Vexed in the city: Welcoming new techies with a middle finger salute

The new era of dot-com fortunes spurs plenty of angst aimed at San Francisco's most privileged, but it hasn't stopped tech workers from moving in.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
6 min read

Protesters rally against evictions in San Francisco's Mission District. James Martin/CNET

This story is part of a CNET special report that examines the controversy gripping San Francisco as a massive influx of techies feeds an unprecedented economic boom -- and backlash.

"Die Techie Scum."

So reads the bumper sticker that a local activist group calling itself Defend The Bay Area has directed at the thousands of new city dwellers who moved here in the great migration of software companies to San Francisco in the last few years.

Defend The Bay Area's website is powered by Wordpress and it uses Twitter to help organize its movement, but its tagline is "Fight the Tech Takeover."

From playing host to California's Gold Rush in the late 19th century and the Summer of Love in 1967 to electing the first gay openly official in the country, San Francisco has coped with radical cultural transitions. So it's not surprising the latest tech boom is ushering in change -- and causing hostility among groups that aren't happy with how the city has fared.

Vexed in the city: CNET looks at how San Francisco is dealing with its tech boom. James Martin/CNET

"I think the strain of hating the man has always been a part of San Francisco," says Dan Lyons, a veteran tech journalist who writes for HBO's "Silicon Valley," a show that mocks life in the tech hub. "Now, Google is the man."

It's easy to find messages coarsely stereotyping the technorati. They're stenciled, sprayed and etched into the streets and surfaces across San Francisco, which measures just 7 miles by 7 miles. While the city enjoys a tech industry-fueled period of prosperity, residents also see neighborhoods changing, with coffee shops and upscale restaurants squeezing out mom-and-pop operations as longtime locals get priced out of their homes.

The upshot is a growing feeling of angst among San Francisco residents who say their concerns aren't being heard by the local power elites.

"This anger is about more than big tech companies and their free buses, about more than rich people with their wearable technology," reads Defend The Bay Area's call for action statement. "Every day we hear about another displaced family, another person whose rent has doubled, another racist development plan, another project to surveil and control the population of the Bay Area in order to make it safer for the monied classes."

Whether the tensions are temporary or mark the start of a bigger social backlash remains unclear. Isolated acts of vandalism and sundry protests against the private bus shuttles operated by tech companies like Google and Apple, notwithstanding, most of San Francisco's residents have watched the changes spawned by the local technology industry with a collective shrug.

For many this is a case of deja vu.

During the last tech boom in the late 1990s, stock prices for Web 1.0 companies like Yahoo and Netscape soared. San Francisco grappled with the impact of the newfound wealth that trickled into the city from Silicon Valley, where the vast majority of Internet companies were based.

Boutiques and expensive restaurants replaced empty storefronts, gentrifying working-class neighborhoods like the Mission District. Its central location, near two highways leading down to Silicon Valley, made it an ideal neighborhood for commuting workers. Lyons, who lived in San Francisco in the late 1990s, remembered the Mission District as a "grubby" place filled with anarchists.

No longer. As more monied tech workers moved into the city, landlords jacked up rents and evicted longtime residents. Activists responded and there were incidents of people slashing tires on expensive cars or scratching off car paint with keys. Ditto for the spray-painted messages offering anatomically interesting suggestions for the newcomers.

Yes, times have changed. But it's a similar sentiment though "dot-com" was traded in for "startup," and "yuppie" replaced with " techie."

Ground Zero

Though the dot-com bust slowed change throughout the Bay Area, the latest tech boom has once again sped it up. The San Francisco skyline is being redrawn with new corporate headquarters being set up in town. Multimillion dollar homes are now being bought with cash.

"This is happening all over again to a whole new generation of people, who don't know that this just happened 10 years ago," said Carol Lloyd, a former real estate columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

An artist who joined Salon.com during the height of the dot-com era, Lloyd found herself on both sides of the fence in the late 1990s, writing for the Internet startup by day, and attending gentrification activism meetings at night alongside Kevin Keating, the man behind the "Mission Yuppie Eradication Project."

She lived in the Mission for about 15 years before finally leaving. Her friends who remain are resentful of the riches they associate with young, tech workers, like the ones they read about in the news. "It's hard to swallow," Lloyd said. "You just see hordes and hordes of 24-year-old kids who are driving fancy cars and then spending hundreds of dollars on dinner, and then throwing up on your stairs."

Protests have sprung up throughout the city, with residents airing grievances over the many ways tech has changed their neighborhoods. Even local politicians joined in, siding against some of the city's constituents because they believe poorer residents are being pushed out.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos speaks at a protest rallying against evictions in San Francisco's Mission District. James Martin/CNET

Last week, when protesters rallied against evictions at a housing complex in the Mission, activists accused the building's manager of manufacturing reasons for eviction. They also complained about economic disparity in the area. The blame, once again, focused on the tech industry.

"The Googles, the Twitters, the Facebooks -- all those companies have gotten huge tax breaks," San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos said at the rally. "All that's left is misery on streets."

Not all the same

Not many techies speak out publicly about how they feel about being turned into pinatas. Those who do sometimes make sweeping statements that further isolate them.

Take the editorial letter from Tom Perkins, co-founder of well-known and powerful Silicon Valley investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. He, unwisely, compared criticizing the rich to the anti-Semitism that led to attacks on the Jewish population in Nazi Germany. San Francisco native James David Lee, an Asian American software product marketing manager living in the Mission, drew comparisons between the anti-tech movement with the discrimination his grandfather faced when he immigrated to the United States.

Prominent Silicon Valley investor Kevin Rose, who works for Google Venture, spoke about a protest outside his house, where people handed out fliers calling him a parasite.

"People have to understand that the one thing that's beautiful about America, and I love about any part of the country, is you really do write your own ticket," Rose said at a conference in Omaha, Neb., about the protests. "You can go out there and come from absolutely nothing -- like, I'm absolutely a college dropout -- and go and just have a dream or have something you're very passion about and go create a multimillion dollar company."

But while many protests center on the wealth of the world's largest tech companies, not all techies are living lavishly.

Eight blocks from the site of the eviction protest in the Mission, tech workers live in a dorm-style setting, with a communal kitchen, shared bathroom and mixed-match furniture and racks of bicycles crowding the doorway. The telltale signs of tech industry are all around: Piles of Amazon boxes, a door that unlocks with an app, hallways with vaguely tech-related names like "Coinye West," and "Doge Drive."

Most of the 45 residents here work in tech, including Adonis Gaitatzis, a 31-year-old startup chief technology officer from Canada. He's lived in San Francisco for nearly two years.

In addition to his startup, which is working on a headband that allows for the early detection of seizures, he toils as a software engineer at a financial services company to help pay his bills. He also recently started another side project that focuses on encryption technology. "I work really hard to live in the city," Gaitatzis said.

Others in the co-living space are also involved with startups. Some have been successful in tapping investors while some are just starting out.

Gaitatzis says the anti-tech sentiment that flares up in the media isn't an overriding concern. The city's spirit of collaboration is an attribute that's highly valued in startup circles, he says.

"SF has always been a safe haven for lots of identity groups, like the arts and culture scenes," Gaitatzis said. What people may forget is that "it's still a city of outcasts. While tech people might seem like a majority here, in other cities they were seen as outcasts."

The challenge for these "new" outcasts is how to get that message through to San Francisco's older outcasts.

So far, it remains a dialogue among the deaf.

Correction, August 25 at 2:18 p.m. PT:The original article incorrectly stated the year for the Summer of Love. It was in 1967.