Notes From Technotopia 3.0: On The “Creative City” Gone Wrong

8.2 / Ghost Ship

Notes From Technotopia 3.0: On The “Creative City” Gone Wrong

By Guillermo Gómez-Peña May 30, 2017

From 2012 to 2015, GP wrote obsessively on the dangers of the ultimate “creative city,” the much-touted “post-gentrification era,” the eviction and displacement of the arts community and ultimately what it meant to become a foreigner in his own neighborhood. In the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy, some of the themes of this text continue to resonate. This updated manuscript remix has been expanded and restructured as a series of literary postcards. They are meant to be published, performed live, on radio or for video, without a particular chronological order.

________

1. Dear ex-local artist, writer, activist, bohemian, street eccentric, and/or protector of difference...

Imagine a city, your city and your former “hip” neighborhood, being handed over by greedy politicians and re/developers to the crème de la crème of the tech industry. This includes the seven most powerful tech companies in the world. I don’t need to list them: their names have become verbs in lingua franca; their sandbox is the city you used to call your own. Case in point, San Francisco.

Their Faustian iDeal involves radically transforming the city of your dreams in a few years into an unprecedented “creative city”; a bohemian theme park for the young techies who constitute their Darwinian work force. It comes with dormitories, food courts with catchy theme bars and entertainment centers. The entire police force is their private security. Sounds like science fiction, que no?

Imagine that during the reconstruction process, the rent—your rent—increases by three hundred percent overnight. The average city rent is now $3,500 a month for a small one bedroom apartment, the highest in the country. The artists and the working class at large can no longer pay it. Your community is being forced to leave, at best to a nearby city, at worst, back to their original hometown. The more of an intimate history you have with the old city, the more painful it is to accept this displacement. You have no choice. 

2. While you hang by a thread waiting for the eviction notice, every day you continue to lose old friends and colleagues you might never see again. They were less lucky than you and got evicted earlier.

Heartbroken and exhausted, you spend a large part of your civic time attending anti-gentrification demonstrations and collaborating with other artists and activists in anti-eviction actions and techno-artivist projects, but still it only gets worse by the day. The number of dramatic eviction cases increases constantly and both the diminished politicized citizenry and the progressive media begin to experience compassion fatigue.

As your community rapidly shrinks, so does your sense of belonging to a city that no longer seems to like you. You begin to feel like a foreigner and internal exile: freaky Alice in techno-Wonderland; remember the Alien Caterpillar who inhaled? Unless you own your home and studio, as a renter, your hours “here” are numbered and you carry this feeling of imminent orphanhood like a very tight and stylish noose around your neck.

3. Dear ex-local artist, writer, activist, bohemian, street eccentric, and/or protector of difference...

Imagine that all the classic and familiar places in your hood including funky, decades-old Latino restaurants and immigrant bars full of memories and ghosts, barber & specialty shops, bohemian sex clubs, experimental art galleries, indie theaters and bookstores—yes, shops where bound books are still sold—the emotional spaces which have been your main source of inspiration, creativity and community are also forced to close because the pinche greedy landlord tripled the rent overnight or some virtual anonymous millionaire bought the building or the entire block to rent out micro-units to Airbnb. And all the new laws and acts protect him. Coño! Your imagination becomes a painful exercise in forced tolerance and providential acceptance.

In a few months, these wonderful places that for decades provided the city with a strong cultural identity are destroyed and reopened as (get ready) homogeneous “live/work/play” spaces, “micro-condominium” buildings and tech plazas in the works. The original tenants and workers of those buildings are now wandering homeless burning in rage. You can hear their heartwrenching howls at night from the window of your apartment. (I howl.)

The new city begins to look like a generic global metropolis imagined by Italo Calvino. To make the lives of the transient workforce somewhat pleasant, hundreds of similar “smart cafes,” trendy restaurants, overpriced “eateries” and “celebrity bars” open up in each neighborhood. These words are meaningless. Even the last standing old-school dive bars are being “discovered” (a euphemism for taken over) by the transplants via their Yelp or Foursquare mobile app. But you, no matter how long you lived “here” or how much you have paid in rent throughout the years—even if it is enough to own your hipster remodeled Victorian upper unit—you are not welcome. Let’s face it, in Technotopia, even hipsterism is a thing of the past.

