Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley
October 12, 2018
Cary McClelland follows in the great oral tradition of Studs Terkel to bring us up to date on what's happening on the ground in America's most impactful city and region.
Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley by Cary McClelland, W.W. Norton, 272 pages, Hardcover, October 2018, ISBN 9780393608793
Studs Terkel is one of my very favorite Americans of all time—his book Working is one of the great oral histories in literature, and the breadth of his other work, from his long-running Chicago radio show to his turn as Ring Lardner in Eight Men Out, is widespread. So when I saw that Cary McClelland—with equally widespread interests as a writer, filmmaker, lawyer, and rights advocate—had a book coming out inspired by Terkel’s oral histories, focused on the city of San Francisco, I was immediately interested.
Foreshadowing the final interview of the book, in a vintage arcade game museum on Fisherman’s Wharf, McClelland writes in the introduction that “San Francisco—and the Bay Area in general—has become something of an arcade for the young and plugged in.”
They are shuttled to their corporate campuses—like summer camp, a world of primary colors and playgrounds and cafés and endless amusement to keep them happy at work. For them, all of life’s conveniences can be had at the push of a button; for others, they have to go running every time a bell rings. The sharing economy meets the modern sweatshop. The gamification of life doesn’t mean everyone can afford to play.
McClelland sat with over 150 people for the book, and does a great job to let their stories become the story—nuanced, diverse, complicated, and ongoing. Other than the book’s brief Introduction, and providing a brief background on each person he interviewed, he largely removes himself from the book, letting the residents of the region excavate its history, dissect the present, and offer visions for the future.
We meet an engineer working in the vanguard of driverless cars, espousing the ethos of disruption, and a cab driver of forty years quoting Gary Snyder that “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”
Find somewhere to stay put, and really get to be part of a place, to understand it. Not flit around, exploiting as you go.
As former president of the San Francisco Taxi Commission (a now-defunct organization) Paul Gillespie took a directive from then-mayor Willie Brown to update the city’s taxis fleet and took it to another level—converting it over to hybrid vehicles, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from “about one hundred ten thousand tons to about forty thousand tons in three years” as the fleet was converted. He points out that Uber offers no such mandate for clean vehicles, or for wheelchair and paratransit—nor does it offer employee benefits like workers comp or health insurance, for that matter. Perhaps that is why the only person who speaks less well of Uber in the book is an actual Uber driver—”one of the earliest Uber drivers in the world,” in fact, who drove for them when it was still a black car service.
We meet Regis McKenna, a marketer who has worked with almost every company in the valley, who gave Apple its first multicolored logo, and pioneered many of the ideas in technology marketing. But he first worked at Fairchild Semiconductor, the firm that started it all—that put the “silicon” in Silicon Valley—and tells stories of watching the engineers slice ingots and make microchips by hand. His story takes us from that beginning, that “drove a trillion-dollar marketplace,” to the the cutting edge quantum dots of nanotechnology used in medical devices and crystals used in televisions by companies like Samsung—which he sits on the board of.
We meet Tim Draper, whose grandfather was the first venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, who calls himself the “Johnny Appleseed of venture capital—spreading the seeds of this valley everywhere I go,” explaining what makes the ecosystem of Silicon Valley work, and how he has attempted (pretty successfully) to replicate it around the world.
And we meet many whose example demonstrates how that ecosystem hasn’t worked for them. Economic geographer Richard Walker opines on how:
The whole region is skating on very thin ice, despite its immense wealth. We are multiplying millionaires, billionaires, sure. But it is hard to regenerate your workforce under these conditions. If the working class can’t live within reach of their jobs. If young people cannot afford to put down roots. We are destroying the basis of our prosperity. We are eating our children.
Cabbie Paul Gillespie has managed to remain in the city because he’s held onto his rent controlled apartment since 1983, but the guy who just moved in next door who works at Google probably pays at least $2000 a month for a comparable studio apartment, and takes the Google bus at the corner to work. He notes how, just down the corner from where the young, largely white, and more affluent catch their ride to Google’s Mountain View campus you “see the brown people and the poor people waiting for the community bus.” Artist and activist Leslie Dreyer sums up the civic absurdity of these dueling transportation systems by pointing out that, not only were those Google buses breaking state and local laws—her organization, Heart of the City Collective, calculated that the curb priority law alone, if enforced and fines levied, would have cost them $1 billion in fines over the previous two years—they (and other tech companies) were receiving tax breaks from the city to maintain offices there.
Meanwhile, the public infrastructure for those that aren’t so fortunate that those tax dollars could have funded was being cut back, Muni fares were hiked, and rents were jacked up nearly 20 percent near tech shuttle stops. Edwin Lindo and his father were evicted by their own relatives from the home his grandparents bought for $17,000 when it soared $1.4 million in value. He went to University of Washington law school and became an expert on evictions. He also became a member of the Frisco Five, a group of protesters calling for the resignation of police chief Greg Suhr who went on a hunger strike in 2016 after a series of police shootings of men of color. According to Lindo, evictions are up 220 percent over the five past years. Many of them were friends of Leslie Dreyer, prompting her to ask:
Why would you subsidize the richest corporations in the world and then make people who can barely afford to live here, who really need to use our infrastructure and public transit, people who live and work here, pay for that subsidy?
