Did "tech bros" ruin San Francisco?
No. But the city's position as a knowledge industry cluster put strains on it that its political coalitions were not prepared to accommodate.
Shortly after starting this blog, I wrote a post calling San Francisco “a great city in decline”. Nowadays it seems like every day brings new confirmation of that description. Westfield Mall, one of the tentpoles of downtown SF, stopped paying its mortgage and walked away from the property. The mall had lost half of its stores, even as other Westfields thrive in happier parts of the Bay Area. But Westfield is far from alone — it seems like a major business closes in downtown practically every week. The Old Navy. The Hilton. The AT&T store. The Office Depot. The Nordstrom Rack. The Whole Foods. H&M, the Gap, Marshalls, Uniqlo, Disney, Crate & Barrel, Amazon, Banana Republic, Saks. Here’s a viral video showing what downtown looks like now.
This has become known as the “doom loop”. As more establishments flee downtown, fewer people have a reason to go there at all, putting more pressure on businesses to close. Fewer shoppers also means that the streets are more dominated by the city’s throngs of homeless and mentally ill people, which makes downtown even less attractive.
That downtown doom loop is only the most obvious piece of a wider, longer-running crisis. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system has lost 45% of its ridership and is cutting service, the city’s already sky-high homelessness levels are up 35% since 2019, and SF has the fourth-highest property crime rate in the nation.
With all of this urban chaos and blight, it seems bizarre to accuse the tech industry, or tech workers, of ruining the city. And yet that’s exactly what I’ve been seeing from some San Francisco progressives. For example, here is Timnit Gebru, a prominent researcher who works on AI bias, denouncing mayor London Breed’s celebration of the city’s AI industry:
My experience is that this is a sadly common point of view among SF progressives. But is it true? Well, strictly speaking, no; tech people, whether “bros” or not, primarily just sat by and watched as all of the bad stuff happened. But in a broader sense, many of SF’s woes are due to the intersection of its long tech industry boom with a political culture unprepared to accommodate change.