You hit the streets looking for a place to eat and drink: What you used to call an average priced dinner is way above your price range now. Your sacred $4 night cocktail, now served by an aloof “celebrity mixologist,” costs $15 and your daily jugos and licuados, now called “cold pressed vegan organic cleansing juices,” go for $12 in a “recyclable, sustainable” bottle. It’s hard to be a dandy here. For the first time in history they have chic taquerias that are run exclusively by Anglo hipsters whose job is to teach you the history of tacology and how to eat them properly, chilango or Oaxacan style, $7 each.

We (the artists), used to eat delicious inexpensive foods from around the world. Now we can only afford cups of noodles, shwarmas, burritos or burgers.” Tweet

But don’t worry: remember that this is just a sci-fi nightmare, a perverse exercise of radical imagination, or rather, a psychomagic challenge to deliver your daily dose of survival humor...with a side of “organic” guacamole.

4. Imagine that your own building, a legendary (ex) artist building is now just another revolving Airbnb mini-unit for zombie techies who make well over $200 grand a year, but behave not unlike obnoxious teenage frat boys. If you are the one of only three Mexican tenants left, when you open the front door for a new neighbor, they either perceive you as the building's janitor or report you to the manager as a “suspicious character.” And yes, in Technotopia, your new identity is that of “suspicious character.”

The nightmare unfolds: full of Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsches and Mercedes Benzes, the private parking lot is now protected with barbed wire fences and a digital display keypad encoded by microchips; and so are the “vintage bike” racks and trash containers.

Video surveillance cameras are omnipresent. The new management wishes to keep the homeless, the day laborers, and the “scary” young “people of color” at a distance…that is, before the cops get them. They are unpleasant memories of the old city of sin and compassion; pariahs and freaks from former distasteful and economically disadvantaged, at-risk neighborhoods. Who wants them roaming around their picture perfect babies, fancy bikes and dogs?

The newly empowered cops drive around the hood looking for criminal “difference.” The homeless, the day laborers, and the “gang bangers” aren’t the only ones being removed from the streets to make them safe for the new dot com cadre. With them go the poets, the performance artists, the experimental musicians, the frail transvestites, the politicized sex workers, the gallant mariachis, the cool low-riders, the urban primitives, the angry punks, the defiant radical feminists and the very activists who used to protect us all from the greedy landlords and politicians who conceived of this macabre project.

The latest American version of ethnic and cultural cleansing is invisible to the newcomers, and highly visible to those of us who knew the old city. The press labels it “the post-gentrification era.”

Prehistory is only 7 years old and nostalgia is pure style, a bad selfie of a fictional memory.”Anonymous tweet

5. There are suspicious fires happening constantly, in apartment buildings and homes inhabited by mostly Latino and Black working class families. And you cannot help but to wonder if landlords and redevelopers are setting these fires. 

Is there a secret garden of violence in the heart of techno-bohemian paradise?Anonymous tweet

On June 18, 2016, Balitronica and I posted on Facebook: “It’s a very sad day for San Francisco in the final chapter of the 'post-gentrification era.' The entire historical block of Mission St, between 29th & 30th streets, just a block from our home, was leveled by another seemingly 'mysterious' fire…From the legendary 3300 Club, our daily bar and refuge for social outcasts, rebel artists and many working class folks, to El Paisa as well as other taquerias that feed economically frail locals hanging by a thread, including us and our friends, Playa Azul, one of the oldest iconic Mexican restaurants in town, Coronita's nightclub which is also a night sanctuary for newly arrived immigrants, and the historical Cole Hardware store, all burnt down.

This happened within a span of 4 hours! 50 people lost their homes, mostly working class, and hundreds, their jobs and small businesses. These establishments were beacons for bohemians and for cultural difference and the apartments above them were homes to many long time residents. Is it really coming to this, San Francisco?

City officials were prompt to say, while the fire was still going on, 'it is not related to the other (equally suspicious) fires in the Mission' and that they 'won’t investigate arson.'  Of course, have they ever investigated deeply any of the fires of the last 5 years? Has any landlord or developer ever been prosecuted for this?

