Friday, October 24, 2014

Dropbox, Airbnb, and the Fight Over San Francisco’s Public Spaces

Dropbox, Airbnb, and the Fight Over San Francisco’s Public Spaces


On most mornings in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, elderly Asian women practice tai chi under the pollarded sycamore trees. Last Thursday morning, this long-running scene was disrupted by protesters, who gathered on the steps of City Hall to speak out against the privatization of public parks. The plaza was surrounded by barricades and guarded by a group of private security guards. The space had been rented out to Salesforce, the city’s largest tech employer, for the company’s annual Dreamforce Gala and Benefit Concert. As the protesters chanted—“Mission Playground is not for sale!”—a trio of women performed slow, graceful tai-chi movements in the alcove of a staircase, across the street, leading to an underground parking lot.
The protest—which drew at least two hundred people, including several middle- and high-school students who said that their parents and school principals had approved their absence from school—was a response to a video that went viral on Bay Area social media on October 10th. The video, which was first picked up by the local blog Uptown Almanac, jumped to more than half a million views after a post on the blog Valleywag. It depicts an incident that occurred, in August, at the soccer field at Mission Playground, a public park in San Francisco’s historically Latino but increasingly gentrified Mission District.
In the video, a group of adults—mostly white males—approach a dozen or so Latino teen-agers and ask them to forfeit the field. A college student named Kai, who seems to be the leader of the neighborhood kids, explains the pickup rules (seven on seven, no time limit, whoever scores first keeps the field) and asks the men how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood. “Who gives a shit? Who cares about the neighborhood?,” one of the men mutters off-screen.

The men explain that they paid to reserve the field, and a man named Conor arrives with a printed document. “It’s pretty simple, man. We paid twenty-seven dollars to reserve the field for an hour,” Conor says to Kai, holding the piece of paper up to his face. “Read it. Read it.”
“I know how to read,” Kai says. “I’m an educated person. I also know that this field has always been a pickup field where you play seven on seven and wait your turn. You guys think that just because you have money you can buy the field and play.”
Journalists and activists soon identified the men as employees of Dropbox and Airbnb, the company that many residents blame for decreasing available housing and increasing the number of evictions. Residential evictions are inherently domestic affairs carried out in hasty court proceedings or hush-hush buyouts, but the standoff at Mission Playground gave the Latino residents in the area an opportunity to see their children publicly harassed.
Kai, who asked not to be identified by his last name, told me that he and his family have been evicted from their homes in San Francisco twice. The twenty-year-old said that the family lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the Mission District until their eviction, in 2005. They then moved to the Richmond neighborhood and were again evicted, four years later, thanks to California’s notorious Ellis Act. They now live in South of Market, a neighborhood that was once dominated by single-room-occupancy units but is currently the focal point of much of the city’s commercial and residential development.
White men sporting T-shirts with tech-company logos are, in some ways, the perfect avatar of the incoming population that’s transformed the city’s demographics. They are the wealthy, predominantly white tech employees who have been pouring into the formerly working-class immigrant neighborhoods, driving up the cost of housing, and giving the landlords increased incentives to evict longtime tenants from rent-controlled apartments. (Between 1990 and 2011, the Mission District lost fourteen hundred Latino households and gained twenty-nine hundred white ones; during the same period, the black population of the city was cut in half.)
Kai told me that he had heard over the summer that pickup-soccer players were regularly being kicked off the field in the evening by adults who had paid to reserve the field through the city’s Recreation and Park Department. Having grown up playing soccer on that field, Kai decided to try to help the neighborhood kids make a stand for the existing rules. “I’ve also felt kind of exiled from the community, because of my eviction, and I didn’t want to see the same thing happening,” he said.
Nathan, a middle-school student and one of the soccer players who spoke at the rally, compared the tech workers’ actions to a kind of eviction. “When the incident happened at the park, I was mad because they were kicking me out of my second home,” he said. Another one of the soccer players, Hugo Vargas, said, “If I lose the park, I lose my family. I lose my home.”

