Urban: A Word Losing Its Meaning

Urban.

It is a word that has been bothering me lately, not because of what it means, but by the way it has been co-opted by the conquering suburbanites. Yes, we are all suburban now. Trouble is, the last ones to realize it will be those conquering suburbanites, who will only have each other to make fake gangsta signs to when the last bohemian and minority San Franciscans are kicked out.

Richard Florida,who has championed the term “Creative Class” for the millennials, as only a proud dad who watches his kids manipulate the “dang computer so well” could. According to Florida, this group has rediscovered the city and craves walkable neighborhoods and dense living. They are improving it, or, suburbanizing it.

Gee Mr. Florida, most of the cities this creative group has “rediscovered” had rental vacancy rates near zero to begin with. Meaning, people have been living in cities for a long time, just not the type of people the “creative class” were raised among. Causing housing prices to soar in once affordable neighborhoods. Did a member of the “creative class” just get hit jaywalking while looking at Tinder? Don’t get me started…

Most of the movement of millennials into the cities has been spurned by misguided growth policies all over the United States. The suburbanization movement hit a major snag as the sprawl just moved too far away. There are means to move even farther from the city core, but Not In My Back Yard (NIMBYism) quashed most of these means. Once the suburban home was built, the new homeowners quickly joined the movements to make sure no one else could build, preserving property values, and just pushing people farther out. To where there are less freeways and even less transit options.This was never sustainable.

In reality, I have only lived in suburbia once, and the people I live amongst didn’t consider themselves to be suburbanites. It was living in Marin County, a beautiful county that starts on the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. In their minds, they were preserving their small towns.

The reason I was there in the first place was a San Francisco eviction. My landlords decided to “move in” to the house we were renting during the first dot-com era, and all of us scrambled to find affordable housing. After struggling to find a place in SF for almost two years, I ended up in a room off a garage in Fairfax that smelled like paint. In some ways, I looked forward to living somewhere new. But I did learn that I belonged in the city.

However, I found the experience illuminating. The way people lived, and how they thought they lived, was is such confused juxtaposition that I laughed. One candidate for town council billed himself as “pro-family, anti-growth”. Don’t try to ask where his kids will live with this strategy. Most lived over 50 miles further out. The younger ones however, lived in San Francisco. I know because while biking home at night on the weekends, I noticed the driveways of the homes were filled with cars sporting SF parking permits on the bumpers. They seemed to return to the womb to get laundry done and pick up food I guess. And the public transit they were so high on didn’t refer to busses in Marin. But I digress.

What I noticed was the reliance on the car for transportation while assuring themselves that expanded freeways were not needed to allow this lifestyle to continue. Fairfax was a beautiful small town, but vibrant is was not. So much of the retail district was almost low rent. The reason? Lack of parking and retail prices. I sold lottery tickets in a downtown store. A major component of our clientele only bought lottery tickets, which I guarantee is not a huge money-maker. They would brag about how they had preserved Fairfax and Marin from development, and kept the chains out. As they reached into their wallets though, the receipts would fall out. Where were these from? Trader Joe’s, Macy’s, Safeway, Costco, etc. The stores where they really shopped.

One observation I made right away was this reliance on the shopping mall. These malls or districts were all over, but mostly right next to Route 101, the only true highway in Marin. Marin could use multiple freeways, but the locals had blocked them in the name of preservation only to assure  the type of traffic sprawl on local roads a person living in LA would find unbearable. By the way, the local transit system is mostly empty during the day. I used it and found it remarkably good. But most high school kids had never been on it in their lives.

My joke about Marin to new visitors is to concentrate on the retail stores lining Rte 101as your friend is bragging about the so-called preservation of Marin. Truth is, you are on your way to the hills, to where Marin dreams of itself. In reality, 101 is what Marin is. A bedroom community of suburbanites whose reliance on cars and conveniences needed for this reality. It is far from small town living. But they will get home and immediately discard the Armani suit and don the tie died tee-shirt and sandals.

