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City For Sale

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Tech and wealth are transforming San Francisco, but, says Paul Staley, San Francisco has always been a city for sale.

Let’s imagine that this whole tech thing never happened - no smartphones, no laptops, no internet. Whatever was happening in the Santa Clara Valley in the '70s stayed in the Santa Clara Valley. And so our phones stayed at home, computers remained big cabinets of tubes and wires and the Valley was never renamed.

Clearly life everywhere would be different today. But let’s bring it closer to home. What would San Francisco be like without the influx of wealth and people that the tech boom has brought?

One way to imagine this hypothetical city is simply to take away all the changes one doesn’t like and add back all the things and people one misses. This is the wistful vision of those of us who mourn a city that has been lost. But it is also static; it recreates a city that once was, not the city that could have been.

Any dynamic city - and San Francisco has always been one - moves toward its future at some cost to its past. And San Francisco before tech had been moving in a certain direction for years.


In the 1970s, San Francisco was still recreating itself from a city where people made and shipped things to one where people managed information and money. City policy favored the office worker over the factory worker and the longshoreman. It was also a city that had been displacing people for decades in the name of redevelopment. And by the '80s, homelessness and gentrification were already changing how streets and neighborhoods looked.

For all its quirkiness and tradition of harboring counter-cultural communities, San Francisco has always been for sale. It has always been a place of fabulous wealth and abject poverty. Tech transformed the city by accelerating trends that were already in motion. The San Francisco of today was bound to happen, it just arrived sooner than expected. It has been the speed with which this took place that has been so disorienting and left vulnerable communities with less time to protect themselves. But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise: making the future happen sooner than we expected is what technology has always been about.

With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

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