I’m going to maybe expand this into an actual piece of journalism soon, but I just wanted to write down some thoughts here.
Why do techies — or, really, any well-to-do demographic — feel the urge to move into the place that poor people live and then change it? To tear down the crappy little mini-marts or local bars or check cashing places and turn them into boutique grocery outlets and craft cocktail bars and meaningful retail experiences?
I moved to San Francisco in 1996 as an aspiring art student and novice web designer. Due to economics, I ended up in the Tenderloin, living on Market Street between 6th and 7th. My apartment was tiny and cramped, I shared a bathroom with everyone on my floor, and the neighborhood was often bewildering and frightening. One night, after seeing a car get Molotoved in front of my place, I felt like Tom Hanks in Big, terrified of the big city around me.
And yet, my first urge was not to improve the Tenderloin, as seems to be the wont of the techies who’ve moved into it a generation later. I wanted to understand my scary new neighborhood. I wanted to learn to live in it, to be tough. I didn’t need the Club Charleston, the bar around the corner where the local poor artists and residents of nearby residential hotels gathered, to serve me exquisite cocktails served in glasses forged from Icelandic volcanic glass; I wanted to be the kind of cool guy who could walk into a place like the Club Charleston and make it my own. (Never happened. But I was a nineteen year old art student who wanted to build virtual reality art sculptures. I was not cool.)
Of course, I was poor. I had no choice but to live in the ‘Loin or someplace equally as shitty. And in retrospect, my tenure in the cracked-out urban ghetto of San Francisco was one of the most important formative experiences I ever had. I couldn’t change the ‘Loin, but the ‘Loin changed me.
That’s the difference: the people who are moving into places like the Tenderloin or Downtown Las Vegas are not poor. They don’t have to be living in the hood. But they choose to…and then they decide to remake the hood in their own image, instead of embracing it, augmenting it without demolishing it, integrating with their less-affluent new neighbors instead of just walking in and kicking the fucking door down and dictating terms to people who are neither wealthy nor politically connected enough to really argue with them. And those people, most of whom do not have the luxury of trading places with the techies and moving to Sunnyvale or Mountain View — or, in the case of Las Vegas, Summerlin or Green Valley, where Zappos’ former HQ is — get pushed out of the downmarket, low-rent places that in many cases have been their home for decades.
Why? Is this some quest for authenticity? Or just a land grab, a way of buying low and selling high? In the case of San Francisco, it seems like some sort of fetishism for exposed brick on the parts of the yuppie nerds who’ve swarmed the city. In the case of Downtown Las Vegas, it looks like a halfwitted experiment in New Urbanism, scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin by some blissed-out molly-gobbler who read the Wikipedia entry on Jane Jacobs once. It’s the opposite of the white flight of the latter half of the 20th century; it’s white incursion.
What I find really laughable and contemptible is when these New Urbanistas have the gall to complain about the places they’ve voluntarily inhabited. The new Container Park on Fremont Street has security guards out front to keep the shifty Negroes and tweaker trash away from the meaningful retail experience therein. SF techies write posts about how appalling it is to have to be within fifty feet of somebody who smells weird and, like, doesn’t even have a Snapchat account. Ewwwwww.
(Watching rich nerds get skeeved out by poor people is one of my favorite pastimes, actually. I like to sit out front of the Emergency Arts building at 6th and Fremont here in Vegas and watch what happens when some douchey social media fuck on their way to a big meeting at the Beat with a venture capitalist actually has to interact with a poor. It’s sad and hilarious at the same time.)
The thing is: nobody forced you to come down here, bro. The people who live in these poor places are not excited by the economic development you keep parroting whenever anybody accuses you of being a gentrifier. Does Twitter moving to the Tenderloin actually equal jobs for the people who live there? No; not even indirectly. When you tear down the old kebab shop downstairs, you’re not hiring their staff to man your new artisanal ham sandwich place; you’re hiring people with grad degrees and exquisite tattoos. Hell, you’re not even buying your drugs from the local dealers; you’re still getting that high grade cheeba brought in from the ‘burbs.
You’re not improving a neighborhood by moving to it; you’re erasing it and replacing it with your own idea of what a community should be…and it’s my experience that techies understand the idea of “community” as well as they understand the ideas of “restraint” and “taste”, which is to say about as well as my lazy-eyed cat understands von Neumann game theory. Certainly what exists in Downtown Las Vegas is not a community as I understand the word. It’s largely a slavering pack of vapid, desperate graspers whose greatest aspiration in life is to live in the Ogden and get invited to tour Tony Hsieh’s apartment, and who devote themselves entirely to establishing their own personal brands by being seen getting shitfaced at the right bars by the right people. It’s business networking masquerading as human contact, in a newly constructed kiddie playpen for the secretly alcoholic and the severely personality deficient. And all of the businesses and economic development that have been generated there — both bricks and mortar and virtual — reflect that, with merciless accuracy and precision.
There’s an alternate world version of these places that I can see in my head clear as day: a place where the rich folks actually bothered to engage with the poor folks, and made even the slightest effort to try and use their affluence to bring everyone up, rather than tearing down the businesses, residences and lives of those people who were simply going about trying to survive with very little in the way of resources. A world where the long and rich history of the Tenderloin was recognized and respected, not bulldozed in an attempt to build a whitewashed douchebag terrarium called Mid-Market. A place where Downtown Las Vegas had new homeless shelters and community centers, where the tech community gave more than token lip service to reaching out to the at-risk and disadvantaged, where care was taken to engage with and provide space for not only the well-to-do, but for the working class who serves their stupid cocktails and their Mongolian sliders and makes the art they all claim to care so much about.
Those communities would be valuable, economically diverse, and productive. Those communities I’d be excited to see, and be a part of.