Which brings me back to my original thought. The absolute mess of the suburban  model and NIMBYism. These suburbs that ring the cities in the Bay Area are all no growth zones, and also have voted down all transit issues presented to them. Silicon Valley, the famous tech center, builds practically no housing, while adding jobs and services all the time. BART, the Bay Area’s regional rail commuter system was kept out of Marin, that community known for environmentalism and SUVs.

So what do you do when you run out of land? The nightmare stories I hear about spending multiple hours in the car in sprawl to find a place to live in the Bay Area are horrifying. People are living two hours from SF commuting on roads not suited to this traffic, because the inner suburbs voted these down. NIMBYism. The only true option is the cities.

I have lived in the Bay Area for 27 years now and can attest I do not like it overall. But I live in SF and love the lifestyle in the city, or really, the old lifestyle. Biking, transit, shopping local etc. In reality, this is all changing as the suburbanites “discover” urban living. The way we read about transit and millennials? Puh-lease. The busses are empty at night, cars are crammed in every nook and cranny of the city. The most desirable neighborhoods in the city offer quick access to the freeway, like the Mission. As a matter of fact, along with the special busses shuttling techies to six-figure careers are expensive sports cars crammed on the freeways commuting to Silicon Valley. And let’s not forget the service workers who drive late-model cars commuting from even farther away. Why? Rapid transit (see the term rapid) is nonexistent. And  Silicon Valley has little affordable housing. The reverse commute to the suburbs is in full flight. It is easier to drive to the suburbs out of San Francisco at night than to drive back from them.

Multiple problems fuel this in San Francisco. One is Proposition 13 that limits property taxes in San Francisco. Home owners have no incentive to keep property prices down. Rent control fuels this as well. Renters are protected from rental spikes, so homeowners and renters find themselves limiting local growth. Also, there is little incentive to move in this system. Buying a new house or moving only brings a huge expense, even if it means accepting a long commute. In no way does it help foster the type of development needed in the Bay Area as a whole. It just accelerates a housing shortage, air pollution and sprawl.

But building housing has drawbacks as well. The housing shortage has created little land barons, landlords that bought property years ago, and fund extravagant lifestyles on this wealth. Also, those buying into property right now could be devastated during a “market correction”. So even an attempt to pop the bubble would have major significance. The fact that I should have bought one apartment building with the money I spent educating myself says it all.

The Bay Area is now experiencing a huge economic boom. These workers and immigrants need places to live. We do not build them. Our kids need places to live. We do not build them, as we ridicule them for living in their parents’ basement. The only huge developments are happening within our cities. They are not affordable developments. And figuring out legal ways around rent control.

San Francisco has weak rent control. There are simple ways around it. One easy way is to sell rental housing to those looking to own residential property. These are called Owner Move-In (OMI) evictions, and they are devastating to those evicted. It is the equivalent to throwing someone on the street in SF. An apartment eviction is really an eviction from the city to the suburbs. That ex-tenant was most-likely using the city’s transit and local shops, not Amazon and the mall on the way home from the suburbs.

One noticeable trend is the closing of local businesses that used to thrive. Small corner stores, electronics shops, and local restaurants. When the new shop that displaced the closed shop moves in? The term “Urban” appears. The small liquor store becomes Urban Wine Shop. The closed diner becomes Urban Spoon. The electronics store becomes Urban Electronics. The local pub becomes Urban Brewery.And so on. Trust me, the owners were probably not raised in a city. All with prices the old-time residents can’t afford.

Why? So the newly urban can distinguish themselves from their birthplace, to be different while simultaneously chasing the same American Dream.  But to also maintain the suburban standards, and to isolate themselves from the rest of us. To wear the Urban fashion (see Urban Outfitters, a favorite in mall complexes) and show they have arrived. Although in reality, the city has been here the whole time. We long-time residents just never needed the medal on our chest. That “U” was almost a scarlet letter. The city is where the suburbs exported and kept their riffraff for years. Imagine the horror when we show up in the suburbs that shunned us. Demanding they change their ways. They’ll wish they had built that housing for their kids and service workers then.

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