A tale of three cities


“After the past few nights, I’ve realized San Francisco is a tale of three cities,” I say to the little group of people I’m smoking and drinking with.

We’re sitting on cushions in somebody’s “zen room” at least a dozen floors above Market Street in the Nema Building, a brand-new high-rise apartment complex in the heart of The City. Given it’s proximity to so many tech companies, it more or less functions as a very high-end dormitory for tech workers.

“You see, the three cities are high-rise, low-rise and no-rise,” I said to them. “High-rise is obviously where we are now. It’s the folks whose entire relationship to San Francisco is seen through the lense of making money from the tech boom. Those who live in the ‘low-rise’ city are the people who were already here and are fighting to keep San Francisco a place for everyone. They generally don’t live in high-rise buildings. And those that live in the ‘no-rise’ city sleep in tents at the foot of the high-rises.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and it was the far, far worse of times.”

I was a little stoned and a little drunk, but as far as semipoetic generalizations go, it was pretty good — especially considering the previous few nights I’d had.

A couple nights before, I’d joined with thousands of other activists in shutting down Interstate 880. We were protesting the recent police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the hundreds of years of systematic violence that police have inflicted on communities of color. It was powerful and it was peaceful, and while I’m sure there were some high-rise people there, it was mostly made up of low-risers.

The night at the Nema building was completely different though. It had started at the Modernist, a brand-new private club where an annual membership costs $3,000 and all you get from it is access to a bar and restaurant, where a vodka soda is $16. Nick and I were allowed in because we were there for somebody’s birthday. The bar was full of tech-industry millionaires, for whom San Francisco was a gold mine. We left shortly afterward, chased out by incredibly expensive booze prices and offensive techno music, and headed to an apartment party at Nema.

It was there that it dawned on me that we really were living in three separate cities. The party was full of young, well-paid tech workers who were most likely employed by the people who belong to the Modernist. The only books on the shelves were about coding, and the biggest framed thing on the wall was a collection of stock certificates from some technology company.

“Where the fuck am I?” I asked Nick. He works at a well-known tech company but has been in San Francisco long enough to be part of the struggle to keep San Francisco, well, San Francisco. He’s like a bridge between low-risers and high-risers.

“Yeah man, it’s like I told you,” Nick said, “a lot of these people may live and work in San Francisco, but they aren’t actually in our San Francisco. They go to work, then go to restaurants and bars that primarily cater to tech money, then live in a building that only houses tech workers. It’s like a parallel universe.”

“Or a completely different city,” I replied.

Worse yet, they were out of booze. So we went to his friend’s place to get some and ended up in the “zen room” — where I made up my unified theory on our tale of three cities.

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.

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