1980 Aug 24
By Katy Butler
SAN FRANCISCO- WHEN I moved here in 1972, the faded Victorian mansions of Haight–Ashbury stood amid the ruins of the counterculture. Amphetamine addicts chattered in front of barded storefronts in the Haight Street fog; blacks and the hippies who remained lived in cheap, high –ceilinged rooms nearby.
Today, those “silver rush” Victorians, newly painted, sell for over $200,000. A black barber has been evicted from Haight Street to make way for a greeting-card store, and windows nearby display antiques, croissants, silk shirts, boots and flowers to a richer clientele. The remaining panhandlers offer a moment of ‘80’s déjà vu.
Like other neighborhoods in San Francisco and across the country, Haight Ashbury is “gentrifying”. Young, mostly single professionals who grew up in the suburbs have returned to the neighborhoods that their grandparents abandoned.
It’s hard to walk more than a mile anywhere in San Francisco without finding cappuccino. Rising rents have forced blacks from the Haight, Latinos from the Mission, and artists from North Beach.
“By 1984, poor people just won’t be able to live in San Francisco”, a worried black grandmother told me shortly after she was priced out of her Haight-Ashbury apartment and forced to move to a shabby industrial district. “But where are we going to go? That’s the $64,000 question”.
A couple of days later, I got one answer.
“Why the hell should this gem of a city be given over to welfare blacks?” asked a landlord who had evicted 20 black families from a single upgrading block. “Put them in Idaho, or at least Oakland”.
People are being displaced from neighborhoods of Manhattan, Washington D.C., Seattle, Denver, Detroit, Houston and at least 39 other cities pinpointed by a worried National Urban Coalition.
One family evicts another to renovate a Brooklyn brownstone. An entire hotel on New York’s changing Upper West side is cleaned out to make way for luxury apartments. The cumulative loss of homes affects entire neighborhoods.
Blacks have been forced from huge swaths of Capitol Hill and Adams –Morgan in Washington, where city planners predict that 60,000 households, mostly black and poor, could be displaced within four years.
Unemployment does not disappear when a neighborhood is “revitalized” and the poor move out. Washington’s poor, and it’s “urban crisis”, are merely moving across the border to Prince George’s County, Md.
Far Rockaway in Long Island, N.Y., has been hit by falling property values and the insurance-motivated arson that accompanies it, as the poor, driven from Manhattan’s core, move in. In other less-affluent suburbs, the Klu Klux Klan and racial incidents are on the rise.
We who are moving into the former ghettos re the products of factors as diverse as the unfathomable changes in the human heart and the price of labor in Korea. We have voluntarily forgone the raising of children; we shun the family oriented suburbs in favor of companionable but anonymous urban streets. We don’t need to worry about schools and the safety of children, and we’re being drawn back to the city.
Most of us are part of that quarter of the country’s households now living alone or with an unrelated friend, a group that has grown by 66% since 1970. We are some of the one half of all women between 20 and 24 who have never married, a group 66% larger than it was in 1960. Married and single, we are planning for fewer children than ever before, especially those of us with higher levels of education.
This huge demographic wrinkle that is renovating city neighborhoods is employed, directly or indirectly, by the new skyscrapers that have replaced urban factories across the country.
Between 1970 and 1978, the financial backbone of many old neighborhoods disappeared. According to economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, 15 million blue-collar jobs were lost to plant closings; steel manufacturing and car building fell behind Japanese competition; heavy industries followed shoe making, textiles, and television assembly to cheaper labor in Asia and Latin America.
In San Francisco, 12,000 manufacturing jobs—a fifth of the toal—disappeared in the decade following 1962. In the same decade, 26 million square feet of office space was constructed, offering jobs to the lawyers, secretaries and computer programmers who are moving to the new neighborhoods.
Planners who have studied gentrification’s lfie cycle say that urban pioneers come first to neighborhoods devastated by landlord neglect, bank redlining and disinvestment. They wire, plumb and paint decaying bargain-priced mansions and town houses. They are often attracted to, or at least tolerant of urban diversity, but on their heels come the less adventurous who hope that their neighbors will soon all look like them.
Rents soon rise, speculators buy houses and apartments for resale, and almost everyone but the well-paid or the single is priced out. Middle class people face the difficult choice of evicting the poor or remaining vulnerable to higher rents themselves.
We, the gentrifies, adrift from the towns of our childhoods, create neighborhoods with a character all their own.
Sports such as jogging are solitary, and our breakfast places and cappuccino cafes, designed for the single, allow us to be around people without talking to them. Ten-speed bicycles and their grown up toys move through the childless streets.
Distant from friends and relations of other generations, we have made a commodity of the past, fetishistically adoring the Victorian, the brownstone, the carved mantel and the cobblestone street. There’s bought nostalgia for every income level, from $200,000 antique houses to $50 sets of bulbous 1950s kitchenware, full of the dreams of mothers’ kitchens from the days when families were whole.
Instead of baby shoes, we buy endless fresh flowers, whole roasted coffee beans, croissants, imported wines and cheeses once reserved for the truly rich. But the price tag of these little luxuries may be higher than we think.
Our precious urban neighborhoods are well on the way to becoming as homogeneous as the suburbs we fled.
©1980 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.