Empty Center

Corporatization is sucking the life out of our communities, one by one.

Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, by Rebecca Solnit. Photographs by Susan Schwartzenberg. Verso, $27.

I'm still new to Tucson, arriving this summer, a demoralized émigré from the Bay Area. The delineation of those two words is shifting. It used to mean San Francisco and its neighboring cities across the bay (Berkeley and Oakland). Now the insidiousness of Silicon Valley blankets a wider area (including the farm town of Gilroy, the odorous garlic capitol of the world).

Reading Hollow City is an affirmation of how difficult it was to live in the shadow of this high-tech behemoth. I watched as my slow-paced, hippie town of Santa Cruz struggled and failed to fight off its new dot-com status. For seven years (including a year in Oakland commuting to San Francisco, three commuting from Santa Cruz to San Jose, and a final year commuting from the woods near Watsonville up to Santa Cruz), I spent a lot of time in my car trying to live as an artist in an increasingly unlivable place.

Rebecca Solnit's book isn't merely about housing costs and work and our sped-up world. It explores what a sudden economic boom is doing to our memory of a place, lost in the exile of artists, bohemians, activists, organizations and small businesses. This heaving of whole communities by the new technology economy is swift. Aspects of it are happening all over. Just say "sprawl" and Tucsconans' ears perk up as much as those in the Bay Area. San Francisco geeks want a more urban and hip culture. But they want it to be drive-through. How these tire treads--both metaphoric and real--have affected San Francisco (deemed the most European city in the U.S.) is the core of Solnit's book.

Solnit touches on disparate but related topics: gentrification in San Francisco, in Napoleon's Paris, by artists, by redevelopment hacks; architectural lobotomies that disorient rather than displace our memory; rental vacancy rates affected by San Francisco's 20-year lead as the nation's most expensive housing market; the crisis of work and manners amid those who toil unreasonable hours to maintain their luxury (the dot-commers) or barely hold on (the bohemian artists).

She cracks hard at the world of the Internet. Living in the shadow of its birthplace, she says it's a vehicle of organized forgetting of the past before 1993. The alleged civilizing effect of the Internet economy, Solnit explains, is producing instead a cultural die-off. The urgency and selfishness of the new technology accommodates the spatial privatization occurring all around us.

And bohemian life is scattering. Solnit cites that 30 to 40 percent of artists have left the state entirely. The only reason she gets to live in her beloved city is her rent-controlled apartment--a rare dinosaur. But staying is worth nothing, she muses, if her public library remodels shelf space for a café. What does it portend that 60 Starbucks have already replaced history-laden small businesses? Bohemians like her are becoming "relic species"--not yet extinct but living in a habitat so severely compromised that they're due to become so.

Interspersed between her chapters are Susan Schwartenberg's powerful photo essays. Tools for Managing Loyalty includes images of dot-com employee interiors--my favorite is the pool table and sleeping nooks; The Transformation of Yerba Buena looks at the closing of residential hotels and the old men who were evicted in order to build a spiffy garden for workers and tourists; The Last Barricades offers images of the cramped live/work spaces inhabited by San Francisco's desperate artists.

Solnit is an astute observer of her city. But she's also a critic of art and place and it is those two subjects that play heavily in this, her fourth book. She bemoans that we're all at risk of losing bohemia and wonders if, as artists move out of cities and retreat to small towns (Tucson, in my case), will they benefit anyone. Solnit sees places like Jerome or Bisbee as maquiladoras where artist-workers make objects for an economy they can't afford. I wonder how those outbacks could become instead bohemian meccas infused with idea-based art.

Solnit's exaltation of the "triumph of the victim" is another point of contention. I try to step over the "I-had-to-leave-my beloved-city" victim-status. I'm angry, yes, but mostly unwilling to work a full-time day job to pay the rent. So I'm one of those artists that's moved on.

Solnit doesn't offer any concrete solutions to the problems she sees around her. She does highlight several radical insurrections (e.g., The Mission Yuppie Eradication Project) as well as more tame voter propositions as ways to affect the existing gentrification struggles. It may be too late. Solnit suggests looking at the bigger picture instead: We all need to look at curbing the greed, short-sightedness and distribution of power and resources that give rise to these struggles in the first place. Not a bad idea.