San Francisco and the Tech Backlash

gentrification in the mission

So I haven’t written in a while, but this story about the Google buses being blocked by protesters peaked my interest.
My Facebook news feed became full of debates amongst people wanting to voice their opinion. It seems like the typical argument about tech workers and gentrification goes like this:

Person 1:  “Tech people are ruining San Francisco and the bay area. They are jacking up rent by outbidding each other on rentals and it seems that everyone’s rent has gone up. What’s worse is they are shuttled away from San Francisco to their tech campuses in private buses that utilize MUNI bus stops.”

Person 2: “Tech people are actually helping the bay area, its sad that some people are being evicted and priced out, but that’s just economics. And it’s a good problem to have. Many American cities, like Detroit, would love to have to deal with the repercussions of a booming economy.”

Person 1: “But the rate of change is too much and it’s changing the fabric of San Francisco. Teachers, artists, non-profits workers”

Person 2: “Well cities are always changing, and the current changes are for the better.

In general initial protests of any issue capture a feeling that something isn’t right and people are affected – everything is not okay and people are going to voice their opinion. They may not be protesting the right target, i.e. the person or people that have power to make changes, but sometimes in a movement that is beside the point. They are drawing attention to something that many people feel angry about, even if they don’t have the answers.

As most reasonable people would come to conclude, the causes of these issues are more structural in nature. Gentrification happens because there is an influx of new people to an area that need places to live. First people move where its cheap, then restaurants and services move into to cater to their tastes, the area becomes more desirable to live and people with more money move to those neighborhoods. The neighborhoods end up transformed. This change is caused by simple real estate economics – when there is more demand for housing than there is supply prices go up and landlords evict tenants so they can make more money (and keep up with their rising costs).

In the case of San Francisco, its booming tech sector has meant the rapid hiring of new employees many of whom are in their 20’s and 30’s and hail from different parts of the U.S. (and world). When these people need places to live they seek out places where other people like them live. While that used to mean tech workers were split between San Francisco and The Peninsula, new corporate bus programs have enabled people to live in various part of San Francisco (and the bay area) and to be able to live minutes walking distance from their corporate shuttle stops.

Imagine for a moment your 23 years old. You have just graduated college and landed your dream job at Google. You make 80k a year (the actual starting salary for software engineers two year ago) – most of that is yours to spend since you have 3 free meals, free transportation, and fully paid health benefits. You’d love to actually work in the city that you live in, but Google’s tiny SF office is maxed out and the facilities people have sent nasty company wide emails discouraging you from working from that office. So you fold up your MacBook Air into your company provided backpack and grab a coffee at Tartine before hopping on your climate-controlled bus down to Mountain View. Even if you live at the closest stop, 24th Street and Mission, your commute still averages 1 hour 15 minutes and can take up to 2 hours when it rains. That means your spending 2.5 to 4 hours commuting everyday and you would give anything to get back a little bit sooner. So when people ask Why are all these tech workers living in the Mission? or other neighborhoods on the South/west part of the city – the answer is simply a shorter commute. Of course your competing with everyone else for apartments in these hoods and so you’ll spend as much of your salary as you can on to your rent. I mean, your 23 and you haven’t really figured how money works yet, right? And when the weekend is here and you need to get around you don’t dare take MUNI (I mean you’ve never taken it before, why start now?) so you take a private UBER or Lyft ride.

The whole city is feeling the pain these days as rent is so F-ing expensive. Even Castro icons like Cleve Jones write letters to Scott Weiner about all-time high evictions of LGBT seniors living with HIV.