She also points out how, contrary to the justification that the buses were taking cars off the road, the burden was simply being shifted onto the displaced and evicted, who now spent hours driving back into a city they could no longer afford to live in for work—likely putting more cars on the road. Dreyer also explores the hypocrisy of Google funding “Free Muni for youth for a few years, a $6.8 million ‘gift,’” while dodging billions of dollars of taxes that could have funded the Muni at the same time, and speaks of the need for regional solutions. This is echoed by the former president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors (and current Public Defender), Matt Gonzalez, who discusses how hard it is to even keep track of workers and where they live to determine how municipalities tax companies:
The whole idea of taxing a business located in your jurisdiction is to offset the impact of workers on housing availability, transit, parks, other city services. Today, cities like Palo Alto and Menlo Park are collecting business taxes from tech companies headquartered there, but they aren’t dealing with the impacts of the workers on housing. The link is ironic: the money to offset the housing crisis [in San Francisco] just isn’t available.
“The whole problem,” he says, “cries out for regional taxation.” McClelland’s interviews wisely do cover the whole region—from a farmer in Petaluma to a community organizer in Stockton, where so many of the city’s displaced have ended up. Sammy Nunez describes his frustration hearing the community in Stockton being referred to as “a hard to reach community” by other agencies and organizations:
We’re not hard to reach. Y’all are hard to reach. We don’t find you in our neighborhoods. We have access to probation officers, and that’s pretty much it.
They also don’t have access to the ear of technologists, who speak often about changing the world, but are sheltered from most people’s life experience and daily realities. It’s something Alex Kaufman, who helped build Google Glass and invent its low-fi virtual reality player Cardboard, knows well and struggles with:
It’s this messianic tech thing. We’re saving the world mostly making useless products that solve problems that real people don’t have—it’s problems that rich twenty-somethings have. Like, “There’s nobody at home to pick up the laundry that somebody else did for me.”
The Google employee who moved in next door to cabbie Paul Gillespie uses such a laundry service, but the people that pick it up ride different buses.
But we also meet Maria Guerrero, a cafeteria worker at Intel who helped lead her coworkers in forming a union—one of the first unions in the tech industry. She was working at three jobs to make ends meet at the time she started organizing. Today, her former coworkers make at least $15 an hour, have free health insurance for individuals ($80 for families), and not only have three weeks paid vacation, they were the first cafeteria workers to win the right to a sabbatical. She now works for the union, helping organize others in tech.
We meet Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights, who I related to immediately when she said “a bookstore is like a storehouse for our souls,” which echoes nicely the father of our current owner and CEO, who spoke often about “the soul of a book.” She writes:
The story of San Francisco is that it’s a boomtown. And boomtowns are never particularly good places to live.
We meet emcee Do D.A.T., with a personal, yet profound example of how past may inform the future:
Paying attention, being young, I saw where we was living. There were seven or eight corner stores between Seventy-Third and Eighty-Second. Oakland ‘aint that big. That’s a very concentrated area to have all that. Those stores represent … oppression. They represent convenience, which is a different kind of oppression if you think about it. It can turn into oppression. […] What did Richard Wright say? Being of America but not being American. Like, being able to be in America but not being able to really participate. The same narrative retold, over and over again. This time it’s with the tech industry.
The tech economy is mostly about bringing convenience these days, a supposedly frictionless future brought about by great disruption of the past, but it offers little participation—which is the backbone of our democracy and the only way to ensure economic justice. And it transcends San Francisco and its surroundings. As McClelland writes:
These stories speak not just to San Francisco or California, but to America. San Francisco isn’t a petri dish sealed off from the rest of the country. It is the product of historical forces and shaped by national and international trends. Wealth inequality is an American problem. The changing workforce, rapid gentrification, infrastructure collapse, climate change, overcrowded prisons, struggling schools, atrophied public institutions—these are problems in any city, in any state across the country. The Bay Area is an experiment in what happens when each of these problems is turned up to 11—what happens when the tech sector fuels changes in the private sector without the public sector being able to keep up—what happens when diversity and disparity combine and combust.
McClelland, as I wrote, mostly removes himself and his opinions from the narrative. I don’t know if I’ll be as successful in this review. He does offer this insight in the Introduction: “The current version of San Francisco,” writes McCelland, “feels deaf to history in favor of a future of its own invention. The different cultures representing the city’s past are at risk of being washed away.” The book’s Overture echoes that point when longtime San Francisco tour guide Joe Massey says:
History is who we are. It’s not to be discarded. It needs to be studied again and again and again and taught and shared with our lineage.
McClelland’s work will aid that process, by providing this oral and social history of the region at one of its great inflection points—by getting to know the city of San Francisco and its surroundings by getting to know who its people are.