Two blocks away from the madness in parallel San Francisco, while locals watched in tears, a techie frat party prevailed as if in denial of the city crumbling around them. Do we want to live here anymore? Is our 'artist building' next in the list of uninvestigated arsons? This city of greed is literally becoming a living hell (to the point of actual fire and brimstone) to anyone who is not an engineer in the tech industry, an upper class hipster, a venture capitalist or a redeveloper. Is there a way to recapture the city of our original dreams? We are crying.”

6. Looking for metaphors that explain this incommensurable crisis I come across The Millennium Tower in San Francisco, supposedly one of the “Top 10 residential towers in the country,” and a glaring symbol of the city’s new techno-wealth.

Paradoxically, the tower is slowly sinking. As of mid 2016, seven years after construction began, it has already sunk 16 inches. And the problem continues to get worse. The sleasy owners are trying to blame the digging of a new Transbay Terminal, and basically legally screwing the tax payers into paying to fix their building. In the meantime, hundreds of upper class tenents are being forced out of the Tower. Is this the ultimate symbol of Technotopia? An eviction in reverse?

 7. You begin to wonder, who are these random people and newly evasive neighbors taking over my neighborhood? Metaphysically speaking, where did they really come from? And how long will they stay? Are they merely browsing in the mythological backyard of Technotopia? Will they return to the suburbs when the Chicano intifada begins?

Day after day, allured by the new digital bonanza, hundreds, thousands of new people arrive, unfamiliar people, without manners or style, social or historical consciousness; mostly middle and upper class white people from the suburbs and small cities from throughout the country, along with some wealthy foreign entrepreneurs and programmers from similarly upwardly mobile techno cultures.

Indistinguishable from tourists, so many of them look like they were just dropped here by a UFO straight out of a Minneapolis or Houston suburb, complete with their yoga mat, mobile gym, tech gear bearing the logo of the company they work for, and their designer dogwear and strollers, all glued to their smartphones to the point where they can’t even acknowledge your presence as you pass them on the street.

Of course, you, lucky YOU, queer, tattoed, eco-minded, Salvadoran or Peruvian teckie, you are an exception to all rules. –Tweet

Soon, these normative looking humans will destroy their very object of bohemian desire; the multicultural fetishes which attracted them “here” in the first place. And they will one day wake up to an ocean of unbearable sameness. The good thing is, they don’t know it yet, and they probably wouldn’t notice anyway. And if a few of them know it, let’s face it, they don’t give a shit. They’re all “comfortable” and exalted. The whole city is catering to their desires. Besides, they’ve got 25 posts per day on their digital agenda and hundreds of superficial tweets to write and neurotic phone calls to make.

8. What these cyber-adventurers have in common is that they are in a hurry, determined to make lots of money…mañana! Their neo-colonial dreams must be attained instantly. It’s the latest San Francisco Gold Rush, the 2nd digital bonanza, a true new Wild West; definitely the last chapter in savage capitalism, and they wish to be cast in the biggest, hippest reality show ever!

…But dear reader/audience member, don’t take it personally, you are an exception to the rule. You are somewhat different.” –Tweet

Upon their arrival they are willing to take any job on their way to a better one, displacing the working class, which made the city function for decades. They are even willing to be waiters, gardeners (as long as they are referred to as “landscape designers”), house cleaners (or rather “facilities personnel”), taxi drivers (for Uber or Lyft), and even nannies & dog walkers to the rich and famous. The difference between then and now is they charge three times as much, and have no sense of labor ethics or a culture of service. After all, it’s just a temporary job on their way to Utopia 5.0.

Their dream begins to come true as they ascend in the instant socio-economic pyramid of the new city. They hit the jackpot. They get their official membership card to the bohemian theme park on an app and they begin to share in a post-human culture.

It’s a virtual mob, not an informed citizenry, and they are slowly taking over every square inch of space and oxygen. Their navigation and communication devices are installed in their iPhone or iPad. And so are their identities, hollow dreams, “real” experiences; their noveau-families, and all of their fictional memories.

In this imaginary city, we no longer have citizens: we have self-involved ‘consumers’ with the latest gadgets in hand.” –Tweet

9. You’ve seen these strangers; they seem to belong to micro-communities of two to five people. When they are not at work, they go to smart cafes…to work more. They rarely make eye contact with anyone. If you try to talk to them, they will keep walking because they think you are a weirdo who wants something from them. Instead they walk staring at their mobile communication devices in search of an anxious, “spontaneous” human connection that will transport them elswhere, following a GPS map to their next appointment. They also stare at the screen while having dinner with colleagues because they’re “checking in,” messaging someone on Facebook, or taking a selfie with a famous-looking person they will never see again. They even do this while listening to live music at a club.

