On Gentrification, the Human Spirit and the Fear of Being an Asshole

This past week, a speech by David Talbot has been circulated by many of my Stanford friends on Facebook. The gist: gentrification in SF is caused by "Stanford assholes," the engineers and entrepreneurs who have moved in with their Teslas and Ubers and caused lower-income families to be evicted. 

The range of captions that accompany the speech on Facebook spans from "Amen." to "Hmmm I have mixed feelings but this Talbot has some good points" to "Hater."

The camp that grades Talbot as a "hater" complains about his exaggerated rhetoric. For example, he calls for a liberation of the human spirit that trumps meaningless apps. Talbot's rhetoric is slightly sensationalist, but then again in the age of techno-capitalism, in order to be heard, it is often necessary to be over the top just so one's voice can drown out the noises of Oracle's bloc party downtown. And why is calling for the liberation of the human spirit considered cliched or unrealistic? Are we simply going to kneel before the new tech gods and believe in the propaganda that WiFi and smartphone apps will save the world? Have we become that enslaved to the aura of "tech"? 

Talbot does admit he's no neo-Luddite as he acknowledges the role of technology when it is used, for example, to allow Salon.com to go head-to-head with East Coast media corporations. But technology's wonders do not justify its frightening spillover for society. 

Every day brings new evictions – the carpenters, shoe repairmen, truck drivers, bookstore owners, grocers, nurses, teachers, firefighters, social workers, chefs and waiters, writers, artists. All the people who make up a living, breathing, multidimensional city – all gone or going. Replaced by the new class — those lucky code-crunchers and marketers who just exercised their stock options and can afford to pay cash and pay above the asking price for a home once lived in by a school librarian and her taxi-driving, poetry-writing husband who was just Ubered out of his job. 

Some people in the Stanford-assholes category probably have rolled their eyes at the mention of a "school librarian and her taxi-driving, poetry-writing husband." I mean, come on Talbot, why should I care about these poor people who cannot afford to pay rent? Right? Wrong. It is wrong that these financially capable newcomers can tour "artisanal chocolate tastings on Valencia Street, forking over enough cash to feed an entire family in the Mission for two or three days." It is wrong for teenagers to be kicked out of the soccer field because tech-adults can pay big cash to have them expurgated from public (?) spaces. It is wrong because, ethics. 

This past week, we watched La Haine in class, a film made 20 years ago about French police brutality. It's been two decades but the issue is still as real and present as ever. The problem of gentrification is strongly intertwined with the militarized police force's against "gangs" and "criminals":

Money buys everything in San Francisco these days. It buys entire downtown city blocks, where armies of Oracle workers and other corporate empires are allowed to occupy the streets and throw parties to themselves. These 1% Occupiers are not beaten and teargassed by the police. They are coddled and protected by the city. [...] Last year, a young, Latino man named Alex Nieto was shot 14 times and killed by police near my house, on top of Bernal Hill, a scenic area where people like to stroll and walk their dogs. Someone had reported that Nieto, a 28-year-old security guard who grew up in the neighborhood, didn’t look right

How many more people are going to be shot or strangled to death until we (the people at Stanford, the people evicted out of Palo Alto or SF, the capitalists, the humanists) can do something about this 1%-99% problem? I have one more year at Stanford before I graduate and fully participate in this inequitable system. My time here has not taught me what I can effectively do to stop the brutality. The university's series of general requirements that are supposed to make us useful citizens aren't cutting it. Is it the failure of American higher ed to produce smart and capable grads who have no idea how to make world a better, more liveable place for everyone? Grads who don't even have the dream or the will to do the moral thing? I don't think we're all monsters, or in the words of Talbot's sons, "Stanford dicks" or "douchebags" or "assholes." Or maybe we all are, considering that so few of us are actively pursuing any common good. As I race to submit my resume to another corporate internship, I increase my level of Stanford-assholity. As you write another empty paper, get an A and submit your transcript to graduate programs that give you leverage to later get a nicely-paid job in SF's financial district, you score additional points on the Stanford-assholo-meter. Sometimes, when some of us muster the courage and rage to protest, we receive complaints, doubts and recently, a lawsuit threat. What are we going to do? Which bus do we jump on - the Google one or our own risky, dissident bus called activism that disrupts the capital flow? What about another marginal group of us called humanists with our libraries and lofty hopes to liberate the human spirit? Where do we go? Where are we heading as a society? 

Quyen Nguyen

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2 Comments

I really enjoyed this post,

I really enjoyed this post, and I hadn't read Talbot's article before this.  I appreciated your reflections on the role of Stanford students.

I thought one shortcoming of Talbot's article is that it contains little mention of the organizing going on in SF around gentrification.  I don't think an individual, or even a large group of individuals, deciding not to set up shop in SF is going to change things much.  But there have been all kinds of ballot propositions and community demands to try to deal with the problem, led by groups like Causa Justa/Just Cause and POWER.  During the most recent election, highly visible Asian Stanford grads living in the city advocating for affordable housing might have stopped Prop G from being defeated.

Reflections

As someone who actually shared the relevant article on facbook recently, I thought this post was particularly interesting and relevant. I too struggle with engaging in activism. I have even gone as far as to think slightly negative of people who do not necessarily seem to be particularly socially conscious or even mildly interested in activism. But I feel almost like a hypocrite at times, because I applied and got into a pretty prestiguous tech company internship (not in the SF bay area) for this summer, quite frankly because I need the money, to support myself and my parents. The way I have come to rationalize this is because I know sometimes we have to take care of ourselves before taking care of others, but I know that can be a perilous path, specially because of the bubble-like nature of Stanford's campus. It is crazy to me to think of the incredible injustice of gentrification in EPA going on right now, and I definitely hope to seek my way out of the bubble, to not lose sight of what's important.