‘Envy Chains’ and Aspirational Real Estate

Living part-time in the Bay Area as I do, I occupy a strange personal, class, and social space. I love the Bay Area deeply and enjoy my time there, but at the same time, I am one of the people contributing to the radical social and class shifts in the region, and, at times, one of the people contributing to its ongoing gentrification and the difficulty ordinary residents have when it comes to finding homes. At the same time, though, I’m also caught up in the same chain of gentrification, which makes my own life as a part-time resident difficult and sometimes extremely frustrating.

The Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular, is undergoing paroxysms right now as it goes through yet another social, political, and class shift. The tech bubble is back, and it’s bringing a whole lot of money into the heart of the city, driving real estate prices up beyond the stratosphere, even in neighbourhoods once considered pretty marginal. This is gentrification: welcome to a city where people who have been living in the same homes and communities for generations are being squeezed out by tech money, by hipsters, by trust fund babies, by people with the money and clout to steamroller communities and establish their own neighbourhoods.

Which they then identify as ‘hip’ and ‘fun’ and ‘authentic,’ discussing how much they looooooove the ‘character’ of the communities they’ve built heedlessly on the bones of their former residents. San Francisco’s growing food scene, which I love, comes at a bitter cost to many residents, every bit as much as the growing art scene and the slow but steady push towards something resembling night life — one of my East Bay friends likes to say that San Francisco is desperately trying to become New York, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. San Francisco is desperately trying to become something, though, and it doesn’t care who suffers in the process.

Most of my time in the Bay Area is spent in the East Bay, which is what I can afford (and also what I love, for though I do love many things about San Francisco, the East Bay is my heart). The East Bay was once viewed as the place where refugees from the city fled, where people stood a fighting chance of finding affordable real estate and building careers for themselves (ignoring, of course, the region’s large, lively, and diverse population). Now, though, it’s starting to suffer from the same problems the city is. People with money have started to sniff the possibilities in Oakland, which has suddenly become a hip place to live at the expense of historic residents, and the always expensive Berkeley has become more so. People are being driven further and further out of their own communities by gentrification across the East Bay, and it’s troubling and distressing to watch; even as I too am going to food truck events and Art Murmur and all the other hipstery things that are changing the shape and character of the East Bay.

There is a form of aspirational living in the Bay Area, for all that people like to claim that we’re laid back and environmentally conscious and less obsessed with material things; case in point is this simultaneously fascinating and disturbing feature in the New York Times on house envy, featuring an array of Bay Area homes and their owners, who talk about which homes they envy and move through what the author terms an ‘envy chain.’ These are not the simple, rustic, homey homes that some of the interviewees seem to think they are: they are homes that ooze money, privilege, and power. These are homes that would be extremely expensive, far beyond the reach of most residents, and they are absolutely the kind of homes that signify the shifting nature of the Bay Area — and I say this even as I feel a twinge of envy for some of them, and think of how nice it would be to own one.

Class war is alive and well in the Bay Area, and it is growing more and more intense. People can try to ignore it, but they do so at their own peril, because many regions are coming close to the boiling point. What people dismiss as isolated community issues are not, in fact, isolated at all, but symptoms of a much larger unrest and a growing fury. As I watch the map of gentrification march across the landscape, I see a dark ripple following it; as my friends talk about muggings in Oakland and crime by Ashby BART, I see not just a gulf between haves and have-nots, but also, rage. Understandable, undeniable, articulated rage.

Maybe the man who tried to yank something out of a friend’s friend’s pannier while she was cycling up Stanford was just trying to steal something, but he wasn’t working in isolation. He was part of a much larger picture, an angrier, frustrated picture, one where wealthy and middle class while people are slowly choking the life out of communities like his, moving in and settling down and then putting out their tentacles everywhere we can reach. We silence what we deem unclean and unpleasant and replace it with a more palatable shadow (down with the hole in the wall taco place unless it’s sufficiently cute, replace it with a hip cupcake bakery), we demand to know why our new neighbourhoods don’t cater to our needs, we roil in fury when our social position is challenged by people want to question whether it’s really necessary for us to eat everything, kudzu-like, in our path.

At the same time that we claim to looooove the Bay Area and want to celebrate its heritage, we are eating it alive and repurposing it to fit the boundaries of our own world and imaginations. And yet, we wonder why class rage is simmering across the region?

Image: Golden Gate Bridge at Night, Dave Schumaker, Flickr.