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San Francisco: Now, more like everyplace else

By Paul Van Slambrouck Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2000


For nearly three decades, dancers practicing everything from ballet to political theater have pounded the creaky wood boards of Dance Mission studios in the heart of San Francisco's Latino district.

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Today is no different, as a half-dozen dancers rehearse in a back, upstairs room.

But each plie and pirouette comes under the stress of a deadline far more pressing than any opening night. By year's end, Dance Mission will be gone, unable to afford a doubling of its rent.

Across the city similar stories abound. Artists, activists, and a plethora of nonprofit organizations, many with a political edge, are folding. And with each demise, a larger picture emerges: The fundamental character of this city by the bay is changing.

Once a beacon of liberal activism and Bohemian charm, this city looks increasingly like the epitome of New Economy capitalism.

A tsunami of high-technology workers and businesses has washed over the city in recent years, creating both unprecedented prosperity and crushing hardship in a city famous for its big heart and open arms.

The conflict is embodied in a pair of dueling growth-control measures before voters on the Nov. 7 ballot. And while the issue has made this year's election white hot for San Franciscans, few see a simple ballot-box solution to the forces now at work.

Much of the phenomenon is familiar. Gentrification and growth have buffeted American cities for decades. But it is the magnitude and speed of what is occurring here, say urban historians, that is so extraordinary.

Fred Siegel of the Progressive Policy Institute likens the scope of change in San Francisco to two other transformations in US history: New York City in the mid-1800s, after the completion of the Erie Canal; and Chicago later that century, after the establishment of a national rail network.

But even that parallel is imperfect. "What's different about San Francisco's concussive growth is that it's occurring in an already mature city. That's very rare," says Mr. Siegel.

The transformation here is rooted in leaping real-estate values, with median home prices hovering near $500,000 and office rents in many parts of the city doubling as leases expire. Residential evictions are running at more than 1,000 per year.

The nonprofit Housing Rights Committee, which provides counseling to residential renters, was itself evicted last month.

The upward pressure on rents has come from thousands of New Economy workers pouring into low-income neighborhoods, spiking demand and prices. In hard-hit areas like the Latino Mission District, tacquerias and open-front produce stores now stand incongruously next to trendy restaurants with valet parking.

Of course, the flip side of this transformation is low unemployment, booming job growth, and a city budget surplus.

But these days, even when San Francisco's pro-growth forces talk about prosperity, they do so in the context of how to solve its attendant problems.

Beyond people being priced out of homes - and enterprises out of office space - the city's changing economics is also altering urban ecology more deeply.

San Francisco has been an incubator of liberal thought for decades. This is, after all, the capital of what is known as the nation's "Left Coast."

People flocked to the city to be part of the Beat Generation, the Hippie movement, and more recently, gay-rights activism.