Consider the croissant — the flaky pastry found in coffee shops, convenience stores and fast-food chains nationwide. But in the 1980s, croissants, baguettes and the French-style bakery chains that sold them were a fresh hot trend. For many San Franciscans, they were a symbol of the ascendance of “yuppies,” young professionals with high-paying jobs and expensive tastes.
San Francisco activist and historian Chris Carlsson moved to the Haight Ashbury in 1978, when it was mostly poor and rundown. But, he says, it didn’t take long for gentrification — or “croissantification,” as some called it at the time — to begin.
“And, soon enough, you had conflicts on the streets of the Haight, between new boutiques and bars that were kind of like chi-chi bars and the old dive bars that had been there,” he says.
Carlsson says the changes affecting many of the city’s working-class enclaves stemmed largely from a commercial office boom happening downtown. From the late 1970s and well through the ’80s, developers worked with Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, to build high-rise offices and condominiums serving white-collar workers.
“And people who had lived in the Haight 10, 15, or 20 years felt like they were losing their neighborhood to these interlopers coming in with all their money,” Carlsson adds.
Longtime activist Calvin Welch was, and still is, one of those frustrated residents. Right now, he’s concerned that the young tech workers moving into the city don’t understand San Francisco’s strong sense of place.
“Cyberspace, for them, is where life is lived,” Welch says.
In San Francisco, Activists Have Fought for Affordable Housing for Decades
Welch has been fighting to control growth and displacement for more than three decades. In 1986, during the office boom, he ran a successful campaign to limit high-rise development and preserve affordable housing.
“What those of us who are concerned about growth control, and go to the ballots with ballot measures, bank on: Everybody who lives here doesn’t want it to change,” Welch says. “They don’t want it to be different from the first day they came.”
He and other activists also had their work cut out for them as economy surged in the 1990s. Dot-com entrepreneurs flooded into San Francisco looking for cheap office space, places to live — not to mention luxuries, such as upscale coffee bars and sushi restaurants. They moved into the former warehouse district south of Market Street and, increasingly, the Mission neighborhood.
A documentary called “Boom: The Sound of Eviction” shows anti-yuppie graffiti scrawled on apartment lofts and offices and numerous street demonstrations against rising housing costs and soaring evictions.
In one scene, a young woman stands on an outdoor stage in the Mission, clutching a small child, and says goodbye to the place she calls her “barrio”.
“We probably won’t be here,” she says, her voice quivering. “But we’ll always come back to make sure that everybody that’s left here can stay, at least.”
In the Boom documentary, Brown argued displacement had an upside.
“People moving into the Mission are replacing Latinos,” Brown admits to the interviewer. But, he says, “Latinos have taken in many cases money from those old rundown structures that they live in, and they’re buying in Daly City or they’re buying a better structure some other place.”
Brown also pointed out that San Francisco neighborhoods have changed hands many times over the years. He said it’s a natural process.
“The Mission was not always Latino,” Brown says. “The Mission, at one time, was Irish.”
By the time the bubble burst, a new generation of activists had earned its stripes on the streets of San Francisco.
Author James Tracy co-founded San Francisco’s Eviction Defense Network and worked with many similar groups. He’s finishing a book about the dot-com period. He says activists had many “small” triumphs.
“Housing organizers in San Francisco have pulled many amazing rabbits out of our hats,” says Tracy. “We’ve stopped evictions, we’ve stopped homelessness from happening. We’ve created much better planning policies than were in place before.”
“So, it’s not like all has been lost,” he adds.
But Tracy says it’s humbling to realize that, after all the sit-ins, trips to jail and meetings with city leaders, San Francisco remains one of the least affordable cities in the U.S. There were no Google buses to block back in 1999, but he says what’s happening now is essentially the same story.
“It is a little bit too familiar,’ Tracy says. “I’m hoping that 10 or 20 years from now, we’re doing a piece on all the great solutions to the housing crisis that San Francisco was able to put forward.”
But activists say it does feel somewhat different this time around. For one thing, the tech companies are larger and more entrenched.
As new residents settle into San Francisco, the changes they bring may be here to stay.
Just like the croissant.