Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley by Cary McClelland

Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley BY Cary McClelland. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.
The cover of Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley

In his new book, Silicon City, Cary McClelland observes that San Francisco “has always been something of a funhouse mirror, reflecting a strange yet sublime potential self back to the rest of the nation.” The city was a myth machine, attracting pioneers, refugees, misfits, and artists—all of whom came to find a new way of life. “For the past fifty-plus years, San Francisco was a place where community was created,” McClelland writes.

But the myth turned into something else, a monster that grew and gobbled up real estate, communities, and, some might argue, the spirit of the city itself. San Francisco has become younger, whiter, and more tech-centric. The most important change, though, has been the influx of wealth, which has left all but the most privileged citizens in the dust. The city used to be a cultural and social haven for black families fleeing oppression, and had such a thriving jazz scene that it was once known as “the Harlem of the West.” Now, the city’s black community has almost disappeared, down from 13 percent in the 1970s to around 3 percent today. Other communities are being driven out of neighborhoods they’ve long called home as young tech workers, flush with cash, gentrify neighborhoods that used to be considered affordable (at least for some). According to McClelland, income inequality in San Francisco is growing faster than in any other American city, and while salaries have risen—the average wages in the San Francisco area are 53 percent above the national average—so has the number of people living in poverty.

None of this is unique to San Francisco, of course, and the city has been unaffordable for quite a while. What’s different now is the hypocritical rhetoric that emanates from the new elite: the tech companies who have forced everyone else out are supposedly working to improve society. The result is a city at war with itself—the powerful tech sector versus the displaced, oftentimes underpaid contract-workers preparing the soy lattes and vegan burrito bowls for the high-salaried coders and engineers.

McClelland’s book sets out to understand the problem by listening to people in the thick of it. McClelland, who has a background in documentary filmmaking, interviews Uber drivers, homeless teenagers, angel investors, startup founders, long-term residents, LGBTQ activists, and everyone in between. The majority of the book consists of individual monologues, grouped by theme in chronological sections like “The New Gold Rush” or “The Balkanization of the Bay.” After a brief introduction of each person, McClelland lets his subject speak for pages at a time, as if they were talking heads in one of his documentaries.

The story of Maria Guerrero, an Intel campus cafeteria worker who helped organize a union, illustrates the divide between the upper and lower echelons of tech workers. In order to keep employees comfortably removed from any outside-world stress, tech giants like Google and Facebook employ a small army of subcontracted cafeteria workers, janitors, and security guards, who earn a mere fraction of what the employees they serve are paid. These workers don’t receive any benefits. In fact, most of them need to take on extra jobs to make ends meet. “They had it very separated—by class—as I liked to say, segregated,” Guerrero says.

Paul Gillespie, a cab driver who’s been working in San Francisco for nearly forty years, offers another example of the superficiality of the tech sector’s world-improvement rhetoric. During Gillespie’s tenure as president of the Taxi Commission from 1999 to 2009, he succeeded in getting the city to adopt hybrid vehicles. These fuel-efficient cabs not only reduced greenhouse gas emissions by over fifty percent, but also put money back in drivers’ pockets by reducing gas consumption. But eight years later, the majority of the city’s residents now rely on ridesharing services, a fact that Gillespie finds ironic: “The things I advocate for—clean vehicles, the greenhouse gas reduction mandate—they are all being undermined by Uber and Lyft, which don’t do any of those things,” he tells McClelland. “They don’t have any mandate for clean vehicles, they don’t serve wheelchair people or paratransit. Their drivers obviously don’t have workers’ comp.” As Gillespie points out, despite propaganda from Uber and Lyft that paints ride-sharing as an environmentally-friendly travel option, most users have no idea that the San Francisco taxi fleet is one of the cleanest around.

There are many other stories like Gillespie’s and Guerrero’s. But the downside to this vignette-like documentary approach is that all voices are considered equal. In chapters like “The New Gold Rush” and “The Balkanization of the Bay,” McClelland introduces us to some key players of the city’s tech world, ostensibly to help readers gain a holistic sense of the city’s current residents. But do we really need to hear another techie—in this case Hendrik Dahlkamp, an ex-Google engineer, now a startup entrepreneur—go on about the importance of “disruption” and self-driving cars? According to Dahlkamp, disruption “implies that there is an openness to actively think about how could you improve things. . . . It also implies some kind of fairness—that you have a meritocracy where the best idea or the best execution of something wins.” Like many tech true-believers, Dahlkamp seems oblivious to the ways Silicon Valley’s institutions and systems actively keep the ideas of women, minorities, and low-income workers out of this “meritocracy.”

McClelland lets the tech world’s utopian rhetoric speak for itself. But do we really need to have tech entrepreneurs described as “superheroes,” as venture capitalist Tim Draper does?“So much improvement, thanks to the private sector,” he says, seemingly not concerned as to why Silicon Valley, with all its wealth and talent, hasn’t bothered to address the problems in San Francisco that are directly related to this influx of cash, like homelessness, high transportation costs, and job insecurity. Does the hippie-slash-tech-lover-slash-Burning Man enthusiast Coco’s assertion that “drinking ayahuasca is like plugging into the umbilical cord of the planet” really add to the conversation about the future of the Bay Area?

McClelland has undertaken a herculean feat of sociological cataloguing, and offers an ambitious, thorough look at a city that seems to be ripping at the seams. The book’s final story is of an activist fighting police violence by going on a hunger strike. “Progressivism is a veil, and we’re trying to rip that veil apart,” he says.

Luisa Rollenhagen is an Argentine-German writer and journalist working at the intersection of culture and politics.