Google and S.F. Gentrification: Joel Kotkin Predicts 'Adult Disneyland' by the Bay

Categories: Environment

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In Part II of our interview with urban historian Joel Kotkin, he predicts San Francisco’s future –- and you may not like it.

By Joe Eskenazi

Yesterday, we reported how preeminent urbanologist Joel Kotkin tabbed San Francisco the city that pioneered gentrification. Today: What comes next.

Like celebrity deaths, Joel Kotkin feels gentrification comes in triplicate.

“I feel like cities sort of have these three phases. One is their sort of crappy or initial state. Then you go to the phrase of early gentrification, but a lot of the original city is still there. Then you go to complete gentrification,” said Kotkin.

Can you guess what phase San Francisco is in?

And the San Francisco of today may be ...

the Portland, Ore., or Seattle of the future: “If you have a really beautiful city attracting people who want to live there, this is going to happen.”

(I guess this is where you should put a joke about Elizabeth, N.J.)

While San Francisco’s dwindling middle class and almost nonexistent working class are on their way out, Kotkin believes others are here to stay.

“A consolidated new affluent class is now ensconced and they’re not going anywhere. Unlike many other cities including New York and Los Angeles, the population of San Francisco has basically stayed the same,” said Kotkin, himself a former Bay Area resident now residing in L.A.

He concedes that the city’s population was much higher during the heights of the dot.com boom, but it has now reached an equilibrium point, at least for the time being.

“The Bay Area had a huge out-migration but San Francisco didn’t have so much. The population is sui generis San Franciscan: For people who live in [nearby cities like] Sunnyvale, moving to Arizona or Oregon is not such a big change. You’re moving from one suburb to another. But San Francisco is unique. People live in San Francisco who can afford to live in San Francisco.”

And in the future, to an even greater degree than now, that’s who San Franciscans will be: Wealthy folks who work in Silicon Valley, young, educated folks with a fair amount of money to burn and the industries that cater to them. “San Francisco has become an urban theme park for Silicon Valley,” says Kotkin bluntly. This is “an adult Disneyland.”

For those of us who worry that San Francisco may give away its soul, Kotkin says not to worry – it’s already happened!

Sure, an influx of more and more rich folks will mean local artists will have more living rooms with which to adorn their work. But, then again, those artists won’t be able to live here.

“L.A. is so clearly the artistic center of California, it’s not even close. I don’t think you can even compare L.A. and San Francisco,” says Kotkin.

And while artists squeezed out of L.A.’s trendy districts can always live in the sticks, that’s not the case in S.F. In a geographic anomaly, its outlying communities are even wealthier and more exclusive.

While becoming an adult Disneyland may not be the future San Francisco envisions for itself, it could be worse. Unlike so many American former urban workhorses, at least San Francisco has a future. As Kotkin put it, “San Francisco is unique. They’re not building new San Franciscos."

And yet, “Allow me as someone who lived there in the past to feel some degree of sadness for the wonderful, low-to-mid-density cosmopolitan, bohemian and eccentric place San Francisco once was -– and is increasingly not.”


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