In the new tech culture there’s never a full presence, there’s only auto-voyeurism…and the selfie. The selfie entails a profound anxiety: “I must tell the world I was ‘here,’ even if only for a few minutes, even if here is nowhere. It might be my last day on earth.”

They rarely attend artistic activities. They’d rather go to exciting themed events and parties sponsored by companies. And they go to network, not to make friends, flirt, or find a sex partner. With the exception of sporadic online speed dating on Tinder or OkCupid, their sexual life is “frugal,” for the lack of a meaner word. On their wildest nights, nothing out of the ordinary happens. Their most exciting days are Pride, Dia de los Muertos, and Burning Man, where they get to be extreme tourists.

For the poetic record, they are mostly “white” (meaning gender or race illiterate). 80% are male and have absolutely no sense of the history of the streets they are beginning to walk on. In the way they behave, they make you wonder if they know, geographically and culturally speaking, where they are located and if they are even aware of the profound impact of their presence in the lives of the older inhabitants. Last night at a bar, one of them felt compelled to confess to me he was angered by a “racist poster” he saw outside: the photo of a handsome mariachi pointing a gun to the viewer with a text underneath that reads, “Gringas si; gringos no.” I felt sorry for his lack of humor.

In the way these vatos behave you begin to wonder if they exist in the same city you are or in a parallel quantum reality you are making up?Tweet

In fact, they are easily annoyed by “difference” and have no problem letting you know or confessing it online. Verbigratia: “Don’t believe the hype: This neighborhood is not a safe place! There’s still way too many Mexicans, hookers, lesbians & street freaks. Don’t come to live here! The Dogpatch is were it’s at.”  In the “creative city,” the words racism, sexism, homophobia and classism are passé.

But the problem of unbearable difference has a deadline: the cops are working around the clock to solve it. In the past five years, Bay Area law enforcement has killed 12 Latinos and African Americans, including a pregnant woman. Suspicious fires continue to happen in certain targeted neighborhoods. There are secret manuals circulating in the real estate mileus: “Don’t rent to Latino or black families, artists or single moms. Preferably rent to young white males with a salary over $150,000 a year.” There are also new laws proposing the relocation of the entire homeless population outside of the city. The techies, pobrecitos, are truly irritated by them. It sounds like a new novel by Ernest Hogan or...

The mayor and his croonies must be having a real hard time sleeping nowadays.

10. I continue citing my poetic field notes:These techno-vatos have no sense of philanthropy. Their savings are to be spent in gourmet food, gadgets, clubbing, fancy apartments and very expensive puppies, like French bull dogs, Italian Greyhounds, and Pomeranians…It’s a solipsistic frontier economy. And if you are mildly politicized you cannot help but to wonder, If each one of them prosperous locos would donate 5% of their income to a social cause, we could improve housing, social services, schools for the poor, and the yearly art budget for the Arts Commission…but in this Darwinian age, that would be considered old-school communism, not venture capitalism.”

‘Here,’ the future will come in a few days and the money they make must be spent in the immediate process of getting there. But ‘there’ is actually nowhere. –Tweet

Besides, the mandate of the city fathers, in cahoots with the developers and new entrepreneurs is to create, by any means necessary, a city for the white rich. Our ex-major Willie Brown, paradoxically a Black “progressive democrat,” put it succinctly once: “We want to create the Monaco of the U.S., and if you can’t afford it, you can leave!” Thanks, Brother Willie!

Well, it already happened…and yes we, the holders and perpetrators of cultural difference, “can’t afford it,” but here’s the thing: we are doing everything possible to stay and remain a nuisance to the new urbanites and the greedy landlords and politicians who invited them.

