I was a little surprised to hear Geoff Nunberg on Fresh Air deliver a bit of a rant against the “techies” that have been the subject of the recent “tech class war” in the Bay Area. I would be taken aback by anybody professing on national radio their biased assumptions and prejudices about broad groups of people based solely on the industry in which they work. It is even more unexpected coming from Nunberg, since he teaches lots of budding tech workers at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. I imagine his students might be interested to know that their professor thinks they’re “oblivious” and arrogant.
I think it’s strange how so many people are perfectly happy to assume that all – or most – people who work at a tech company for a living are entitled prats, disconnected from their communities and possessing no social consciousness. (And how interesting that these characterizations are never made about workers of private-busing non-tech companies in the area, like Williams-Sonoma or Kaiser.)
The thing is, normally, you’d assume that these negative assumptions are just made by people who don’t really know any tech workers. But Professor Nunberg does know these people — and he thinks they’re arrogant jerks.
Yet one has to wonder if Nunberg’s analysis and judgments in this area can be relied upon. For example: in one sentence, Nunberg describes Silicon Valley’s hermetic subculture” of nerdy “seclusion,” but in the next, he contrasts this with — surprise! — the fact that many tech workers prefer to live in San Francisco! What could cause these tasteless dorks to insist on moving to our socially conscious, hipster capital? Could it be that they’re actually not the arrogant jerks in search of seclusion that you thought they were? Surely not! It must be their libertarian impulses, urging them to come to the big city and personally evict some teachers and artists.
Nunberg’s description of the buses themselves are also telling:
People call them all Google buses, because they’re hard to tell apart — oversized Wi-Fi-equipped luxury coaches, usually gleaming white, which scoop up their passengers at transit stops like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You couldn’t invent a more compelling visual symbol for the privileged and disconnected lives that the tech workers seem to live, cosseted behind smoke-tinted windows.
(Emphasis added.) If the professor is so insulated that he a.) is this impressed by this bus and b.) can’t imagine a better visual symbol for the argument he’s trying to make — well, Occam’s razor again dictates that the simplest conclusion applies: he hasn’t got a very good argument. And maybe he needs to read some history or even, a news site.
As you may know, Jon and I moved to Emeryville a couple months ago, after our four-year exile on the East Coast. Emeryville is a tiny city sort of between Berkeley and Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco – just 1.25 square miles, with a population of about 10,000, so the local politics are really local. This year, out of five seats on the City Council, there are three on the City Council up for grabs and five candidates vying for them. So last night, in an effort to get to know the issues and the candidates, Jon and I walked down to City Hall to see the City Council candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Berkeley Albany Emeryville.
The forum certainly raised a lot of issues for us to Google. I haven’t had time to research all of them yet, but some of the issues that intrigued me include the proposed Emeryville Center for Community Life and its financing, the ballot measure (Measure F) to recall the City Attorney, and the city’s Redevelopment Agency. There are two other ballot measures this year that I did not hear the candidates substantively debate: Measure C, raising the business tax rate, and Measure D, raising the business tax cap (that’s right – there’s a cap.)
If you want to find out more about the candidates and their stances – or about local elections in other jurisdictions – the League of Women Voters’ SmartVoter.org website is a good resource. The Secret News, a blog covering Emeryville politics, also has a very informative post on the candidates.
While I found the forum to be very interesting, and the candidates to be generally competent-seeming and articulate, I have to wonder how well they represent their constituency. For example, although non-Hispanic whites make up only 40 percent of the city’s population, all of the candidates – as well as the two City Council members not up for election this year – appear to be non-Hispanic whites. (According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Asian-Americans are the largest minority, at 27.5 percent, and African-Americans are 17.5 percent. Asian-owned firms also account for 13.9 percent of firms in the city.)
More importantly, there was a lot of griping about how Emeryville needed to better serve and attract families with children – for example, through more family-friendly housing. One of the candidates – I forget which – stated, as if it were completely uncontroversial, that residents with children simply made the community stronger. Michael Webber (who sort of does and sort of doesn’t know how to use Tumblr) propounded this view the most vehemently: he derisively referred to “yuppies,” “commuters,” and “loft-dwellers” as if they (let’s be honest, we) are nothing but parasites on the city.
Webber instantly lost my vote when he started complaining about my demographic, but let’s take the long view for a minute: why should any candidate for (or member of) City Council want to alienate the childless, yuppie, commuting, loft-dwellers [CYCL]? We are your constituency. I get the sense that there is a disproportionate amount of us! Why don’t you try to engage us? Neither Jon nor I asked any questions at the forum, but when we were talking about it afterward, Jon told me the question he was thinking of asking, and I think it’s a good one: Why should I (a CYCL) buy a house in Emeryville?
As renters contributing to this scourge of one-bedroom housing stock, I know our politicians don’t prioritize us because we don’t pay the property taxes that fund our city. But we do pay taxes indirectly through our rent, we live here, and, unlike our absentee landlords, we can vote. Moreover, many of us are likely to be considering buying a home in the future. If our politicians do nothing to serve us, what makes them think we’re going to want to invest in this city?
For some CYCLs, a deciding factor about buying a house in Emeryville would be schools: you might be childless now, but if you’re thinking of having children in the future, the city’s school system would certainly be something to take into consideration, and thus, it makes sense for the city’s politicians to focus on school-related issues.
But what if you decide not to have children? What then does Emeryville have to offer its residents (who are not burdening the city with extra demand for services)? The services and amenities are not fantastic: we currently don’t have a library – I think that’s supposed to be part of the new community center – so I have to ride my bike up to the Golden Gate branch of the Oakland Public Library. We have a decent outdoor pool which I am an enthusiastic user of, although the locker room is tiny and it closes in the winter. There’s not a lot in the way of cafes, restaurants, bars, art galleries, or parks.
Jac Asher was the only candidate who even began to address these types of concerns, by way of talking about strengthening public transit in Emeryville, possibly by linking the free Emery-Go-Round service with the West Oakland BART. That would be great! It seems that Ruth Atkin has been on the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and I think Emeryville has some great bike lanes and bike boulevards which a lot of people use. I’d like for 40th Street or some other route to the MacArthur BART be more bike-friendly. (Webber, apparently, thought the bike lane shouldn’t cross San Pablo because he didn’t see bikes on this stretch of road? That is obviously because it’s kind of a harrowing experience to ride there, what with the lack of bike lanes and all!) I’d also like a bigger, year-round farmers market, or at least more CSAs serving our community. And a dog park! Tons of us CYCLs have dogs – and nothing builds and strengthens communities like people walking their dogs – but we don’t have anywhere to take them for off-leash exercise and socialization.
I’ll stop ranting now. I just get exercised, you know, after having seen what local democracy looks like.