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San Francisco: A Tale of Two Cities

San Francisco's electric dreams: a growing social divide is leading to social tensions. Ashley Hibben investigates.

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CC Photo Courtesy of Schnappi, Flickr
CC Photo Courtesy of Schnappi, Flickr

Silicon Valley is home to some of the wealthiest companies and people in the world, but many Bay Area residents are demanding they become better citizens. As the business world marvels at the latest money-spinning takeover of a young start-up (WhatsApp) by the face of the social media revolution (Facebook) for a cool $19bn, it would be easy to assume that the economy of the surrounding San Francisco Bay is booming.

After all, the big tech firms are attracting an influx of young, ambitious people who are being paid a median salary of $100,000; one mid- level engineer at Google is reputedly being paid $3mn a year in an effort to stop him defecting to a rival. Much has been made of the entrepreneurial environment in Silicon Valley that encourages investment in start- up firms and creative industries unlike anywhere else in the world. However, as companies such as Apple and Google have spearheaded the rise of consumer technology as a global business, many residents of the Bay Area are beginning to resent the arrogance and extravagance of those who work and play in Silicon Valley.

The weekend newspapers in Britain carried a telling sign of San Francisco fears that Silicon Valley's success is leading to a 'gentrification' of the city. Sarah Slocum was attacked in a San Francisco bar as angry locals demanded that she removed her Google Glass whilst demonstrating it to some curious customers. With the Snowden revelations raising fears that the Internet is leading to an acute invasion of personal freedoms, coffee shops and bars in the city have begun to ban such devices as customers are put off and resentment grows over their surreptitious use. This is a concern for firms such as Apple and Samsung as they ready a line of "wearable technology" that could see people wearing cameras and microphones at all times.

However, the backlash against technology in San Francisco is starting to spread. Silicon Valley, the culture it has bred, and the technology giants it has developed, are under fire in a city that is proud of its diversity and counter- culture reputation.

Residents of traditionally poorer areas in San Francisco, such as the Mission, feel sidelined and pushed out as highly-paid technology workers have aided a doubling of rent prices since 2010. A 1986 state law that enables landlords to evict tenants and create lucrative condominiums has seen a tripling of evictions, pushing residents to the poorer cities, such as Oakland, to the East or out on to the streets. Protests have erupted against the influence of the technology firms with Ed Lee, the Mayor of San Francisco who holds "Tech Tuesdays" to garner the views of Silicon Valley's elite on government policy. The campus sites of many technology firms, praised for providing services from gyms to laundry for workers, has ensured that many service sectors of San Francisco's economy have seen little benefit from the influx of wealthy technology workers.

Resentment has focused on the 'Google Buses', luxury shuttles laid on by many Silicon Valley firms for the exclusive use of their employees on the daily 40 mile commute from San Francisco to Palo Alto and Santa Clara; tyre-slashing and picket lines have become a common occurrence. The technology firms rightly argue that they are cutting CO2 emissions by keeping thousands of cars of the roads every day. Ordinary San Franciscans riding the city's creaking MUNI commuter transit, built in the aftermath of the devastating 1906 earthquake, view them as a symbol of the growing social divide.

Unfortunately for the Silicon Valley community, a number of arrogant and offensive comments from technology entrepreneurs about San Francisco and it's residents have exacerbated the popular anger. Peter Shih, founder of payments start-up Celery, launched a wide-ranging attack on life in San Francisco last August. The end of 2013 saw the former CEO of AngelHack Greg Gopman take to Facebook and lay into San Francisco's "degenerates", saying they should "realize it's a privilege to be in the civilized part of town and view themselves as guests".

Sadly, Gopman's tirade was trumped on January 24 when Silicon Valley investor and luminary Tom Perkins, of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, warned of a "progressive Kristallnacht" in the Wall Street Journal, saying: "writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its 'one per cent', namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich'".

For those who are fed up with firms such as Apple and Amazon using loopholes made for start- ups to avoid paying taxes on their enormous profits, class- war comments from entrepreneurs who don't share their daily struggles, due to profits made from developments which seem to benefit only themselves, are symptomatic of a new elite who care little that they are destroying the very fabric of life in San Francisco.

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