and 1980 censuses. San Francisco’s black population declined 10%, or about 10,000. San Antonio, the only other city in the top 13 to record a loss, showed a 0.3% decline.
During the same period, the number of Latinos in San Francisco also dropped by roughly 10%, or about 10,000, Latino leaders here say, although the census did not count that group separately in 1970.
The number of Asians, now about a third of the population, is increasing rapidly. But for the most part, Asians and other minorities do not hold the high-paying office jobs.
White Work Force
A recent city report says that two-thirds of the downtown work force is white, and that whites hold three-fourths of the management and technical jobs. Those jobs have the highest salaries, with more than half paying at least $25,000, making San Francisco paychecks among the fattest of the largest cities.
Growth proponents say the building boom merely reflects San Francisco’s healthy economy. Bob Hayden of the Chamber of Commerce called the downtown high-rises “vertical factories.” And those factories keep the city’s unemployment rate to about 6%.
Mayor Dianne Feinstein builds on that by pitching San Francisco to foreign investors, who finance much of the construction. So far this year, she has been to London and the Far East on trade missions.
But while the city bustles, some researchers sound notes of caution, not only for San Francisco but for other cities that rely on service industries for employment. Several corporations--Bank of America, Pacific Bell--have moved much of their operations to suburbs, where land costs less and where work, done largely on computer, can be done just as easily.
Vacancy Rate Grows
A few years ago, there were no vacant offices here. Now, there is a 10% vacancy rate.
“If the garment industry can move to Taiwan for cheap labor, there is no reason that these industries (that make heavy use of computers) cannot move to cheap labor sites,” said John Mollenkopf, an associate professor of political science at City University of New York, who has studied San Francisco.
Mollenkopf also believes that as better-educated and better-paid residents outbid the poor for housing and as other necessities increase in price, there could be class tension.
For instance, there could be more competition for government services, he said. New residents who either have no children or who can pay for private schools may be less interested in financing public schools. That would put them in conflict with low-income families who would continue to want good public education.
But probably unique to San Francisco is the worry that the city may be losing the charm and diversity that made it “the Paris of the West.”
Like a Disneyland
“The danger is that San Francisco will become a Disneyland, a parody where a few blocks remain to show what life used to be like here,” said Paul F. Wartelle, a public interest lawyer who represented the Brandolinos in their fight against eviction.
“Corporate life tends to promote uniformity,” said California historian Kevin Starr, an unsuccessful candidate for the Board of Supervisors last year. “The same people who work in the high-rises here could walk into a high-rise in Cincinnati or any place else and feel at home.”
The city began its transformation as a corporate and international trade center with urban renewal projects in the 1950s, and the decision to build the Bay Area Rapid Transit system a decade later.
The first glass and concrete downtown high-rise sprouted in 1960, Starr said. Now, there are 120 buildings of more than 10 stories in the 470-acre downtown area, with 60 to 70 more expected by the year 2000, the Planning Department says.
That estimate does not include a $3-billion development of offices and housing in what amounts to a Century City-type undertaking south of downtown. Nor does it include a 24-acre project of hotels, offices and some houses under construction around the Moscone Convention Center in the downtown area.
Trying to cope with the immediate effect of such changes, the city is seeking to extract concessions from some developers in return for permission to build high-rises. Developers of a Ramada Inn that recently opened on a block that was part of the Tenderloin District had to agree to spend $3 million on low-cost housing, $200,000 for social service agencies, and to employ workers from the area.
For the long term, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is debating a new master plan for downtown development.
The plan seeks to divert development from population centers in North Beach and Chinatown to an underdeveloped area south of Market Street. The city hopes to limit the size and number of high-rises, preserve buildings of historic value, require housing construction and create parks.
Point to Pyramid
Some say that the plan does not go far enough. To dramatize the claim, they point to probably the most striking high-rise on San Francisco’s skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid. The proposed city plan would allow an equivalent of three buildings of that size to be constructed each year--1.6 million square feet--through the year 2000.
One faction on the Board of Supervisors is pushing to establish a ceiling on office growth of 500,000 square feet a year, far below the 3 million square feet approved last year. A compromise is being debated.
