Sunday, December 15, 2013

A culture clash when Silicon Valley invades San…

SAN FRANCISCO — The culture clash between Silicon Valley and the City by the Bay spilled over from the streets of San Francisco and onto the Web this week, and the results in both cases weren't pretty.

They were, however, quite dramatic.

Last week came the sight of a commuter bus filled with Google employees being blocked by a group of anti-eviction protesters in the city's Mission District.

Onto that scene came a fake Google employee pretending to heckle the real protesters — until he was exposed as a real union organizer and activist from Oakland, across the bay.

Two days later came a real start-up executive whose social-media rant about "the lower part of society" along Market Street here was uglier than any real taunt the fake Googler could come up with.

The fracas might seem absurd if the problem underlying it weren't so serious.

Namely, how to maintain the peace when high-paying tech jobs move into a part of town previously populated mostly by drug dealers, panhandlers, street crime and homelessness.

The incidents gave the industry here such a black eye that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee on Thursday urged tech companies to step up their charitable and philanthropic efforts.

The influx of new tech start-ups into the city during the past few years has driven median monthly rents to $3,400, according to San Francisco's budget analyst.

The strong demand for high-priced housing is prompting landlords to turn out longtime residents in large numbers using the Ellis Act, a 1986 state law that allows such evictions if apartments are converted into condominiums.

The annual number of evictions in San Francisco soared to more than 1,700 for the 12 months ending in March, says the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

That's the most since 2001, just around the time the dot-com boom was ending.

Half of those evicted have incomes at or below the federal poverty level, according to figures shared by city budget analyst Fred Brousseau! at a public hearing last month.

The sight of having the city's poorest residents thrown out into the street to make way for nouveau-riche tech millionaires has become a hot-button political issue.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors voted to push state lawmakers in Sacramento for changes in the Ellis Act and, if necessary, draft local laws that would make such evictions far more costly for landlords.

Still, it wasn't long before anti-eviction protesters took matters into their own hands by blocking the Google bus before it could head south to Mountain View, Calif.

Into that scene stepped Max Bell Alper, who was first reported to be a Google employee heckling the protesters but was later identified as a union organizer.

Before he was outed, Alper went on a fake rant — which he later called "street theater" — saying, "I can pay my rent. Can you pay your rent? This is a city for the right people who could afford it."

As elitist as that sounds, it was topped on Wednesday by Greg Gopman, founder and CEO of AngelHack, who, on his Facebook feed, described Market Street as "grotesque" and "overrun by crazy, homeless, drug dealers, dropouts and trash."

Perphaps Gopman, whose LinkedIn profile says he was "born and raised in Florida," should read the column I wrote last month predicting that new wealth from Twitter's IPO would likely bring big changes to that very section of Market Street.

But that will take time, so it may behoove him and other tech workers who have recently arrived in the city to have a bit more patience with those who have been here longer.

Patience may also prove useful for those on the other side of the debate.

The history of San Francisco suggests that the new social-media boom, like previous booms built from gold, silver, railroads, World War II and dot-com companies, will someday end.

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How m! uch more ! comfortable the city's streets will be for people such as Gopman or Alper will likely depend on how long that takes.

John Shinal has covered tech and financial markets for 15 years at Bloomberg, BusinessWeek, the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch, Wall Street Journal Digital Network and others.

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