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Once fabled for its funky friendliness, San Francisco is less so, say some residents

by Peter Cassels
Thursday Sep 21, 2000
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SAN FRANCISCO — The City by the Bay and The Hub, world-class metropolises on opposite coasts, are a lot alike, for better or worse. They have about the same populations, renowned gay neighborhoods — and the nation’s highest cost of living. The Castro in San Francisco and the South End in Boston have undergone major gentrification, a trend started more than 20 years ago as gays moved in, and continued in recent years by a mix of wealthy gays and straights.

San Francisco and Boston architecture is very similar. Both have microclimates that can change several times a day. Soon the only way to differentiate the cities will be the stark contrast in their summer and winter weather.

The cities’ booming economies, which benefit many residents but squeeze out others, also are creating many of the same problems. San Francisco has a reputation as a laid-back place, with courteous drivers and safe pedestrian zones. Boston is equally famous for rude drivers where pedestrians fear for their safety.

That’s changed. Thus far this year, 22 pedestrians have lost their lives in San Francisco, several in crosswalks. The latest was a 36-year-old gay man struck Aug. 28 by a hit-and-run driver in one of the Castro’s best-known intersections: Market, Noe and Sixteenth Streets. The victim was Barry Gumb, a recruiter for a San Francisco high-tech company who only a month before had bought a home in Hayes Valley, another predominantly gay enclave.

Gumb was a "dotcommer," a derisive term to many San Franciscans. They believe dotcommers are to blame for the city’s change for the worse. This time, instead of contributing to the problem, he was a victim of one.

San Francisco is the world’s dotcom headquarters. Engineers in Silicon Valley to the south developed the hardware and software that drive the new economy. Investment bankers who fund start-up companies work just north of the valley, next to San Francisco. Internet companies chose the City by the Bay as their headquarters because they wanted to be close to both sectors and attract young, bright, college grads, mostly gay and straight singles who consider family-oriented, suburban, conservative Silicon Valley "dullsville." Among dotcom companies centered in San Francisco are PlanetOut.com and Gay.com, the largest gay and lesbian Internet Web sites.

Internet companies offer 20-somethings salaries and stock options that would choke a horse, so they spend like there’s no tomorrow. It’s not uncommon to see dotcommers tooling around town in new luxury cars and sport utility vehicles chatting on their cell phones.

Dotcommers’ inexperience shows itself at realtor offices where, because of their bottomless pockets, asking prices for residential property become starting prices. They outbid each other as if they were at an auction. Residential property costs have shot up 25 percent in the last year. San Francisco now has the highest prices in the country, followed closely by Manhattan, then Boston. Based on annual income, 95 percent of Americans cannot afford to buy property in San Francisco. About 80 percent of the city’s population rent because they cannot come up with a down payment to buy.

Bay Windows visited the Castro to ask residents about dotcommers and their impact on the neighborhood and the city at large.

Don Carlson, 49, lives in the Bernal Heights neighborhood.

"The Manhattanization of San Francisco is coming along healthily," he remarks. "That’s bad. There’s an escalation in the prices of everything … Landlords are evicting the elderly and sick to raise rents. That’s pretty abominable. It’s a system to me where city officials cannot look further than Oakland to get ideas for how to treat these problems. We wouldn’t have to go through the same sorts of social problems and their solutions if we learned from what other major cities like New York have done. City officials here are not willing to acknowledge or adopt those solutions."

He cited the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants in order to occupy apartments themselves. "But there is no follow-up by the city to make sure they actually occupy those units. It is true that some landlords are caught and fined or sentenced to jail, but not many."

Rosalyne Montgomery, 44, is a transgender who identifies as a lesbian. She lives in Polk Gulch, a seamy neighborhood that’s home to a number of hustler and drag bars, but visits the Castro often.

"Gentrification is destroying San Francisco as surely as acid destroys steel. It’s turning the city into a sterile suburb. Unscrupulous landlords who would do anything for a buck are driving out residents responsible for the city’s creativity and diversity. The money-grabbers are responsible for the city’s rapid change to a bland, sterile environment. Some little 25-year-old snot with an MBA buys the house out from under others. Such people are byproducts of corporate disease. Dotcommers have had it all their own way. It’s the fault of His Imperial Williness [Mayor Willie Brown] and his lackeys on the Board of Supervisors."

Montgomery is an activist for the transgender community and the city’s low-income residents who have been left out of the booming economy. "I fight for people who have been left out of the city’s alleged prosperity. For example, a studio apartment in the Tenderloin [a dangerous prostitution and drug-infested district abutting the downtown tourist hotels] now rents for $800 a month, bullets not included. It’s a crime when people have to pay 70 percent of their income in rent. For people with disabilities, the percentage is even higher."

In San Francisco, single General Assistance recipients get about $345 a month. The number of inexpensive single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms is declining sharply. During an eight-month period in late 1998 and early 1999, about 600 SRO rooms were burned out, many by arson. One occupant was killed because a fire exit was nailed shut. Montgomery reports that owners remodel the buildings and turn them into tourist hotels. She says the backlash is starting to get ugly.

A range of activists is pitted against the San Francisco Planning Commission, which they contend is speeding gentrification and displacement in the city’s traditionally poor neighborhoods. On Sept. 7, a Mission District activist was violently forced to the floor by a sheriff’s deputy for speaking over his allotted time during an emotional commission hearing. The incident touched off a riot outside the meeting room between a hundred protesters and dozens of deputies and police officers called in to quell the crowd.