So back to the Google buses. There was a recent article in the Atlantic about the San Francisco exodus to Oakland and how San Francisco has embarrassingly bad transportation due to the underfunding of public resources. Yeah, no shit. Have you taken MUNI or a rainy morning, or really any morning at rush hour? Trains are completely full and they break constantly causing massive delays. One would think that with the massive infusion of tech wealth into the city that some of this money would trickle down to everyone else helping to improve public transportation. (As a knee jerk liberal I can’t believe I just invoked trickle down theory) But as the article points getting mad at the visual signs of gentrification does little stop the root causes of it:

“Railing against Google buses, fancy restaurants or new condos—the visible signs of gentrification—will do nothing to stop San Francisco from becoming more expensive. These are not causes of the rising rents; they are symptoms. The root cause is that many people have chosen to live in San Francisco, and we are now all competing with one another to bid up the rents. As long as this remains a desirable place to live in a region that is producing a lot of jobs — while at the same time we fail to produce enough housing to accommodate the demand — then housing prices will continue to rise.”

So whose fault is it?

Is it the urban planners in the South Bay for building corporate office parks in remote locations? Is the public for being too NIMBY and discouraging the development of high-rise apartments to help alleviate the housing shortage? Is it the lack of a strong regional urban planning authority to say no you can’t build way out here, but you can build in this dense urban core accessible by public transit and here are some funding and tax breaks? Is it the tech companies’ fault for offering these buses or their employees for taking them?

As you can see the answer isn’t so clear. But bringing the conversation back to how to increase housing in a meaningful way would be the best start. These protesters, while misguided, seem to be sparking the conversation amongst San Franciscans.

SF People Interviews: Christa Hill of “Hey, Cookie!”

This is part of a series of interviews of people that make up the patchwork quilt of personalities that is San Francisco.

"Hey, Cookie!" Dolores ParkI first met Christa the same way many people do while enjoying some sun in Dolores Park. I immediately fell in love with her charming personality and energy she brings to embodying “Hey, Cookie!”. If you have been living under a rock somewhere and somehow haven’t made it out to Dolores Park on a sunny afternoon, then you may not know who she is. Christa visits Dolores Park and several other locations selling her sweet little treats wearing her signature dresses and carrying her antique wicker basket. To note, her baked edibles are “non-medicinal” as in they don’t have any pot in them. This is something you actually have to clarify in San Francisco when selling cookies and brownies.

Christa has become a friend of mine recently and even made a surprise appearance at my birthday party at 500 Club where she brought me a Rice Krispy Treat with a candle and a party hat.

hey cookie kevin's bday

Christa surprised me by showing up at my birthday party at 500 Club and bringing a party hat & rice-krispy treat with a candle to blow out.

Missionhipsters: So for people who don’t know, what is “Hey, Cookie” and where can they tend to find you?

Christa Hill:  “Hey, Cookie!” is a dessert catering service. You can typically find me in Dolores park or bars in The Castro, Mission, or Lower Haight. My cookies are also sold at Claire’s Deli, H Cafe on 17th Street, DRIPD Coffee on 9th Avenue, and Cup of Joe on Sutter.

MH: What did you do before you started selling treats in the park?

CH: I’m originally from Maryland, just outside of DC, a town called Bowie (spelled just like David Bowie, but pronounced Boo-wee). I came out to San Francisco during spring break while in my Junior year of college…When I drove over the bridge into the city it was like Dorothy finding Oz. I Just loved it. I decided to come to California after college, and I served as a Vista volunteer in Monterey County. I  later worked as the Executive Director for the the Albany-Berkeley-Emeryville Chapter of Rebuilding Together and the Major Gifts Officer for the Gorilla Foundation.

Community service and community building are still very important to me.  I try to donate Hey, Cookie’s services at least once a month to different charities.  For example, in the past month, I sold cookies to raise money for Swoony for Muni, where all the profits went toward improving Bay Area transit.

MH:  How did you come up with idea for “Hey, Cookie!”?

I used to offer my help with fundraisers for friends and local organizations because of my nonprofit background. A few years ago, I held a bake sale for a rabbit rescue organization, SaveABunny, on the eve of Easter. I didn’t bake a thing—I just facilitated the event. I mobilized volunteers, coordinated efforts, and set up shop. We raised $1,200 in four hours.

