Two nights ago I attended a presentation at Mission Dolores Church sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle called “A Changing Mission”. The discussion was based on a newspaper article and associated short film about the neighborhood. It’s well worth a quick look here.
Next week I’ll be in Lancaster, California to attend a similar meeting sponsored by the local city planning authority and the Strong Towns organization here. Lancaster is also changing, but in a different way than the Mission.
If I were to boil down the two situations into crude cartoon blurbs they might go something like this. “The Mission is being overrun with rich white people who are screwing up the place.” And “Lancaster is being overrun with poor brown people who are screwing up the place.” Like I said… crude. Obviously the reality is far more nuanced and complicated than that. But that’s pretty much the gist of things. Gentrification and economic decline are two sides of the same coin and a lot of folks don’t like any of it. The irony is both sides seem to want the same things even if they don’t know it.
There’s a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1958 film “Vertigo” where James Stewart mentions an appointment he has with a shady character in the Mission. Kim Novak looks concerned and comments, “That’s Skid Row”. That always gets a laugh from San Franciscans in the audience at the revival theaters. Many people who don’t know San Francisco well assume it’s all tourist spots, internet millionaires, and gay bars. If you walk around the Mission you’ll quickly discover a neighborhood full of families with young children, elderly pensioners, and lots of small mom and pop shops. Until the 1950’s the Mission was a working class neighborhood dominated by German, Irish, Italian, and Greek stock. After World War II white flight to the suburbs left behind a great deal of inexpensive real estate that was eventually filled by Central American and Asian immigrants, as well as various bohemian types. The neighborhood and its low wage workers were quietly ignored by city authorities as well as the more prosperous residents in more fashionable neighborhoods. This was a part of the city no one ever saw on a postcard.
The Mission deteriorated and served as a repository for the low rent light industrial activities that every city needs but are generally kept out of pricier neighborhoods: auto body shops, carpentry shops, iron and steel fabricators, glass cutting shops, upholsters, discount fabric warehouses, plumbing and electrical supply companies… But it was also the perfect place for nightclubs and after hours establishments since there were no hostile neighbors to complain. The Mission was noisy and ugly, but it was that unseemly quality along with the cheap rent that made it possible for a lot of people to scrape by while pursuing other activities that didn’t necessarily pay well. It’s no coincidence the Burning Man and other such movements emerged from the Mission rather than exclusive Pacific Heights or Sea Cliff. You might have to tolerate the occasional drug dealer or prostitute, but there was no HOA regulating your every move. The Mission was all about slack and that’s what made it interesting and vibrant, if a bit rough around the edges.
As the tech economy out in the distant suburbs heated up over the last twenty years more and more of the smart young IT professionals chose not to live in the dull suburban cul-de-sacs of Silicon Valley. They were looking for a grittier more dynamic environment and found it in the Mission. Tech workers endured a lengthy reverse commute in order to achieve a higher quality of life in their off hours at home in the city. In order to attract talent tech companies in the suburbs created the private so-called “Google Bus” system to shuttle workers from the Mission to corporate campuses an hour and a half outside the city. Tech workers had unlimited budgets compared to the existing Guatemalans, Vietnamese, and artists. Rents and property values rose considerably year after year. Today a one bedroom apartment in the Mission typically rents for $3,800 a month – if you can find a vacancy. If you want to buy that same place it will set you back well north of $850,000 and there is precious little on the market to satisfy the endless demand. If you want a single family home with a little patch of back yard you can buy the ruined shell of an old Victorian for a couple of million dollars and then spend at least as much to renovate it. Evictions and property conversions have skyrocketed. Bodegas and pho noodle shops are being replaced by boutiques and fine dining establishments. Hence all the fuss about gentrification driving out the working class. For the city’s coffers it’s a nice problem to have. The city is flush and is on a prolonged capital improvement spree that is transforming the local infrastructure and public spaces from parks, to school buildings, to libraries, to fire and police stations. Everything is getting a massive face lift and city workers have all been given substantial raises. But for the displaced residents it often means leaving the city altogether.
Now let’s get back to Lancaster which is in the Antelope Valley of far eastern Los Angeles County in southern California. Lancaster was a small agricultural community until in was discovered by the aerospace industry in the 1950’s. The high desert location not too far from Los Angeles made it the perfect place to develop and test rockets, fighter jets, and ultimately the Space Shuttle and Stealth Bomber. Along the way it attracted people from the city who were looking for a more relaxed environment at a lower price point. The area sprouted endless white middle class subdivisions and accompanying shopping centers. For most residents work and culture remained “Down Below” in Los Angeles proper. That became increasingly true as the aerospace industry ramped down and was phased out. What remained of the local economy was based primarily in building and servicing more suburban development.
The entire Antelope Valley, including Lancaster, was hit especially hard by the crash of 2008. Homes lost half their value overnight. Foreclosure and unemployment rates shot way up just as tax revenues plummeted and city services were cut. What was once a solidly middle class community became economically insecure and especially sensitive to further downward mobility – real or perceived. Both private developers and the City of Lancaster worked hard to deliver a better more up-to-date “product” incorporating the latest bells and whistles to jump start the resumption of growth after the crash. New homes boasted renewable energy packages and gray water recycling systems. The city began installing bicycle lanes. LEED certified office parks were promoted. And Lancaster’s economic development plan included inducements to battery and electric bus manufacturers for the growing market for clean energy and transportation. So far these measures have been too little too late. The solar and wind farms are great for generating clean power, but they don’t employ very many locals. New homes aren’t selling well and profit margins are down to a couple of thousand dollars per home which just isn’t enough to keep developers interested in building any more. The market for far flung exurban living has simply dried up. The bike paths that are all the rage in reviving city centers are effectively useless out in the distant sprawl. It isn’t the paths that are attracting prosperous new residents – it’s the urbanism the paths encounter along the way. Putting green lipstick on a sick pig hasn’t helped.
While Lancaster has concentrated most of its efforts on inducing new construction it has ignored its older building stock. Each new home and commercial complex built out on the edge of town only cheapens the older existing suburban fabric. There’s no economic justification for buying, maintaining, or improving a fifty year old home or thirty year old strip mall when brand new homes and shops sit unsold and half vacant. Unfortunately for old timers in Lancaster all that cheap property has proven very appealing to many of the lower income residents from down below in Los Angeles who are rapidly being displaced. Like the Mission in San Francisco many previously impoverished neighborhoods in central Los Angeles are experiencing serious gentrification and all those poor folks who are getting squeezed out have to move and live somewhere else. The last several years have been a perfect storm delivering a massive wave of new arrivals to Lancaster who are not only poorer than the existing population, but overwhelmingly black and brown. This has set off alarm bells with the already stressed locals with vocal demands for government policies to prevent “Them” from moving in. (I’ll refrain from commenting on the whole race thing here. It is what it is.) In the end these are powerful market forces that the city has very little control over. For those people who are financially able their first choice is to sell and move. For those who are trapped in a home that is worth less than they owe the choice is to tough it out and hope for a market rebound or to walk away and take a big loss.
So there you have it. Gentrification in one community and economic decline in another. These are two sides of the same coin. In the end I suspect the freakish bubble in places like San Francisco will eventually cool while the decline in outer suburbs like Lancaster will level off and stabilize. In the meantime it’s all pretty bumpy for the folks caught in the middle.