Author Cary McClelland crosses silos and spectrums to chart a course “to a viable city”

Original 650 Illustration by Kaz Palladino/Awkward Affections

If you live in the Bay Area, you’ve most likely been having a similar conversation—over and over and over again—for the past few years. You know the one: about rents and home prices, rapid change and cultural loss, of being priced out and left behind. It’s that same conversation that surfaces every time your favorite local bar or restaurant (or roller skating rink) closes down. Or when you hear that another friend is giving up and heading elsewhere. It’s exhausting, and yes, kinda terrifying. So when you then read that California residents are engaged in a mass exodus by the tens of thousands, you know exactly why. Cue that same conversation.

(Cover image via W.W. Norton & Co.)

But if you’re ready to work towards a solution or just dig in for the long haul (or maybe you’re simply sick of that same endless conversation) we have to point you in the direction of Cary McClelland’s new book Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley.

Rather than attempt to convince you that Big Tech is evil or just more carefully document what we all already know, McClelland’s project showcases a sweeping array of perspectives and testimonials from Bay Area residents living and working amid the tech boom: local activists, immigrant workers, high-profile tech designers, pawn brokers, angel investors, community figures, lifelong natives and many, many more. Rather than force a narrative, Silicon City brings everyone to the table to explain their experiences of life in a rapidly changing Bay Area. “Everybody sits democratically equal to each other on the page,” as McClelland explains it.

The result is a sort of Dickens in the Digital Age by way of a Studs Terkel working class chronicle to create a kind of People’s History of Silicon Valley. And while the book doesn’t aim to hoist any singular conclusion onto the reader, it certainly has an arc—which points to this moment as an opportunity to take what we now know, form alliances beyond our silos and work towards solutions.

We caught up with McClelland by phone ahead of his speaking engagement at Stanford this week to discuss his approach to the book, the many stories of “Manifest Destiny made local,” and how we start acting….& stopping having that same old conversation.

(Our interview has been edited for length and clarity)

There is no shortage of coverage about the Silicon Valley tech boom, so I’m wondering what initially motivated you to write this book?

This project was really about me coming to understand the community that I had come to call home … and that my wife was born and raised in. And around 2012 we saw ourselves staying in perpetuity…putting down roots and imagining the rest of our lives being in the Bay Area. The book was trying to absorb the amount of change and the unintended consequences of it that were rippling throughout the region. So I wanted to take what I knew how to do and build a project that would help us see ourselves as one community again and help ourselves identify how these economic questions were expressing themselves in many different kinds of lives. More importantly, to help us redraw the connections we have to each other so that we feel less isolated amidst the storm right now.

How did you settle on this particular format and approach?

It started in part during law school. Stanford sits at an important position in the community and it was just really hard for everyone to figure out how to talk to each other. There were housing experts, education experts, health care experts, experts on the tech industry, on economic justice, there were rights-based experts, but everybody sort of lived in their silo, and I think it was hard even for experts to see how all of us and all of these issues were connected.

“Silicon City” author Cary McClelland (Image via W.W. Norton & Co.)

So this book just began as a set of interviews to try to understand those connections, and the region, and how we were living alongside each other. And from that I thought the best format was letting each interview speak for itself; letting each individual tell their own story and try to get out of the way of editorializing too much.

Certainly there’s a lot of work done to make sure that what is there in the book builds and evolves the discussion over the course of each page, has an arc to it, and that each interview is connected to the others. But the real goal is to let each individual represent themselves and tell their own story. That is sort of the interview approach that I take—it is particularly hands off.

Reading the book, I quickly noticed two things: first, is how pronounced that siloing effect currently is here in the Bay Area, and then also that there is far more common ground than I would have originally thought.

Yeah, well I’m glad you hear that. I think it is an inevitable challenge. This is not a new problem — we all live within our experience, and how we learn to understand and empathize with other people’s experience is the act of being in community.

