'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Save Modern Times! (Part 2) 

Mike provides us a first hand observation of how the struggle of Modern Times Bookstore to survive is part of a larger process of economic distress in the Mission District in San Francisco:

I live a few blocks away from Modern Times. The neighborhood is definitely continuing to take a hit. I was in San Diego for roughly seven weeks earlier in the summer. When I came back, I counted six businesses in the area that had gone under since I left. These were in addition to all the others that have closed in roughly the last two years.

Generally, they are being replaced by restaurants that to me seem unaffordable in a new way. By that, I mean they cater to a whole new crop of people coming in to take advantage of the downturn. The number of condos is slowly increasing. I guess people will live in these hideous monstrosities and eat in these new restaurants.

There is no doubt in my mind that this area has finally tipped toward yuppies, hipsters, the dot-com people, whatever you want to call them. This economy has pushed so many people out and has slowly replaced them pure consumers who seem to have no attachments beyond their wallets. The plight of Modern Times is no exception. It is just one of many businesses that are struggling to exist in a neighborhood and a city that are increasingly difficult to survive in.

Pure consumers who seem to have no attachments beyond their wallets. Yes, this is a fair assessment of what San Francisco, and much of the Bay Area, have become. Of course, one could say that such people have always dominated the social life of the region, and, perhaps, they have, but never to this extent. While the wealthy, and their obssessions of conspicuous consumption, have always been a prominent feature, there were places for middle income, lower middle income and even low income people to live there.

Now, with the current restructuring of the global economy, this diversity, and the cultural richness that was associated with it, is being lost. Large sections of San Francisco and the East Bay have become indistinguishable from similarly wealthy neighborhoods elsewhere, with the exception of the local architecture and the landscape. Within the City itself, homes in the Avenues, neighborhoods to the north and south of Golden Gate Park, often fog bound during the summer, once a middle class redoubt and a destination for Russian and Asian immigrants, sell for about $800 to $1000 a square foot as far out as 43rd Avenue and Balboa near the ocean. Meanwhile, as observed by Mike, an inexorable process of gentrification is coming to a conclusion in the Mission, after being being stalled by decades of admirable community resistance.

Interestingly, the period that commenced after the collapse of the global financial system in 2008, the period in which we still live, appears to have ignited a new wave of gentrification in the coastal areas of the US analoguous to the one that began in the mid-1990s when the US finally began to emerge from 6 or 7 years of economic stagnation. Growth in the technology and biotechnology sectors, heavily concentrated in the Bay Area, transformed some neighborhoods virtually overnight, as it did, for example, the Dimond District in the East Bay hills of Oakland. Stock option yuppies discovered them and rapidly bid up home prices within a matter of weeks.

In this instance, the transformation is taking place more slowly, in a more grinding fashion, as people and small businesses try to outlast the downturn. But, in the end, the remaining bastions of economic and cultural diversity in San Francisco and the East Bay are likely to be much fewer and much smaller than they were after the last burst of gentification, with a new homogeneity ascendant. As for the low income people required for service work, they will live here, segregated from the people who need them, although their mobility will result in some disturbing episodes of violence.

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