Competitive pressure for space in San Francisco is here to stay 

It was a swell party, the opening of a 29-story, 400-unit apartment building. I met one of the residents: a young tech guy born in Italy. He'd never lived in a city and loves it.

Later, the bartender was pleased to learn that I'm a San Franciscan. He grew up at 24th and Potrero, now lives on Harrison Street and wonders how he will be able to stay.

For me, these two conversations bring into focus the challenge of today's San Francisco: How to fulfill the traditional role of cities as footholds for newcomers while allowing for our communities' roots to grow? Or more directly, how to ensure there is a home for the Mission-raised bartender while welcoming the tech guy?

This isn't a new problem. "Gentrification" was coined in 1964 in London. And the conflicts between old and new have been played out in battles over highrises, anti-immigrant campaigns, historic preservation fights and even efforts to block chains like American Apparel and Jack Spade from opening in the Mission. At the root, they are all manifestations of the struggle between what (and who) came before and what (and who) is new.

We are reaping what we have sown. Growth controls in The City and an anti-housing political culture in the suburbs have resulted in this musical chairs game for space. Except when the music stops, it's not that chairs go away, it's that five new players jump in to compete. Over the past 30 years, employment has been almost flat in The City, but it has soared on the Peninsula. And, as is happening in cities all over the country, "affluent, educated young professionals have an increasing desire for the kinds of cultural and intellectual pursuits found only in central cities," as Jane Jacobs put it back in 1976. Social scientists call this back to the cities movement "the Great Inversion" because it reverses the post-war flight to suburbia.

Overall, I think this is a good thing.

But it doesn't matter what one thinks: it is here to stay. For good reasons, people want to live here and they will come and compete. We have to deal with it. It's not a problem to be solved. It's a fact.

We should do what we can to soften the impacts. The Ellis Act should go. Leaders should stand up to NIMBYs — not just cranky neighbors, but also neighboring towns like Mountain View that create jobs then lock the door on housing production. We should be pumping out housing at all levels (but not kidding ourselves about trickle down). Regional transit has to be able to accommodate people who can't live near their work. At the same time, we should acknowledge that, inevitably, the old San Francisco, mourned since before even Herb Caen, is gone and something else is being born.

David Prowler began his career in the Haight Ashbury in the mid-1970s as a tenant organizer. He has been a planner for the Chinatown Community Development Center and city, and was director of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development. He lectures in the Program on Urban Studies at Stanford University.

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David Prowler

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