Tectonic Change

Illustrations by Nikki Anderson-Joy

What a difference a decade makes.

Suddenly, San Francisco is relevant again.

The very notion might seem counterintuitive to loyalists of the city, living in a self-congratulatory fog of cable cars, Irish coffee and Victorian “Painted Ladies.’’ 

Nevertheless, to those not determined to live in the past, San Francisco has oftentimes seemed stodgy and complacent in comparison to hipper American capitals like New York and Los Angeles, let alone London or Paris. 

But these days, there’s a new energy and a fresh buzz, not just in San Francisco but in the entire region.

It’s a tectonic change, akin to the earthquakes for which the area is historically famous.

It was just over a decade ago that Facebook, then a mere gleam in the eye of a Harvard undergraduate (make that several undergraduates, if David Fincher’s account in The Social Network is to be believed), first surfaced and changed global communications as we know it.

Ironically, much of the current excitement and job growth led by San Francisco have to do with the surge of tech entrepreneurs — the very class disparaged in progressive circles for contributing to gentrification, higher rents, evictions and myriad other sins.

In the field of fashion alone, Angela Ahrendts left her top spot at Burberry to rejuvenate Apple’s retail and sales effort and Academy of Art University honorary doctorate recipient, Joe Zee, left his position as creative director at Elle magazine to join the brave new world as editor-in-chief and executive creative officer of Yahoo Style.

And the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has been dipping into Silicon Valley to spread its international wings. 

Vanity Fair magazine, which formerly relegated the Bay Area to the provinces, has been revising such admittedly snobbish views by sponsoring a series of New Establishment Summits at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The Vanity Fair get-together put together Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg with James Murdoch, heir to his father’s 21st Century Fox empire, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, Apple design guru Sir Jonathan Ive, music mogul Jimmy Iovine, film executive Brian Grazer and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, among others.

The event also united new media stars with Hollywood executives who previously wouldn’t have been caught dead in town for anything but a fine dining experience or a Napa getaway. 

Similarly, a Dreamforce gathering held at the Yerba Buena Center this September under the aegis ofSalesforce Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff featured luminaries including YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, actresses/activists Goldie Hawn and Jessica Alba, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Larry Brilliant of the Skoll Global Threats Fund — as well as a performance by the Foo Fighters. (The star-studded gathering the previous year included everyone from Hillary Clinton to Neil Young and will.i.am.)

The event did not fail to draw critics grumbling about the downtown gridlock, with one local columnist noting that the annual Folsom Street Fair, replete with leather regalia, was a much better representation of the true
San Francisco spirit.

But no one could argue with the good intentions of Dreamforce, which announced after the event that it had achieved its goal of donating over a million books to schools and libraries around the world.

Something is happening here, and we probably know what it is, whether or not Mr. or Ms. Jones likes it or approves. 

It’s ironic that the left political community and the tech invaders are at odds, since they share so many values.

Liberal-leaning techies almost certainly value a woman’s right to choose, support gay rights, health care and immigration reform — if only to better recruit top engineers from all over the world — and a strong suspicion of government snooping, even when they have been asked to cooperate in such investigations.

The economic consequences of the wealth being so rapidly accumulated has had unintended consequences, including the aforementioned evictions. 

But there are signs that the tech sector is waking up to its community responsibilities. Google, for example, donated $6.8 million to a two-year pilot program offering free rides on the city’s Muni transit system to low-income students between the ages of five and 17.

And Salesforce, at founder Benioff’s insistence, incorporates philanthropy into its mission, giving one percent of its profits, one percent of the company’s equity, and one percent of its employees hours back to the community.

It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but if other companies getting rich in the exploding web economy follow suit, badly-strapped cities will get the help they need as they explore new models for delivering services and providing assistance to those who need it most.

That’s the kind of progressive model that San Francisco has always been about.

It led the way for literary experimentation with the Beats, followed by the inspired psychedelia of the ‘60s and played a pioneering role in championing gay advocacy and people’s rights to love — and marry —whomever they please.

And oh, yeah, this whole computer thing came about because a couple of hackers named Steve — Jobs and Wozniak — were fiddling around in a garage in Silicon Valley.

In the University’s own neighborhood, a Tenderloin Museum has opened, in a bow to the past that reflects the neighborhood’s colorful history at the same time it looks forward to a progressive, forward-looking future. 

And Oakland continues to be celebrated as the East Bay equivalent of Brooklyn — an artistic haven for those who want to stay in the vicinity but can’t afford the housing costs. 

So yes — the Bay Area has changed. 

But maybe not all that much.

The virtuous circles currently being formed recall the days of Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park and choreographer Anna Halprin’s Planetary Dances on Mount Tamalpais.

Once again, we are not just living through history, but reinventing it.

At a time when so much attention is focused on the woes of the world, that’s encouraging, whether or not you decide to wear flowers in your hair at Coachella, or on the runway.