11. Whatever happened to San Francisco’s original bohemia? The one it was founded on...

We all know. Hundreds, thousands of artists, poets, and thinkers have been evicted, and those of us who are still hanging on by a thread are doing everything possible to hold down the fort, but it's becoming increasingly harder and harder. Everyone is too busy working two or three jobs, living without certainty or health insurance, and depleted of energy and interest in partying or collaborating in wild projects. We are like walking zombies. Facebook post: “We need your help. We must engage in a daily, and weekly effort to keep bohemia alive, to live with our hair on fire, reconquer spaces for deviant behavior, intelligent conversation & critical thought.” Are we merely talking to ourselves? It feels so lonely here sometimes. As a colleague recently stated, returning to San Francisco from being on the road is like arriving to a party that's nearing it's end, with only a few wounded people left at the bar amidst a sticky mess.

12. By now, as I re-read my diary, I realize I am clearly experiencing acute philosophical vertigo and political despair. The symptoms are devastating questions in my notebook:

*Are we, the artists and activists left, merely stubborn?

*Are we delusional and engaged in a losing battle?

*Are we waiting for the bubble to burst, for the San Andreas Fault to open up or for the Mission shamans to conjure up the collapse of the new economy? But what if all the Mission shamans have already been evicted?

*Will the city get so unbearably expensive that the leaders of the tech industry themselves will decide to relocate to another place? Portland or Seattle perhaps? If only we stick around a little longer…

*Is it too late to talk about this? Is someone somewhere online reading my words?... Hello? Auxilio!!! I don’t want to be the last standing Mexican artist here!

(…)

Three pages later my obsessive questions continue:

*Should I attend tomorrow’s anti-gentrification march or is it time to finally pack up and go back to Mexico City?

*I wonder what is worse, overt organized crime or the gentler forms of organized crime and ethnic cleansing in Technotopia?

*What is more violent, the menacing gaze of a sicario or the absolute indifference of a techie? Dangerous difference or dangerous sameness?

13. During the revision of the final draft, I become fully aware of my poetic subjectivity. I know that my words are somewhat careless, partially unfair and devastating but I can’t help them. I have lost my sense of humor. I am not a journalist. I am a performance artist and a poet, and my city has been taken away from me. It hurts to walk the new streets of my refurbished ex-bohemian city. What can I say? I am deeply affected by the cruelty of indifference of its new population. I get sad when I stare at this unbearable ocean of cultural sameness and boring techno-normativity called San Francisco. Coño! I miss the grit, the funk, the weird, the unexpected, my bar flies, my freaks, my dozens of misbehaved friends who have left for good. It really hurts to have lost so many friends and colleagues to eviction. Just last month, my own troupe was forced out from our headquarters.

Am I repeating myself? Do I need to add a dictionary?

Okay, here’s a Dictionary in progress:

Bohemian Theme Park: A multicultural entertainment & heritage park for monocultural adults.

Creative: A euphemism for finantial success in the tech world.

Creative city: A desperate city without a working class.

Here: Nothingness.

Hipster: No one really knows. You just think you know. If you think you know, you most definitely are not one.

Local: Someone who used to live “here” when here was a place.

Eviction: A euphemism for the eradication of difference.

Google bus: A travelling gas-guzzling half-full office with chairs and no cubicles.

Networking: A safe alternative to making actual conversation.

Radical: An adjective for a franchise.

Technotopia: San Francisco sans difference/A-critical techno-utopia.

Underground: Another franchise.

Vintage: Second hand object or a previously worn item of clothing sold for over $100.

White: A bizarre state of mind that makes you attribute race to others with darker skin.

________

Post-script: Last night I dreamt the tech industry had collapsed and the creative city was in ruins, hundreds of thousands of dot com square feet empty, robo-squatters everywhere surrounded by the obnoxious electric sound of amplified white noise. The few start-up kids and techno-hipsters left were in panic running for their lives. There were fires all over the city, but this time they had been started by angry citizens. A ludite intifada was burgeoning. The old inhabitants were all slowly returning to the city, like fierce zombies looking for fresh meat. The Mexicans were back, and so was the working class, and the X-treme bohemia. We were all dancing around bonfires. It felt like a more serious seventh day at the end of the Burning Man. Suddenly, a very impressive sound system begins to broadcast activist poetry and performance texts in several languages. It was a beautiful day for mankind. It was only a dream, or rather bad poetic prose.

(I wish to thank Balitrónica Gómez, Emma Tramposch, and Anastasia Herold for helping me to prepare this version of the manuscript.)

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