The zeitgeist of San Francisco is best captured by Baron Ron Conway’s 2010 vow to “take The City back from progressives.”
The quote defines our moment. It displaced prior defining quotes — “It’s on like donkey kong” (Supervisor Chris Daly, 2011), and supervisors are “mistresses who need servicing” (Mayor Willie Brown, sometime in the 1990s, and still probably). The original-defining quote of San Francisco was, “Hey Ohlone, try this wafer” (Junipero Serra, 1776).
Conway has succeeded thus far at taking The City back from progressives. Along the way, he also took The City back from African-Americans, families, children, immigrants, anyone making under $137,000, artists, writers, musicians, teachers, dive bars, nurses, public service, nonprofits, Rose Pak and authentic interaction among humans.
Meanwhile, every progressive event features rousing appeals to “take The City back.” Presumably take it back from Conway and everything he embodies: the Google Bus, Urban Green, speculators, Airbnb, Mayor Ed Lee, Uber and, oddly, also Pak.
If we asked voters to choose between the two, my side would win by a landslide. We have kinky sex and weird art. They have marble countertops and apps.
I don’t want anyone to take back The City. Everyone just leave it there.
National news brims with “taking America back.” Usually for creeps. “Taking it back” is a reliable dog-whistle racist call to arms for the Tea Party, Sarah Palin and Rand Paul.
Someone should tell Conway that there’s nothing to take back. Progressives never “had” San Francisco. His ilk didn’t either. Cities don’t work that way.
San Francisco, like any city, always has been complicated and contested. Progressives lived here. Occasionally we won. Usually we lost. Like all progressives everywhere, ever. Conway is simply the latest in a long march of plutocrats pulling the strings of their puppets in City Hall. Now, it’s Conway and Reid Hoffman and Sean Parker. It’s been Shorenstein, Ellison, Bechtel, Getty, Hearst, Hellman, de Young, Crocker.
Progressives are clearly not ascendant today. But the bubble will burst. The boom will end. Techies will go back to Michigan. I will watch the caravan of U-Hauls snake toward the bridge.
“Taking San Francisco back” sounds needlessly butch, suffused with macho aggression, possessiveness and unwarranted certitude. San Francisco is not the inaccurate fantasy in your head when you moved here. As a native, I’ve always known that San Francisco is both better and worse than our image. I live in a city because I want to live around people not like me. There is a city filled with people like me. It’s called Berkeley, where it is legal to plot to overthrow the government but not drive around the block, and I find it intolerable.
Instead of framing gentrification as one side taking The City back from the other — like a dumb game of capture the flag, in which the flag is $4 toast — I’d rather ask what kind of city we want.
I’ll start: I want to live in an economically and ethnically diverse city. A city welcoming to all kinds of people, from those who want easy fortunes from useless apps as well as those fleeing Salvadoran violence and those who want to do performance art about having anonymous sex in the park. We can all live together. I like food and street life. I like buses and schools and parks.
If a city is not these, then what is a city for?
If Conway & Co. prevail, San Francisco will soon be merely Northern Palo Alto. Or South Central The Marina. Either way, barf. I’d bet even Greg Gopman, Peter Shih, Travis Kalanick and Mark Zuckerberg don’t want to live in 7-by-7 square miles of The Marina.
That’s The City I want. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. I’d love a robust democratic debate about it, which can commence as soon as we stop taking back The City and start letting The City be.
Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and whatnot. Send arguments and grievances to @natogreen on Twitter.