I began writing this post in the Workshop Cafe, which is on Montgomery Street, not far from my hotel is San Francisco. I was looking for a place where it would be comfortable to work late – and this fitted the bill. It’s open until 10pm – which is raising the bar for me, as I’ve been struggling to be lucid past about 8pm since arriving in America, but I wanted to do some writing and begin to lay down some thoughts about today.
At past 8pm people are still sitting outside working on the terrace, the rest of us are huddled at our tables indoors, staring at computer screens. It’s a great place to work in, and one that owes its success no doubt to the flourishing tech industry, which has become so central to the city, changing its culture as a result.
I tried to finish this post on the plane from San Francisco to Los Angeles but didn’t have time, so picked it up on the flight to Las Vegas, after rushing to get the connection, but as it’s only a 50 minute flight, time is tight again. This ability to plug in wherever you are is reflects some of the changes taking place in the way we work that Paul Mason sets such great store by in his book Postcapitalism. The ability to work in on planes, in airports and coffee shops represents a significant economic and cultural shift. I’m undoubtedly attracted to this type of lifestyle that is so evidently shaping San Francisco as places like the Workshop Cafe spring up.
On a cycling tour of San Francisco, our guide, Adam, said that an increasing number of people were being evicted as demand for property grew. A community activist who was passionate about bringing communities together, he described some of the projects he was involved in during the cycle ride and in different places we stopped and explained the importance of public space and the art of managing it. At block parties he organised, he witnessed neighbours who had lived near each other for 30 years finally meet each other. People who had been unsure about the idea of closing the street to traffic said that they wanted to keep it that way once they saw the potential for their community coming together in the space that opened up as a result. We stopped in one leafy, closed street where he told us the benefits of car-free roads on people’s health and relationships, and in a host of other places we stopped so that he could tell us about different periods of time when people had together created social change. In Castro we heard how men and women who were dishonourably discharged from the armed services during the war congregated there and made it synonymous with LBGTQ activism by challenging prejudice. All along Haight we heard about the counter-culture that grew there, culminating in the Summer of Love in 1967, after which the hippies began to move on once others climbed on the bandwagon. In Mission, we stopped by the Women’s Building and looked at the MaestraPeace Mural celebrating the courageous contributions of women through time and around the world.
At Civic Square Adam discussed an article he had read that mentioned Jane Jacobs’ observation in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that “people stayed away” from it “to a remarkable degree” and that it “repelled vitality and gathered around itself instead the blight that typically surrounds these dead and artificial places.”
I spotted a sign that said Twitter Flight, which was actually a conference, but Adam said he hoped it meant the company was leaving, as the tax breaks the company received had made it very unpopular. Walking past the Twitter building later that day, it struck me how The Market, which is on the ground floor is almost a pastiche of the real thing, just as so many coffee chains are. They are so different to the independent spaces, more contrived maybe and, as they are so often frequented by individuals working at their computers, they are far less likely to be places that people come together in constructive ways.
Adam used words like ‘sacred’ to describe public space, which he believes is the building block of people living together. He contrasted the “train wreck” of civic square with Hayes Valley when we returned there at the end of our tour, pointing out how it was surrounded by different types of buildings, including residential, shops and cafes and had a lot of seats.
Just as the design of parks and public spaces in ways that facilitate community use is an art, the same is true of how we build cohesive communities. What is required of us in these spaces? The question of what kind of people we need to be – and if our current culture is shaping people of that ilk – is something that I’ve been thinking about since reading Postcapitalism, in which Mason talks about collectivism and how it was attacked and dismantled by neoliberalism. If as he asserts, it’s the networked people who are going to find a way out of capitalism, then what type of world will they create?
Walking along Valencia, enjoying the sights, the cool cafes and coffee shops, it’s easy to see why what once was a run down area has become a desirable destination among San Francisco’s hipsters.
But what are their values? Are these the king of people Mason expects will take us through to a new post capitalist future and if so, what type of world will it be?
Amid all the buzz of San Francisco, there is another narrative, reflected in the murals, and the signs in windows that backed up Adam’s claim that people were being evicted from their rent protected homes so that owners could raise them. Some would say that’s business – when Adam was talking about the numbers of Chinese people owning property, inflating prices, one member of our group said simply ‘It’s the market’. Following the logic of the market, the hipsters of San Francisco are happy to consume and trade on the name of the city, and its rich heritage, but they aren’t necessarily attuned to its history and values. As we have made a mess of public space, are we losing the art of collective engagement, becoming used to operating as a mass of individuals? If so, how can we relearn the art of working together and what kind of values and behaviour could we be nurturing in the spaces we create?