The next year, I quit my job when my mom had a stroke. When Easter was coming up, I thought that I should help SaveABunny again, and then I thought, “Wait a minute—maybe I should help myself!” That’s how it got started. I truly thought it was just going to be a one-day event, but it turned out to be a really fun and rewarding position.

I continued to sell my cookies in the park and was lucky enough to sell out each the time. One day, I didn’t sell out, so I popped into Moby Dick’s in The Castro and ended up selling the rest. I sought out more bars where the bartenders or bouncers said it was okay to come in.  Eventually, I started doing birthday deliveries, and deliveries to companies like Yelp or organizations like SPUR.

hey, cookie! and truffle guy

Dolores Park icons “Hey, Cookie!” and The Truffle Guy.

MH: Where did the name “Hey, Cookie” come from?

CH: People started calling me Alice and Dorothy based off my outfit. Other people called out “Hey Cookie Lady!” or “Cookie”. So, “Hey, Cookie!” seemed to be the perfect fit for this tiny, mobile cookie shop.

MH: I’m trying to think how to describe your outfit – perhaps German Milkmaid Realness?

CH: I wanted something goofy and unique. My first outfit was actually a square dancing dress. I now have over 25 dresses, including dirndls, the female version of lederhosen. Having an outfit allows me to become “Hey, Cookie!”, it’s like having armor when I might be feeling too shy to sell.

MH:  What’s it like to be recognized as a part of the Dolores Park experience?  Why is it important to stand out from the crowd?

CH: I suppose it is basic marketing. It’s important to be visible and recognizable. I have become my very own walking logo, and it is so exciting to know that it is working!

What better compliment than to hear that people have dressed up as “Hey, Cookie!” for Halloween?  It just makes me beam!

During the past two Bay to Breakers, my close buddies were kind enough to don tights, dresses and wigs, and become “Hey, Cookie!” for the race.  It was my friend Tessa Greenwood’s brilliant idea to underscore the brand, and I think it really worked.

"Hey, Cookie!"

“Hey, Cookie!” and friends at Bay to Breakers.

MH: What types of cookies do you sell?

CH: There are many variety of cookies, and the list keeps growing! The current offerings, include: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, butterscotch oatmeal, vegan mexican wedding cookies, gluten-free peanut butter with peanut butter cups, bourbon cranberry and white chocolate, chocolate and mint, toffee, triple chocolate cherry, paleo coconut cups, gluten-free rich chocolate morsels, snickerdoodles; as well as some other treats: brownies, Rice Krispie treats, raspberry shortbread bars, spicy pumpkin bites, and caramel chocolate coconut delights.

"Hey, Cookie!" cookie assortmentMH:  Can we find you on Twitter and Facebook?

CH: Yes, I’m on twitter as: @HeyCookieSF and you can ‘like’ my Facebook page to get my updates as well. And of course all my treats are listed on my website:  http://www.heycookiesf.com/

"Hey, Cookie!" tasty treats

A close up of the tasty treats

MH: What do you enjoy about what you do? Anything ever get on your nerves?

CH:  What I really enjoy about what I do is that I can visibly see that I am brightening people’s days. People recognize me when I’m out and they smile. I can feel their warmth and support.  They make me so happy and keep me going, even when I am tired, or feeling discouraged about “pushing” cookies in a goofy dress.

I am a people person, so people don’t tend to get on my nerves, however, I often hear, “You do know you’d make a lot more money if you put pot in these cookies?”. It can be a little taxing to hear it over, and over, and over again.  Some people are even put off to be offered non-medicinal treat, but that’s just not my thing.

MH: What do you like about living in your neighborhood?

CH: I live in the Castro, and have lived in my sleepy little Victorian for 18 years.  I absolutely love my neighbors, local businesses and my community.  It genuinely feels like my extended family.

