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If Gentrification Killed San Francisco, Racism Rode Shotgun

Many blame classism for housing displacement, but gentrification is racist at its core

By Paris, Op-Ed

I’m a native San Franciscan. Born and raised in Frisco (that nickname never bothered me) or the Sco (that’s that new shit) or whatever you wanna call it, I’ve seen its metamorphosis over the years from seemingly free-spirited inclusive hippie haven to near-exclusive capitalist wannabe utopia.

While this shift is not exclusive to the city I grew up in, it is most pronounced here. Like cancer, the change has been gradual; like cancer, that change has not been for the better.

At first, the transformation was hard to detect. People and businesses that had been around as long as I could remember slowly started to move and shutter. It was noticeable, but not an epidemic, at least not until about five years ago.

For most of my formative years, I experienced many people from many walks of life. Growing up in San Francisco gave me a touch of everything and everybody — every race, religion, and economic background. Home life and its related orbit were almost exclusively Black, and respect for all people was emphasized often. School and work provided interactions with the culture — the blueprint — of San Francisco. It never felt exclusionary. There were all kinds of people: Street performers, homeless people, weirdos, and artists existed alongside blue- and white-collar workers and business owners. San Francisco was a real melting pot.

Pops taught me long ago to do all I could to control my destiny, and that the key to success in any endeavor is education. I remember getting dropped off at school when I was young and casually making fun of some nerdy kids in my class. His response? “Keep it up. One day those nerds will be your bosses.” Damned if that wasn’t the realest shit ever for many, especially in the city that I used to know.

Since birth, I remember frequenting Black businesses with my father; I remained immersed in his work ethos and community-minded spirit. His influence made me acutely aware of the racial dynamics of my surroundings; the hardships of racism and poverty that he had to overcome to achieve his station in life were never lost on me.

I soaked up the city. I bought music at T’s Wauzi and Creative Music Emporium, worked part-time at Uganda Liquors on Masonic, ate at Leon’s and 2 Jacks, and knew of Black real estate agents, doctors, musicians, mechanics, store owners, and accountants. I remember watching shitty-good movies at the St. Francis Theatre on Market and hanging out at Doggie Diner and Candlestick, the open-air plaza at Stonestown. My friends and I copped gear at Harput’s; hit dances at Ramallah Hall, the Palladium, and Raffles during high school; and mobbed everywhere on Muni before we could drive. Back then, the city was ripe for adventure — and notably more egalitarian than it is now. Believe it or not, BART was once even magical and was the shit — instead of now just smelling like shit.

But for all its charm when I was growing up, I was always aware of class differences. Years later, I understood the reasons those differences existed. Now that they are more pronounced, the machinations behind them are worth a closer look.

Where did it go wrong in my city? A better question may be: When was it truly right?

The housing crisis has always existed in San Francisco, and it’s rooted in racism — despite the city’s illusory facade. It’s just not as overt here as in other places. Contrary to the beliefs of some, money and education don’t appear to produce increased hospitality, altruism, or acceptance levels. In many instances, affluence breeds contempt for the less fortunate and moneyed tribalism. And while many will point to classism as the real culprit, racism remains an omnipresent influence.

Before former mayor Ed Lee’s administration brutally exacerbated income inequality and housing affordability by focusing on job creation via corporate tax break incentives (adding only 10,013 housing units in San Francisco between 2011 and 2015), housing discrimination existed.

It existed in the form of the Cubic Air Ordinance in the 1880s — a city ordinance requiring 500 cubic feet of space for every person residing in a lodging. Its purpose was to foster an environment hostile to Chinese immigrants, often viewed as the source of White laborers’ inability to find work.

It existed in zoning in the 1920s, which separated industrial areas from homes, segregating people by income levels. Doing so allowed wealthy neighborhoods to remain hyperexclusive by limiting housing density. At the time, landowners even selectively filtered potential buyers by inserting racial ownership requirements into building deeds, known as “racially restrictive covenants.” My father experienced this firsthand, as did many other Black people who found it nearly impossible to obtain loans due to systemic racism at financial institutions that refused to lend to them.

It existed in the redlining of poor neighborhoods and areas dominated by residents of color, allowing developers and banks to avoid investing in those areas or loaning to those who lived there.

These communities were designated as areas marred by “blight” and thus marked for widespread demolition through San Francisco’s City Planning Commission’s 1945 Master Plan to improve public transit, parks, and major roadways.

It existed in the Residential Rezoning of 1978 by enforcing 40-foot height limits for most of the city’s residential neighborhoods. Doing so limited the number of housing units in buildings and imposed specific design regulations that resulted in eliminating thousands of legally buildable units from the city.

And it exists now. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times last year, “What Republicans want to do with I.C.E. and border walls, wealthy progressive Democrats are doing with zoning and Nimbyism… preserving ‘local character,’ maintaining ‘local control,’ keeping housing scarce and inaccessible — the goals of both sides are really the same: to keep people out.” Even in “liberal” San Francisco, it often feels that there are no real left-leaning entities in power to counteract the traditional hard-right conservative power structure.

It can seem like there are only varying degrees of conservatism — right-leaning and less right-leaning — even by those claiming to be compassionate. That’s why shit never gets done. It’s also why those waiting for, and most in need of, any meaningful government help are often mired in the sense of futility.

In 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, I wonder where the San Francisco I used to love can go from here. Recently declared “the most intensely gentrified city in America,” San Francisco was already crippled by the brutality of chronic poverty and economic distress before the Covid-19 pandemic. How it will affect us moving forward is anybody’s best guess. But if history repeats itself, those who are disenfranchised will be the last to feel a recovery — if at all.

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