Interviewed outside the Cove Café on Castro Street, where gay movers and shakers have had power meals for decades, David Hale is a 61-year-old gay man. A city planner for 30 years before retiring, he lives in the city’s Pacific Heights section, but also visits the Castro regularly.

"Being the gay mecca is a dubious honor. I’ve come to the Castro several times a week for the last 34 years. I’ve seen it change quite a bit during the last three or four. This was a sleepy commercial street when this was Eureka Valley, a predominantly Irish-American blue-collar neighborhood. Then I saw it become heavily gay. Passing for trendy in the last five years, it’s become a very diverse neighborhood with a growing number of straights settling in houses in the Noe Valley area. I don’t see that as bad. They blend well with the gay residents and are attracted here because it is friendly and safe. It therefore becomes a very diverse neighborhood."

Older gays who bought homes in the neighborhood more than two decades ago are selling them at huge profits, retiring and moving to where the cost of living is less expensive, such as Arizona. Replacing them are the nouveau riche. Some are gay or lesbian. Others are heterosexual married couples with and without children, or DINKS (double income, no kids). Boston’s South End is experiencing the same phenomenon.

"The dotcommers are buying into the Castro and turning it into a bloody rainbow tourist trap," Montgomery contends. "The gay population is just as guilty as anyone [for sharply rising housing costs]."

Fred Marett, 63, a schoolteacher for 41 years before he retired, has lived in the Castro since 1979 when he joined the new influx of gays. He doesn’t fault the dotcommers for driving up the cost of real estate. "Prior to the dotcommers, it was Hong Kong money being invested by residents fearing what would happen after the British left. The Chinese would come over and pay cash for the asking price. When their fears turned out to be unjustified, they returned to Hong Kong, but kept their investments in real estate here."

Carlson agrees: "If it weren’t the dotcommers, it would be someone else. They are only a piece of the pie. Poor people are being forced out. Watch what will happen to public housing in Hunters Point [a heavily African-American neighborhood that’s also home to 3Com Park, where the San Francisco 49ers play]. They will kick out the poor people and develop the site."

Rudeness among motorists is on the rise. They frequently treat pedestrians as target practice. This reporter observed one incident and experienced another. One evening as my partner and I were checking out a new gay restaurant at Church and Market Streets, a young woman pedestrian was in a crosswalk when the traffic light turned green. As she approached the curb, a car started moving, nearly hitting her. Instead of apologizing, the driver yelled at her to get out of the way. Two days later, as I was walking in a crosswalk at Polk and Market Streets near where we were staying, a bicyclist whizzed past and told me to watch where I was going. Montgomery says dotcomers are the cause of the rudeness: "It’s a go, go, go mentality. They’re yapping on cell phones instead of paying attention to their driving. I’m fed up. I tell them, ’Hang up and fuckin’ drive!’"

Hale acknowledges the problem. "It’s due to frustration of experiencing more traffic and more difficulty getting around the city. It’s not more people; it’s more cars because the new residents can afford them. I guess you can expect some rudeness at times, but you’d be impressed with the general lack of rudeness. There is some civility still in San Francisco."

He says San Francisco is not any ruder than any other big city. "I find road rage on the rise in all of them. This city is more welcoming to guests. It is easier to speak to people on the street. In New York or Boston, you would have a tougher time getting people to talk to you [for an interview]."

Despite heavier traffic and the resulting congestion, the city’s population has not increased. As those who can’t afford to continue living in San Francisco and those who sell their property at huge profits move out, higher-income people simply replace them. On Sept. 13, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story headlined: "Invasion of Noe Valley: Influx of cars in S.F. neighborhood vexes residents." The piece was about the City College of San Francisco using a local school for some evening and weekend classes without consulting locals, but it highlighted a citywide problem. "This is Noe Valley, where residents have been known to shut down restaurants because the cooking odors were offensive, a neighborhood that nearly had a collective nervous breakdown because Blockbuster wanted to open a store there," the Chronicle reported. Chain establishments like Starbucks have infiltrated the Castro, and that doesn’t sit well with some residents. "I would rather patronize small independent stores," says Elena Bridges, 34, a heterosexual interviewed as she waited for a bus at Market and Castro Streets.

Problems caused by the economic boom are issues in the Nov. 7 city election, where members of the Board of Supervisors will run from neighborhood districts instead of city-wide for the first time since San Francisco abandoned district elections in the wake of the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the city’s first gay supervisor, by former supervisor Dan White more than 20 years ago. Voters approved a proposition restoring district elections beginning this year.

District 6, the city’s largest, includes most of the city’s downtown. In a wide-open contest, the 17 candidates for its supervisor’s seat conducted their second debate Sept. 12. Every one promised to address such problems as landlord evictions of long-time tenants, including the elderly and disabled, stringent rental control laws, and a shortage of low-income housing. Typical of San Francisco, the candidates include a transgender person and a homeless advocate who wore an unusual fedora and loud tie to the debate, and bounced around balloons. He said that, if elected, he would house his clients in a tunnel he’d ask the city to build. To underscore how homosexuals have dispersed throughout the city to near-universal acceptance, half of the candidates are gay or lesbian. t

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