Maddie, the rabbit

Maddie the rabbit

One example of this sense of community occurred when I lost my pet rabbit named Maddie. Maddie used to hop around in the small garden in front of my house semi-supervised, and was a delight to all that passed by. One day, Maddie was bunny-napped from the front of the house. Somehow, she made her way down to civic center where she was found and brought to the SPCA. This little lost rabbit made quite a splash in our neighborhood.  I received cards, phone calls, flowers from neighbors expressing their support/concern that she was missing and their joy when she returned.  It is that sense of community and care for each other that truly makes the Castro my home.

"Hey, Cookie!" and Author

Christa of “Hey, Cookie!” and me in Dolores Park.

Fred Armisen: There is no such thing as hipsters

Fred Armisen of Portlandia explains in this interview at South by Southwest that there is no such thing as hipsters. Which is what I have basically been saying for years (in terms of no one identifying with that term). Fred actually got his start in acting by interviewing other musicians at SXSW many years ago and now the tables have turned. While Fred doesn’t like the hipster label, there are many other words he suggests that you use to describe him: “sporty, muscle builder, or pushy”.

Link to IFC site: http://www.ifc.com/fix/2013/03/sxsw-2013-fred-armisen-on-whats-trending

Mission Cafe Review: Haus Coffee

Haus Cafe San Francisco

I find myself at Haus, one of the most nauseatingly hipster coffee shops in the mission, let alone the whole city and I find myself oddly liking it. The design of the café is simple, modern, and perhaps a bit austere. It’s full of light-colored wood chairs, tables, and scaffolding; a concrete floor, a big glass window letting in the natural light, an open coffee bar where you watch the lone barista behind the counter prepare your drink, and a spacious back patio full of plants and natural light. A bit of sparse artwork adorns one of the walls. It’s obscure, colorful, has no apparent meaning.  Typical of San Francisco one small wall is full of fliers advertising creative writing classes at the “The Writing Salon”, an “Oldies Night” at a local mission bar, a learn to speak Spanish class, a meditation in Spanish class, a mysterious flier that reads: “MATHEMATICS / PLANET EARTH / CLIMATE DISRUPTION”, and various other posters for jazz, theater, and yoga.

Haus coffee interior designThe cafe’s patrons are engrossed in their work. A collection of white people in sloppily thrown together outfits and expensive, stylish shoes are typing away furiously at their keyboards. Are they all writers working on novels and poetry? Or are they programmers creating the next cool app?  (Fun)employed people looking for jobs?  Why is everybody here?

Haus cafe desksOne girl, a blonde, wears a grey button up top, with skinny black pants that taper down to her hi-top silver Nike’s.  She leans into her work with a focus that I recognize, I think I must be doing it too.  Another girl with long brown hair, a flowy white dress, and chunky high-heels pecks aimlessly at her computer, she’s working on some sort of spreadsheet and intermittently checking her Facebook. The most stylish guy there wears some light jeans, a dark t-shirt, and a pull over blue & white striped mariner shirt made of a soft fabric. It’s the type of fabric and texture that is recognizably expensive and designer. He has on some chunky Ray-bans and an expensive James Dean haircut.  Suede boat shoes and a brown leather bomber jacket complete the look, along with a white backpack designed in the satchel style with brown leather trim and metal buckles. It’s an expensive look and a concerted effort to effect that style that’s says I’m cool, but I don’t care that much.  These sort of outfits are what I have come to expect out of The Mission.

Haus Coffee CappucinoThey serve Ritual espresso, so naturally their espresso drinks are delicious.  The barista prepared for me a cappuccino with those little hearts on top. Overall it’s a pretty good place to get work done. Just make sure to bring a Mac and wear your coolest shoes though if you want to fit in.

Haus Cafe San Francisco

Unpretentiousil – A cure for HIPSTER disorder

Finally, the big pharmaceutical companies have gotten together and developed a drug to treat the common anti-mainstream trends that ail us.