What the challenges are now is that the visions—economically and geographically—are becoming very acute. And I think the media is complicating our ability to succeed in the ways that we might have in the past. And so one of the arguments from the tech companies and one of the ways that they structurally interact with the region …argues against this idea that your lived community is something that you are bound inextricably to. Facebook’s argument is that your community lives online, Uber’s argument is that we don’t have employment commitments to one another (and that work is sort of ephemeral). Even just the sort of speed with which the industry shapes careers and launches projects — the fact that many people coming to the city may not know if they’ll be in the same job a year or two from now (let alone 5 or 10)—changes the way in which people are attached to San Francisco and the Bay Area as a place to put down roots and invest in civically.

So it is hard for anybody at any time to understand the universe of experiences that is happening around us, and I think it has become particularly acute in the last couple of decades. The hope of this project is that it gives us the ability to really feel our community again.

Is there a particular interview or something that surprised you in terms of the insight that it offered?

I think the thing that surprised me most — which speaks to your point of common ground — is that I didn’t expect there to be such a persistent identification of and eagerness to address the problems of the region. I don’t think there is anybody that I spoke to who didn’t recognize that there was a problem, have a reasonably similar story about what the problem was and feel as if it was their obligation to align themselves with addressing it in some ways.

And then you have different ideas about what the solutions are, different confidence in the public and private sector, different ideas about change and the pace of change. I think there are some people who are doing heroic work and then there are other people doing the work they can with the position they are in. There are people making sacrifices and others who are forced to make sacrifices. And those are all the different things that differentiate all the people across the book. But fundamentally, everyone feels as if they should be doing something, everybody thinks that they have a civic obligation. And that was very inspiring to me, I didn’t expect to hear that everywhere.

I think that the challenge is figuring out what are the ways in which we can direct all of our energy and resources towards common solutions to the common problem? That’s the hardest question. And I think the book arrives at a place where it is saying that we are not doing that yet, we are at the beginning of that journey.

The tech companies are always talking about making the world a better place, and yet right here on their doorstep they have huge problems of homelessness and massive income equality. So rather than figure out things like how to get food delivered faster why can’t they apply some of their resources and talent to tackling these real issues?

Well, there are important signs of hope in some of the interviews in the book, such as Maria Guerrero’s story as a service worker who helped fight for some of the first unions in the tech companies. It’s not just her story and the success of their ability to make their movement succeed, but it’s also the amount of support that they’ve had, particularly from younger professionals within the tech industry. There is a real alliance building between tech workers and service workers that bodes well for the future.

I think a lot of the hope for a real cultural shift is a longer term struggle. It took decades for the industry to reach where it is today, it took decades for that space to be created, it took decades for much of the economic change to unravel. So I think it will take time to heal.

The other story that I take away from the book…is that I think there has been a disregard for the importance of public sector solutions in addressing many of these problems. And in the same way that it is very hard to get wealthy people to donate extra taxes to the government I don’t it is an easy ask of tech companies to invest wildly in public sector-like projects without real buy-in, legitimacy and longevity of commitment from the public sector itself. So there needs to be better partnerships and better faith, regulation and governance, as a way to guide the community out of this.

That may have been a surprising intuition 6 or so years ago when many of us were looking at these problem for the first time and seeing how acute they were, but I think we’re all starting to feel the urgency to not just get the problem right in San Francisco or Menlo Park, but to find some comprehensive solutions that can drag across the region.

(Image via Getty)

One of the interviewees talks about only knowing people in the area that are either “over-employed or under-employed” and I was wondering if you came across many people who are currently content with working in the Bay Area right now?

Yes, that was Saul Griffith’s quote.

