Chattering Class

Alexandra Pelosi on ‘Tech Bros’ and San Francisco’s Changing Landscape

In her new HBO Documentary, "San Francisco 2.0," the journalist examines how the counterculture capital of the world has changed since the tech boom of the 2000s.

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Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Wonderwall)

Gentrification is happening in cities all over America. But the most drastic example is, arguably, in the city of San Francisco.

Journalist Alexandra Pelosi was born and raised in the city by the Bay. Her mother, Nancy Pelosi, represents part of the city in Congress. And in Alexandra’s new documentary, called “San Francisco 2.0,” she examines what’s happening in her rapidly changing hometown.

The film debuts on September 28 at 9PM on HBO. Alexandra put in context for us what has changed the Bay Area.

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Alexandra Pelosi: Everybody knows about Silicon Valley. That’s this place where all the young techies are going because there’s this digital gold rush going on, where all the jobs in America have gone to the west coast.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Uber, Facebook, Google, Apple, LinkedIn, etcetera.

Alexandra Pelosi: The future of America is coming out of California right now. So, if you’re getting out of college and you want a job, you go to San Francisco.

San Francisco is a town — it’s my hometown — with a great tradition of being this counterculture capital. There’s a lot of great art and music and culture that has come out of San Francisco. And San Francisco has a history of being welcoming to all the– you know, hippies, gays, anyone who is “other” has always been welcome in San Francisco.

It’s like, the greatest place on earth, right? However, it’s a little small. It’s a little too small.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Seven by seven [miles], right?

Alexandra Pelosi: Literally, there is not enough space. So, what you have, though, is you have these newly-minted millionaires, who are selling their apps, and they’re buying up all the real estate.

So, they’re pushing out the middle class. And schoolteachers and cops and middle class families who have lived in San Francisco for generations are now being evicted and pushed out, into the outer boroughs. And so, there’s a little bit of a class warfare going on.

Brendan Francis Newnam: In the documentary, you explain that these companies were in Silicon Valley, but the people they were hiring wanted to live in San Francisco.

Alexandra Pelosi: That’s where all the interesting people are.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So they started busing them. And then a mayor, Ed Lee, was elected, and he set up tax incentives for these companies to build in San Francisco, come to San Francisco. And the only part that was available — or the easiest part to build in — was the Tenderloin, which is this neighborhood you’re speaking of, this kind of downtrodden, bohemian neighborhood.

Alexandra Pelosi: Traditionally, mental institutions used to just dump their patients there. Drug addicts, homeless… San Francisco has long enjoyed this reputation of being a mecca for homeless people. We’re really good to homeless people. We have no rules. You can sleep on the sidewalk.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Alexandra Pelosi: So, when you have all this tax revenue coming in from all these new “tech bros” that are moving in, it is revitalizing the city. You can’t deny the benefits that the techies are bringing to the city because they’re cleaning up this shithole of a neighborhood, right? So, that’s good!

Brendan Francis Newnam: And unemployment has dropped radically in the past three years, right?

Alexandra Pelosi: Right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: From 12 percent to 5 percent or something like that.

Alexandra Pelosi: So, it’s great. However… there’s a very dark side to all of this because there really aren’t that many grownups taking care of everybody else. You know, you need grownups to say, “OK, well, we don’t have enough affordable housing. Where are we going to put, you know, the people that can’t afford this new-and-improved San Francisco?”

Photo courtesy of HBO
Photo courtesy of HBO

Brendan Francis Newnam: You keep mentioning the “tech bro.” Talk about, for people that haven’t heard that phrase before, what is his habitat? What are his likes and dislikes? What is “tech bro” culture?

Alexandra Pelosi: You know, he’s sort of in his 20s, he’s fresh out of school or he just dropped out of school to move to San Francisco to make his fortune. And the challenge with getting a town full of all of those “tech bros” is that they are using San Francisco as their playground. They’ve come to San Francisco to make their fortune. I call it their “Midnight in Paris” moment. You know, they’re out all night, and they are enjoying the fine city. And the “tech bro,” he has no perspective about the history of the town he’s colonizing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You sound like a townie who’s upset that the college kids come in in the Fall semester, and everything was great until they came. But meanwhile, they’re the people that are providing the jobs and keeping your…

Alexandra Pelosi: This is totally on point. My uncle was the mayor of Baltimore. When I tried telling my uncle about this, he said, “Every city would die to have these problems!”

Photo courtesy of HBO
Photo courtesy of HBO

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Alexandra Pelosi: Sort of what you’re saying to me, “You’re a townie.” And a lot of towns in America are dying, so we should be grateful that they’re doing something in California, because a lot of our economy is coming from — you know, is built around what’s happening in California.

So, it is true that you’ve got to talk about this. It’s a little bit like #whitepeopleproblems. I told my best friend in New York about this, and he goes, “Oh, they’re tearing down the Banana Republic!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: But it’s not “white people problems” because most of the people you interview aren’t white people, actually. They’re Latino and they’re African-American, and they’re the people who are in the neighborhoods being pushed out. The “white people problem” is going to be that there are only white people left.

Alexandra Pelosi: Yeah, right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your family does have a long tradition in public service. Your mother’s the minority House of Representatives Leader. You interview Jerry Brown, you interview Gavin Newsom, really smart, progressive people who care and want this to stay a diverse place. And yet, they haven’t succeeded. So, what hope do we have?

Alexandra Pelosi: Oh, God.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really, it’s not like you just are…

Alexandra Pelosi: You’re looking for me to give you hope?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, I’m saying you sit at the dinner table with people who have power and believe in the ability to enact change. And yet…

Alexandra Pelosi: Well, I have faith in politicians. Most people don’t. Most people hate politicians. These are the people that are going to have to come up with the solutions. But people, humans, your listeners, need to actually participate in this conversation because they need to decide what kind of world they want to live in.

I think there should be rules, and those rules– we need to get the tech companies to follow those rules. San Francisco right now, it’s a little bit like the Wild West. There are no rules. You have Uber and all these car sharing services. You want to be a cab driver? You have to get a medallion. You know, your whole family saves up so you can get a medallion so you’re allowed to drive a cab, but Uber is just throwing all the rules to the wind, right? That stuff’s going on the ballot in San Francisco. People have to actually say, “I think the rules should be…”

Now, this is just me. There are going to be people that are Libertarian that say, “We don’t want any rules, and we don’t want any taxes.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, yeah.

Alexandra Pelosi: That’s fine, too. But then you have to show up and voice your opinion, and then we make the rules.