When I was a kid, I remember getting dropped off at the local mall in my hometown of Sunnyvale, California. I’d meet my friends at the arcade, spending about two hours and five dollars’ worth of tokens playing games before skateboarding through the half-empty parking lots. Even on a Saturday, the mall was fairly calm, mirroring the humdrum streets of the city. At the time, Sunnyvale was unique in its combination of affordability and the diversity of its residents. The city, and much of the South Bay Area, was a place working-class immigrants could move to, obtain employment, and pursue the American dream. Today, Sunnyvale is in the center of Silicon Valley, home to major tech companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook; large commercial plazas; some of the most expensive fixer-upper houses in the nation; and rents that require high-paying jobs to afford.
Just up the road to the north is San Francisco, a city known for its progressive, liberal, and inclusive values. With the tech boom over the past decade, San Francisco’s identity as a culturally diverse urban center has slowly faded.
Once a hub for black culture, San Francisco now has one of the lowest percentages of African American residents out of any major US city. The Mission District has gone from supporting a rich Hispanic community to being a perennial contender for “Top Hipster Neighborhood” in the country; signs of the area’s vibrant Hispanic culture are still visible in many of the neighborhood’s beautiful murals and taquerias, but the streets are now filled largely with techies frequenting crowded epicurean restaurants and craft cocktail bars. Over in Chinatown, immigrant business owners and low-income tenants now fear eviction as properties are purchased and converted to office space. While America is projected to have a non-white majority by the year 2044 (as reported by the census), following its current trend, San Francisco will revert back to being a majority white city by 2040. The counterculture that San Francisco so iconically reflected in the ’80s and ’90s, which gave birth to its punk rock and skate scenes, seems like a relic now. Growing up a skater kid, I remember the ’90s when San Francisco was the capital of skateboarding; now it has waned to techies uniformly clothed in J.Crew plaid and chinos, commuting on longboards.
The diversity and inclusivity of a city is predicated on the ability of people of all backgrounds and classes to live in it, and this is undermined when a city’s growth is difficult to control. Money and growth often bring retrogression to culture. Ultimately, it’s up to a region’s newcomers—whether they are transplants pursuing new careers or real estate developers—to recognize, embrace, and invest in the communities and rich cultures of the cities they inhabit. They cannot adopt a self-serving, take-take-take attitude. All easier said than done though.
Here in the Northwest, this isn’t the first time that Seattle has experienced growth due to the tech industry; Boeing and Microsoft called this region home well before Silicon Valley earned its nickname. But this wave is different, adding 100,000 people to the city over the past decade. As fast as job growth and real estate values have risen over the last 10 years nationwide, Seattle’s market has moved at a far greater pace. According to the Seattle Times, by the end of 2017, Seattle’s married household income had surpassed that of San Francisco’s, and income inequality continues to grow. When I first moved to Seattle, I appreciated the city’s laid-back, “don’t care” attitude compared to the material flaunt of many other major cities. Today, Seattle rolls out its fair share of Teslas and Maseratis and faces serious problems regarding housing affordability.
The current boom in Seattle and the surrounding region has not come without complex challenges to racial diversity. In certain neighborhoods, communities of color face displacement, and Seattle’s tech companies, like those in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, employ highly paid workforces that are largely white and male. At the same time, as reported last fall in the Seattle Times, while Seattle remains whiter than most other major US cities, it’s the least white it’s ever been with indications it’s growing more diverse; also, its surrounding cities have become some of the most diverse in the country. The demographics of the region are changing, and the preferences of its residents are naturally changing too, including restaurants and retail. The variety of cuisine at our fingertips, whether soup dumplings or fresh made tamales, is tied to our region’s growth and evolving character. However, Seattle’s African American community has continued to decrease, as gentrification has continued to take hold of neighborhoods such as the Central District and Columbia City. Modern trilevel homes, which will forever be symbols of this era, are popping up in between classic craftsman houses, and selling for close to a million dollars, which is unprecedented for these neighborhoods. As the cost to own a home increases, so does rent, pricing out many longtime residents.
Growing pains are inevitable for any region or major city, and change isn’t always bad. But change without a comprehensive approach to handling how growth affects everyone, not just those in industries obviously benefiting from it, can be dangerous. Furthermore, how people react to that change is important. For the fortunate people who can afford to live in these regions, it almost seems like Teslas and million-dollar fixer-upper homes have become a bragging point. When we debate which cities are the most “desirable” to live in, are we really just saying “my city has way more gentrification and income inequality than yours”? Seattle and the Bay Area are America's two hubs of technology, and there is competition between them, even when it comes to home prices and high-rise buildings. Losing sight of the underlying effects of growth is ultimately how a city can have a shift in identity.