Dot-Com Boom Makes S.F. a War Zone
In a pattern of civil disobedience that concerns city officials, activists are turning increasingly mean as they demonstrate their distaste for what they call San Francisco’s rampant dot-com development.
Demonstrators have scratched the finishes on sport utility vehicles, slashed the tires of imported luxury cars parked outside technology company offices, and thrown paint-filled balloons and sprayed graffiti on high-tech companies’ buildings.
San Francisco police have also reported several suspicious fires at dot-com offices in the city’s Mission District, as well as anonymous threats against builders and high-tech company owners.
In the second such incident in two months, 15 protesters were arrested recently after they seized the offices of Internet firm Bigstep.com, linking arms and chanting “Stop the displacement!” until police arrived.
Several dot-com firms are now hiring security firms and off-duty police officers to provide 24-hour protection, officials say.
“They’re hot; relations are hot between some longtime residents of the Mission and these new companies moving in,” said Officer Jim Deignan, a department spokesman. “We’re keeping a close eye on things.”
Officers in the Mission District say they have stepped up patrols to guard against further trouble.
Capt. Ron Roth, who heads the Police Department’s Mission District headquarters, said 25 protesters were arrested in August after they seized the offices of a dot-com company that had recently displaced a popular neighborhood dance studio.
Forty police officers called in by the company staged a predawn raid to make the arrests after the protesters had occupied the site for two days.
“They were squatters, just like the protesters who seized the offices at Bigstep, disrupting workers until we moved in to arrest them,” Roth said. “The people who run these high-tech firms are very concerned about what’s going on here.”
Protesters Cite ‘Colonization’
The tension has cut both ways. An activist was tackled by a sheriff’s deputy for speaking beyond his allotted time at a recent planning commission hearing--touching off a testy standoff between hundreds of protesters and dozens of deputies and police officers called in to quell the crowd.
Protest groups such as the Yuppie Eradication Project and AARGG! (All Against Ruthless Greedy Gentrification), promise an unruly campaign against the technology industry’s “colonization” of the Mission District and the “Starbuckization” of San Francisco as a whole.
Technology companies have recently seized upon the Mission District as the newest hub of dot-com culture, attracted by its gritty mix of Latino families, free-spirited artists and cause-oriented nonprofits.
The Mission District, south of Market Street near the trendy Castro neighborhood and within quick freeway access to the Silicon Valley, also features cheaper rents and more space than other areas, such as the city’s Financial District.
Willing to pay whatever price landlords name, the dot-coms have driven up rents while displacing longtime tenants. Their presence, activists say, threatens the economic and cultural diversity that attracted them in the first place.
Commercial real estate prices have recently risen more than 50% in the Mission District. Residential evictions have more than doubled there since 1995, the first year of aggressive Internet growth, statistics show.
Even artists--ever-present figures in San Francisco’s unique cultural landscape--have weighed in with shock tactics. They formed Art Strikes Back, a coalition that has staged several confrontations.
In one recent piece of edgy street theater, Gordon Winiemko donned an undertaker-black suit he bought at a thrift store just for the occasion and approached a new-economy couple at a sidewalk cafe.
Thrusting a notice into their faces, the 34-year-old painter matter-of-factly explained how the Internet company they work for has been snatching up property throughout the Mission District, displacing not only artists like him, but also countless nonprofits and struggling families.
Now, he said, he’s turning the tables.
“I’m sorry, but I’m evicting you. If you wouldn’t mind getting up, I’m going to occupy your space,” he informed the dumbfounded dot-com pair. “Business is business, so join the crowd; you’re getting the boot.”
Artists have also mocked the mannerisms of young high-tech workers by walking Mission District streets while yelling into toy cell phones about stock options and 20-hour workdays.
Tactics like these have made an impact. In the face of the protests, a developer dropped plans to renovate the National Guard Mission Armory into a 250,000-square-foot high-tech complex. Other developers remain wary of San Francisco’s uneasy atmosphere.
At City Hall, new-technology development has fueled a heated political battle that has resulted in two competing ballot measures for the November election. They pit the business community against residents who say high tech’s rapid growth is hurting their ability to stay in San Francisco.
Mayor Willie Brown, who has thrown his political weight behind what critics call a pro-development measure, recently fired a city planning commissioner who refused to endorse his agenda for high-tech growth, prompting angry newspaper editorials that decried “Willie’s guillotine.”
Brown says the city’s dot-coms have been given a bad rap.
“The technology people are being made out to be villains,” he said. “San Francisco isn’t just for those of us who are already here. We can’t pull up the drawbridge, seed the bay with piranhas and dare anybody else to come in. Those pointing the finger at dot-com expansion are saying, ‘I got mine, screw the rest of the world.’ ”
Feeling Locked Out of the New Economy
The resentment of the high-tech culture has touched all corners of San Francisco, including wealthy Nob Hill residents who groused this spring that the “upstart techies” had taken over a leafy neighborhood park to throw a huge party associated with their annual award show, the Webbys. Even some panhandlers have weighed in with commentary on dot-com success with such sarcastic signs as “www.sparechange?.com.”
Letters to local papers are filled with diatribes by residents who feel locked out of the high-tech revolution.
Kevin Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange, a human rights nonprofit, also feels shoved aside by the new economy. His Mission District landlord doubled the rent on his 6,000-square-foot office to keep pace with market rates pushed up by dot-com deals, and Danaher may have to relocate.
“The irony is that most of these high-tech firms are going to go belly-up, but not before they ruin the Mission District’s artistic and nonprofit character,” he said.
Many Internet firms are baffled by a resentment that has labeled them “dot-commies.”
Jim Gonzalez, director of the Information Technology Coalition, an Internet lobbying group, bristles at the claim that dot-coms have damaged the city. “Has the Internet ruined San Francisco?” he asked. “Have rude people ruined New York? I don’t think so.
“People don’t want us to locate in neighborhoods, fine, but understand that we’re going to continue to grow. The business of blaming the dot-coms is like Hollywood telling the movie industry to move out because actors are making it too expensive.”
Proposition L, a ballot measure backed by a coalition of neighborhood and growth-control advocates, would reclassify most Internet company quarters to bring them under an annual 950,000-square-foot cap on all new office construction, set by a referendum in 1986.
Builders converting old warehouses and industrial sites for dot-com development have avoided the limit by calling the projects manufacturing, research-and-development and business services facilities.
Proposition L also would set a 6,000-square-foot limit on businesses that can rent space in transitional areas such as the Mission District--which would lock out most Internet firms.
Like its competing measure, Brown’s Proposition K would limit new projects in working-class areas currently favored by dot-com companies. But Brown’s plan also contains a one-time adjustment that doubles the 950,000-square-foot annual housing cap over the next 15 months.
High-tech firms say they--and not greedy landlords--continue to pay the price for high rents through bad publicity.
But Paulina Borsook, the author of “Cyberselfish,” a book about San Francisco’s Internet culture, says the new high-tech gold rush that celebrates “all work all the time” has produced workers who care little about the place in which they live.
“People have always come here because they wanted to be part of the culture, but these people are just here to make a fortune,” she said. “If Silicon Valley was located in Omaha, they’d be there. These people just don’t have time; they’re work-identified and have no community outside work. By the time they wake up to take notice, half the city will be gone.”