In SF, tech crumbled the American dream — LA can do better

In the summer of 2018, parts of San Francisco’s public utilities turned gold. Manhole covers, drainpipes and gas line covers were gilded in protest by a pair of street artists, Erick Schmitt and Nick Bushman, and quickly became an obvious metaphor that  “the San Francisco Bay Area has become an enclave unattainable to all but the most privileged.”

In his 1990 book, City of Quartz, Mike Davis envisioned another enclave of exclusion and elitism: Fortress LA. With San Francisco gold-plated, who’s to say Los Angeles is far behind?

As someone in the tech industry now based in LA, I am acutely aware that my field is seen as part of the problem. When we set up shop, we quickly realized that we must keep our community top of mind. We’ve all got to learn the lessons of gold-plated San Francisco.

The most important differentiation for tech companies to make is that gentrification doesn’t necessarily mean revitalization. The difference is evident in some of LA’s quickly changing neighborhoods and has invoked fierce reactions. Anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights and downtown have succeeded in their efforts to close at least one art gallery. They’ve picketed businesses like Weird Wave Coffee. Detergent attacks during gallery openings, anti-gentrification graffiti and harassment via social media have put owners on edge.

Activists have a point. Local communities don’t often see the benefits of gentrification that newer, more privileged people do in those hip new wine shops. Too often, they’re taking the place of family businesses or driving up the cost of living beyond the point where locals can compete. What’s more, families displaced by rising costs of living are at a much higher risk of becoming homeless.

Research shows that homelessness in LA has risen by a staggering 75% since 2012, with elderly people and single-parent households most affected. The majority of this displacement is attributed directly to the surge in rental prices brought on by gentrification.

Los Angeles doesn’t need to become another San Francisco.

As opposed to gentrification, revitalization is a collaborative effort, where the city’s urban planning department, existing community members and business owners (incoming and long-standing) decide on improvements that can create more equitable change for all involved.

In 1994, author John Elkington proposed something called a “triple bottom line.” Corporations, he said, should add a second and third key performance indicator of success: their people and their impact on the environment. I agree.

Initiatives that begin in the brains of company boards or directors intended for the communities they inhabit often miss a crucial partner — the communities themselves. Businesses can be positive for a community; make sure to do it responsibly.

High-level community engagement

Businesses should work with communities to execute a project that will have a direct impact on their lives. Instead of coming to the community with a solution, engage the community to help ideate and problem solve together. Smaller commitments that can be sustained over the long term have more impact than grand gestures that disappear within a few months.

In the words of Gina Belafonte, co-director of Sankofa, the social justice organization based in New York and LA, “The process in which it’s executed is the problem. They don’t look to the community for the solution. They try to just bring up solutions to the community. You need to give them not just buy-in but the feeling that, ‘This is our park, this is not a park that was brought here for us. We designed this park, we were part of the team to work with the architects to design that building.’ ”

Employee engagement and education

A brand’s strongest ambassadors are the people who work for it. Many will be living in the neighborhoods struggling with changes. Incentivizing employees to get involved in community work or working with local schools can be a way of counteracting criticism.

We’ve all got to learn the lessons of gold-plated San Francisco.

One of the clearest opportunities, especially for tech companies moving into areas with low levels of science, tech, engineering and math levels (STEM), is in education where it’s badly lacking in public schools. The advantage here is twofold: the investment is designed to grow the talent pool from which your company can only benefit, and the positive impact is obvious to the community in the short and long term.

There are other opportunities for engagement: coding classes for public school students, scholarship opportunities for state and community college students and training programs for those interested in switching careers. Helping existing community members train for the kinds of jobs your company offers will allow locals to bridge the income gap so central to the destruction of existing communities.

Cultural preservation

Finally, one of the thorniest issues is gentrification’s role in disrupting local culture. The makeup of a place naturally changes when newer, more affluent residents move in, and, unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to this.

What’s at stake isn’t necessarily the loss of the community but the successful meshing of what came before with what is coming now. Drum circles, mariachi bands, block parties — these neighborhoods have histories, customs and rituals. Understanding what those are upon entering a new community is maybe the most important step a company and its new employees can take.

There are the surface solutions: investing in local galleries, sponsoring cultural programs and arts organizations. But then there are the less obvious opportunities, such as maintaining the architectural style of the neighborhood in the design of new office space, including the work of neighborhood artists in company projects or creative initiatives launched by your brand.

Ultimately, Los Angeles doesn’t need to become another San Francisco. This isn’t about finding comfortable ways of appeasing locals for the sake of positive PR. It’s about being more adept at stemming the turbulence that accompanies change and harnessing it in a way that benefits the community.

After all, empathy doesn’t simply apply to a company’s decision making, staff and customers. It applies to the communities we call home.