A Tale of Two Cities? A Q&A With Gavin Newsom on San Francisco’s History of “Animus” With Tech.
On the occasion of San Francisco finally getting its first major public Wi-Fi installation this week — nearly a decade after such an initiative had been proposed and awarded to Google and Earthlink — it seemed timely to call on Gavin Newsom.
While still hurting over some political setbacks back then on the issue and wanting a little credit for his early efforts, he had some interesting thoughts on the history of intersections between San Francisco technology initiatives and public backlash against the tech industry.
It’s a relevant and ongoing conversation as tensions continue in the city, which both embraces its tech hegemony and is also a little uncomfortable with the social and economic debates it brings. Representatives from local tech companies met behind closed doors yesterday with current Mayor Ed Lee for a conversation about “how the tech sector and the city can keep working together to continue San Francisco’s economic success for the benefit of everyone,” according to organizer Ron Conway, who said that specific areas of discussion included education, jobs and affordable housing.
Here’s the conversation with Newsom, which has been edited slightly for length and the level of detail about local political skirmishes of the past.
As one of the drivers behind the failed efforts for free citywide Wi-Fi when you were San Francisco mayor, what are your reflections on Wi-Fi launching on Market Street this week?
I’m pleased, and I guess as a good Irish Catholic, you could say God’s delays are not God’s denials. It’s great to see the city step it up. I love the idea of Market Street because it’s the intersection of the old and the new San Francisco — symbolically, not just substantively. When I was mayor it got killed because of politics, we never even got the legislation through, and of course Earthlink had its own problems.
As the rest of the world has moved on we’ve been running in place or falling behind. We were the leaders in the mid-2000s, and now we’re middle of the pack. More than anything else I think this highlights how low the bar is. Hats off, I want to compliment them, they did more than what I was able to do, but my God, it’s inadequate to the moment and the future that we’re living in.
You blame politics for blocking the efforts when you were mayor, but how have those politics changed since then?
The last time San Francisco went through what it’s going through right now was in the late ’90s, but the politics of the late ’90s changed the city. [Former mayor] Willie Brown suffered big losses at the ballot box, the planning commission was split, many members of the board of supervisors lost their jobs. There was this animus toward the tech community and gentrification from the late ’90s even into the mid 2000s. And it played a huge part in blocking Wi-Fi. And it’s interesting that’s happening again.
Obviously, municipal Wi-Fi isn’t the controversy it used to be, but that backlash is happening again. What’s the difference now?
I work in an incubator with a lot of startups, and you see it every day. You see the international news coverage, the Economist. George Packer did that piece in the New Yorker six months ago that foretold this. But you don’t see the power shift yet. It was radical, the shift in the late ’90s. I was a supervisor, three of my colleagues were kicked out at the time and it was substantively because of the dot-com backlash. It changed the city. It hasn’t yet, but I say yet, because you see the contours of it taking shape now.
The question mark is this seems more sustainable because there’s more viable business models now. That was a short period; this is going on a decade or so. It’s reshaping the city now, but the question is does it reshape politics. And that’s Mayor Lee’s opportunity, not just challenge, and he’s fully aware of it, because he was the head of the department of public works under Willie Brown and my public administrator when I was mayor, so no one’s better positioned to understand that.
But people will say this [public Wi-Fi] is all about the tech industry. “Once again, we’re doing things to help Twitter” is the layman’s cheap shot.
Hopefully Twitter’s not going to be using free Wi-Fi to run their business.
Right. But the point being, we’re gentrifying Market Street. Tech makes up less than 10 percent of the jobs in the city, but it’s the dominant narrative of our time. If I were in the mayor’s office this would dominate my focus right now. We’ve got what people are calling the “Gatsby curve.” There’s extraordinary wealth that none of us could imagine in the ’90s, and people are younger than ever that are enjoying this wealth. But meanwhile you’re right there on Market Street with some of the highest poverty rates in any city. So Market Street is symbolically the intersection of these tectonic plates.
There’s a lot of anger about the tech industry, the buses, the minimal effort that tech companies seem to have made in the community.
I was at a homeless shelter the other day and the biggest need they have is people trying to charge their cellphone. Who would have thought five years ago — you couldn’t make that up. The digital divide is changing. The mayor’s office will argue this is not for Twitter, this is for folks out there at Sixth and Market trying to get a job or connect to a service that can’t wait in line at Starbucks any longer. And that’s right.
This is not just a city of haves. It’s the perfect analogy or metaphor of our times of these two worlds colliding, and how do we bridge that divide. It’s not just a digital divide anymore.