“If we don’t do it (limit growth), the citizens are going to do it for us,” said Supervisor Bill Maher, noting that a ballot measure to limit annual growth in office space to 500,000 square feet failed by only a few hundred votes two years ago.
It is not difficult to understand the anti-growth sentiment.
A recent city report says that continued growth at the current rate would overcrowd already jammed freeways, exacerbate parking problems and overload public transit. Housing costs could average as much as $240,000, the report says.
Most Back Limits
Ironically, young professionals who benefit most from the growth generally back growth limits.
“There must be some cohesive regulations,” said downtown lawyer Richard Lapping, 33, who voted for the 1983 growth limit.
Lapping and his wife, a doctor, paid $145,000 for a two-bedroom home in what was a few years ago a blue-collar, Latino neighborhood, Noe Valley. Like most of the newer residents, both he and his wife work.
He views continued changes as inevitable.
“There should be some industries that employ blue-collar people,” he said. “But at the same time, I worked awfully hard not be be blue collar.”
Although San Francisco never was as dependent on factories as Northeastern cities, it had its share. As late as 1964, manufacturing ranked as the second-largest employer. Now it is fifth, representing 2.6% of the work force.
With their jobs disappearing from the city and factories sprouting in the suburbs, it is no wonder that wage earners are leaving for outlying towns. Those who remain, particularly the poor, find themselves squeezed into ever smaller, more-crowded quarters.
Nowhere is that change better illustrated than in the Western Addition, a neighborhood of aging Victorian homes and housing projects a few miles west of downtown. The area became a blue-collar, predominantly black district during World War II, when the demand for workers in shipyards boomed.
With the war’s end, joblessness set in. In the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal projects, including a freeway to downtown, leveled many homes. Then came the influx of Yuppies, drawn by proximity to downtown and the charm of the remaining Victorian homes.
As a result, rents shot up, boutiques and new restaurants opened, and the black population dropped 29% between 1970 and 1980.
One last place for the poor is the Tenderloin, where 10,000 Indochinese refugees live, along with an assortment of others from war- and famine-plagued nations, many hundreds of elderly and an uncounted number of derelicts.
Even there, the poorest of the poor are finding that the “squeeze is on,” said Bradford Paul, who runs a Tenderloin social service agency. It is a matter of time before gentrification takes hold, he said.
The Tenderloin is bounded on one side by downtown and by busy Market Street on another. Fashionable Nob Hill is to the north. One builder already is planning a condominium development in “lower Nob Hill.”
Erik Shapiro, who spent several years working in the Tenderloin, likened the situation to a “battle.”
“It’s all over turf,” he said--whether developers can rebuild this block or that lot.
As legal aid lawyer Wartelle sees it, he is in the business of “slum preservation.” His clients’ apartments are at best modest, but they cannot afford more.
Wartelle’s latest battle involves two Chinatown apartments that are home to 180 low-income Chinese, most of whom do not speak English. The apartment is at the center of a five- or six-block strip of small grocery markets, clothing shops and herbalists on Stockton Street. A block from the Grant Street shops that cater to tourists, Stockton Street is the heart of Chinatown for its residents.
A partnership wants to level the apartments and replace them with 8- and 10-story structures for shops, offices, condominiums, and housing for the elderly. If the apartments are razed, Wartelle argues, it will not be long before others on the strip fall.
Koon Sing Mak, a retired seaman, has lived in San Francisco for 45 years, eight of them in the Stockton Street building. He was standing in the living room of a neighbor, a woman recently arrived from China who works in garment shops, raises a 3-year-old son and goes to night school to learn English. The apartment, which rents for less than $200 a month, had the dimensions of a good-sized bathroom.
‘Where to Go?’
“Where are we going to go?” he asked. On his pension, he doubts that he could find housing elsewhere in the city. Besides, he knows few people outside Chinatown and rarely has a reason to venture out of its boundaries.
Even a sympathetic politician like Supervisor Maher predicts that today’s residents of the low-rent apartments in Chinatown and the Tenderloin are “the last generation.”
“Obviously, change is coming. . . . What we’re trying to do is let the people there now live out their lives undisturbed,” he said.
Where will the next generation of poor live?
“I can’t answer that,” he said.