City of Gold
by Are We Really?
view of the Bay Area's dotcom culture's history. The development
and rise of the new gold rush.
I was fortunate to get access to the internet very
shortly after it was relinquished from Arpanet in the eighties.
It was a very interesting collaborative place then. I recall a gig
a bunch of us did called Cyberthon in a warehouse at India Basin
south of South of Market in San Francisco. Cyberthon was a twenty-four
hour gig for the wired in those days to try and figure what to do
with this baby we had the fortune of being involved in. The media
showed up and were not allowed in. Cyberthon spawned the Electronic
I have not profited from the dot.com new economy but have only
remained a user of its resources. What I have witnessed as a resident
of San Francisco, whose business is in high end commercial printing,
is the dot.commism of the entire city, and for that matter the country.
I'm not sure if it's a natural evolution. I think an opportunistic
evolution is more appropriate. The new internet economy is another
rapid "gold rush". San Francisco was a sleepy outpost for the Indians
and the early explorers until the word about the Placer County gold
strike hit the east coast. Within a year, there were over 40,000
miners in San Francisco looking to strike it rich. Most of these
men were taken advantage of by the high prices for mining-related
materials and food. Most of the men never found a spec of gold.
Back in the eighties when the internet was used by a handful of
people, the climate South of Market was still bohemian in the original
sense. Artists, nightclubs and blue-collar businesses still inhabited
the burgeoning South of Market neighborhood. The only restaurants
inhabiting the area that were worth eating at were Hamburger Mary's
and the long gone and sorely missed Billboard Cafe at Ninth and
Folsom. Ringhold Alley between 8th and 9th between Folsom and Howard
was still an anonymous pickup area for gays after the sun went down
and before AIDS came up. Courtney Love was the coatcheck girl at
Club Nine at 9th and Harrison where the Stud is before we had to
fire her for shooting up in the coatcheck room and rifling the checked
purses and coats. Graphic design firms were still mostly rooted
in North Beach or in the financial district. The old wooden warehouses
on Howard, Folsom, Harrison, Bryant, Brannan and Townsend were still
filled with artists painting, sculpting, performing and creating
installations. The rent was cheap. It was still a real Shakedown
Street in Grateful Dead terms.
A woman named Susana Montana (with a tilde accent over the second
n) was, and still is, a San Francisco City Planner. Susana worked
with the artist community South of Market to rewrite the zoning
code to finally make it legal for artists to "live and work" in
those funky old warehouses. It had been illegal to do so previous
to the legislation that was passed in about 1989. Artists were often
evicted at will because scrupulous landlords wanted to up the rent.
The live work scenario became law allowing one to legally paint
or sculpt in the same space where you lived.
After good old Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, the economy took
a meteoric rise. The high tech sector in the Bay Area zoomed. Real
Estate appreciated, vast amounts of money was available to lend
for various speculative adventures that fueled the drop in the percentage
of available rental space to about 1%. The banks and lending institutions
further fueled the real estate boom by lending major bucks for redevelopment
of property due to the hot hot hot economy. Growth was the mantra.
We were all making money whether we liked it or not, and good old
Bill Clinton was getting laid rather than putting his finger on
the button to nuke the Russians because Reagan, who had not
been getting laid, had already broken the Russians backs by outspending
them with our borrowed tax money.
The shift came when the second large wave of real estate speculation
drove rents up in the early 80s in San Francisco and throughout
the Bay Area. South of Market though, still had many buildings that
were older wooden structures that were not up to code that artists
and the "bohemian" culture were willing to inhabit. The 1989 Loma
Prieta 7.1 earthquake severely damaged many of these buildings.
The timing for the radical upswing in the economy was coincidental
with the renovation of these buildings. The landlords and lenders
at the time, took advantage of the laws and easily-attainable funding
to cater to the new economy.
By 1997, the obscure internet had finally caught the eye of every
investment banker and suburban wife to the tune that everyone was
running home to check their email. The funky old warehouses home
to artists were being demolished at a rapid clip to accommodate
the new economy. The real estate mavens along with their money lenders
were now using the Live/Work concept and laws that Susana had created
to protect working artists, to create new properties that working
artists had no hope of ever living or working in let alone affording.
The costs for these live work properties started at a mere $250,000
and now are fetching $500,000 to $1 Million where they were once
worth only $250 to $500 a month rent a few years earlier.
The graphic designers, architects and new internet businesses
flocked to the South of Market on the heels of the multi-media companies
that had already entrenched there near South Park. The closer you
were to Third and Bryant where Wired was located the better! I prefer
the Discount Fabric warehouse across the street myself for art materials.
I still create large art projects. The rents soared, old joints
were torn down, new steel-framed lofts changed the landscape. Move
over kids, here comes the dot.com businesses most of whom are less
than three or four years old now. New, hip, expensive restaurants
sprang up like dandelions. Parking became a problem. Even the San
Francisco Giants left windy, cold Candelstick to move in.
New loft residents started calling the cops at midnight because
the nightclubs who were there before they were, were booming the
music and the nightclub patrons were spinning their tires in the
intersections. Tsk, Tsk! Major attempts to evict the South of Market
nightclubs were attempted. Police Captains were moved to other jurisdictions.
And where does this all lead us?
The new economy is also radically changing the San Francisco landscape.
The development in terms of renovation of older buildings and the
tearing down of buildings and construction of new buildings is phenomenal.
The influx of cyber citizens is pushing out the older established
inhabitants. While, currently, there are many new internet related
companies that have set roots in San Francisco, many of them will
not survive after their startup money fades. What does that leave
in its wake?
billboard in the Mission district of San Francisco -
The service economy is fueled by people who used to live in the
Victorians in the alleys South of Market and in the Mission District.
They are being driven out because they can't afford to live there
anymore. Where will the restaurants get the dishwashers, the waiters,
the parking valets? What will happen to the neighborhood that the
Captain, who inherited the Talon Zipper fortune, subsidized by putting
in his will that anyone who lived in his properties pays the same
rent until they die, because he didn't need the money. The Captain
owned over 120 properties in the alleys South of Market. He subsidized
the rent for the people who worked in his factories so he would
have good help! The inheritors and the executors, the Catholic Church
and Wells Fargo Bank continually try to break the will except they
have a formidable foe in an artist who lives and works South of
Market who also happens to have a law degree from Hastings.
What will happen to the neighborhood when the high percentage
of the new businesses to whom the new economy catered with its expensive
development and expensive collateral businesses fails as is predicted?
The waiters, the busboys, the dishwashers, the valet parkers and
perhaps even the San Francisco Giants may have to find a new place
Pessimism is not my intent here. It's just that it has grown too
high too fast and it seems ripe for something. For Christ's sake,
why should we buy toothpaste on the internet when we can get it
at the corner store on the way home from work when we stop to buy
fresh fish or vegetables. Web Van only further clogs the traffic
not to mention the double parking that makes it even more difficult
to maneuver the crowded streets. Only 11% of the inhabitants can
afford to own the median cost of property in the Bay Area or something
to that effect. I heard a statistic back in the eighties that said
if only 8% of the people could afford to own the median property,
we would be in for a rude surprise real estate-wise.
So that is my diatribe on the subject. I hope it doesn't fail
because for all of my life, my parents told stories about how hard
it was during the Depression.
b i o :
Are We Really?
is a long-established Bay Area resident and multimedia artist.
His projects include the ArtPolice. Are We Really?
can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.