One of the things I hope the book captures is the fact that the economy in the region right now is eager to absorb whatever marginal income people have scrolled away for themselves. The problems are different across different lives and different priorities. And I don’t want to draw false equivalence across them. But there are people who are forced to relocate out of SF and commute two hours to keep the same job to put food on their family’s table. There are non-profits who are either white-knuckling it or forced to shut down because of rising prices in the city. There are also many tech workers commuting several hours on a bus who are struggling to keep up with rising rents themselves; trying to figure out how to raise a family in an area where it is very difficult for them to save in the way that they once could. And those pressures are creating a different kind of strain.

And Saul’s quote that there is the over-employed and the under-employment, I think the prescient observation of that is — with this amount of stress placed at every sector of the economy, who is left to give their time to the community? Who has the bandwidth left to think about questions that are far from our own self-interest?

The book captures a local story about such a particular time and place, yet it also just seems to be an increasingly American story right now.

I think we’ve gotten wrong the idea of where the trends are coming from these days. I think what you see in San Francisco—particularly post Great Recession—is a sort of crucible in which this kind of change got heated up and sped faster than it was able to in other places. But that same change is evolving in other cities.

[In the Bay Area] you had the tech industry being the dominant industry, you had a huge amount of investment capital coming in, you had preexisting communities that were well-identified and well organized and culturally part of the definition of the region, and so this sort of struggle took shape very quickly in the area when a lot of that investment capital got trapped at the top, very little of it made it down, and much of the standard of living outpaced the ability for anybody but those at the very top to get by. And that story is happening slower, but it is happening in New York and Seattle and Austin. And I don’t think it’s a story that is just about the tech companies. I think the entertainment industry and lobbying & politics have had the same impact, respectively, on Los Angeles and D.C.

But the fact that the economy is shifting to so much informal labor, the fact that the media environment is so disaggregated across so many social experiences and the fact that the tech industry has shaped how so many young professionals view their career…I think it is more part of the way we are living nationally, and not just in San Francisco.

It’s all got a strangely Dickensian feel to it, like the technological version of the Industrial Revolution…

I think one of the common retorts to this—to the criticism that this untenable— is the rejoinder that change is inevitable and that the tech industry is doing more good than harm; and once upon a time there was the industrial revolution which caused a lot of disruption and social upheaval and pain for working people (especially in American cities) but we are on the other side of that now, benefiting from cars and airplanes and semi-conductors. And the response to that [viewpoint]…I think is not a hard one. The Industrial Revolution also came with a huge amount of social upheaval and pain, and a tremendous amount of disruption. The fact that we know that story well doesn’t mean that we are destined to be victims to it, but that we can get ahead of some of these questions so that we’re not undoing the century of worker protections that we had to build in response to the Industrial Revolution just because Uber feels like it is convenient to characterize itself as something that is outside of regulations.

All love for the innovations, but we made some decisions about what a dignified life was in America. And we made some decisions about what kind of stability we wanted and what a meaningful life was. It doesn’t seem to be that we’ve reached a place where we need to abandon many of those choices. We certainly all need to be doing the work of fighting to be sure that we adapt those expectations during new times and new technologies.

In closing, I know you strive to maintain an objectivity amid the project, but when you add it all up are you feeling optimistic?

As a human being I’m optimistic, and the act of doing this project reminds me of how deep and committed most people are in fighting for the best outcomes for not just themselves but for other people. And I don’t know that the Bay Area has lost that spirit at all. And I think many people come to the tech industry with a sense that they are coming to an industry that has good intention and to do work that can have a positive effect on the world. And they are coming to a city that has had tradition of doing that for decades upon decades. So I’m very confident that given time, the water will eventually find its level and the right alliances will build.

So my hope is…given how optimistic I am about the inherent instincts of most people in the Bay area, my hope is that everybody accelerates the urgency by which they are attacking these problems. But…in short, I hope everybody gets off their ass.

Cary McClelland will be at Stanford to speak about his book on Thursday January 10, at Encina Hall at 5.30 pm. For more information click here.

Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley is currently available via W.W. Norton & Company publishing.

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Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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