Jean-Denis Greze, an engineer at Dropbox who was part of the dispute, issued a brief apology on Twitter. Dropbox apologized as a company, stating, “We were disappointed to learn that a couple of our employees weren’t respectful to this community. . . . We’re sorry, and we promise to do better.” Airbnb also released a statement: “We want to apologize for the Airbnb team at the Mission Playground. Enhancing the neighborhoods and the cities we serve is our top priority and these employees didn’t live up to our values. We have reminded everyone on our team that we all have an obligation to uphold our shared values every day, no matter where we are.”
It is a strange phenomenon to see members of an industry that prides itself on the disruptive innovation of flouting regulation line up to apologize for their employees, who, in this instance, followed the rules. (Airbnb recently achieved a major victory in San Francisco with legislation that legalizes its short-term rentals, but it continues to operate outside the law in many cities. Its apology did not come with the estimated twenty-five million dollars that it allegedly owes the city in uncollected hotel taxes.) The city did allow for rentals of the park, for a twenty-seven-dollar fee, just as Conor had stated. The problem was that the two groups were following different sets of rules—one established by tradition and cultural norms, the other by city regulations. The city’s rules favor those with twenty-seven dollars to spare and either a credit card (phone reservations require a Visa or Mastercard) or the ability to go to the department’s office (a lengthy bus ride). The neighborhood’s rules favor those who’ve been around long enough to know how the pickup system works.
But while the tech companies were busy waging P.R. campaigns, the neighborhood youth and their supporters were pointing fingers at a bigger target: the local government and its tech-friendly policies. As Kai put it, “Who is making the policies that are encouraging tech workers to move into communities? And how are those spaces being emptied in the first place?” The Mission Playground was not underutilized (even in the middle of the workday last Thursday, a handful of Latino men were kicking a ball around). Last Thursday, the president of the Recreation and Park Commission, Mark Buell, said, “There is no profit associated with the fees that are charged for permitting. It doesn’t even cover the administrative cost. It’s a way of trying to provide a service to the community.” The question is: Which community is the department interested in serving?
San Francisco’s startup culture has thrived on monetizing commodities that were once free, like public parking spaces and restaurant reservations. It’s no wonder that the parks department wants in on the action. Activists are highly suspicious of the general manager, Phil Ginsburg, who they believe wants to turn the parks department into an enterprise agency—a government institution that generates its own budget (like the airport) by charging for access and services instead of relying on tax dollars. This practice, according to the parks department’s deputy director of public affairs, Connie Chan, is not new. In an e-mail, Chan wrote, “For over 100 years the Department has earned a portion of its operating budget—all of which goes to support programs and services. Our earned revenue constitutes about a third of our operating budget and provides visitors with enhanced park amenities such as bike rentals, food trucks and docent tours.”
Still, to several of the city’s residents, some of the parks department’s new programs feel like a betrayal. Dozens of residents spoke to the park commission last Thursday morning, almost all pleading with department officials to stop the privatization of public spaces.
According to the young men in the video (none of the adult tech workers have responded to requests for comment), after the camera was turned off, the groups agreed to divide the field and play separately, each on its own half. Now, thanks to the outrage engendered by the video, pickup rules will continue to prevail at Mission Playground—at least for now. Ginsburg met with some of the youth from the video the day before the protest and agreed to halt the evening rentals.
It’s a victory for the Mission’s remaining Latino community, but there’s no guarantee that the privatization of San Francisco’s other public parks and facilities won’t continue apace. The city may be willing to forgo the twenty-seven-dollar fee for one soccer field, but it’s hard to imagine the city giving up the money that it could earn from renting out Civic Center Plaza to corporations such as Salesforce. There seems to be no real resolution in sight, and, every time something similar to what happened at the Mission Playground occurs, it’s certain to polarize the city further. “It’s a literal interpretation of what our city is facing right now,” Edwin Lindo, a leader of the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club, said, at last Thursday’s rally. “Someone coming with a piece of paper who says you have to leave.”
Editor's Note:
This pretty much sums up the current attitude of our governments. "We own the property and request payment for its use". Wait until they institute VMT (vehicle mileage tax) to have "permission" to go down our public roads that have been paid for the taxpayers several times over through gas taxes. Suddenly we are back in the times of King George where the "king" owns everything. Steve Kinsey, Marin County Supervisor District 4 and MTC commissioner is advocating VMTs as a way to pay for all the development along 101.

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