The Mission: Creative Destruction in Eleven Parts

Outside the super-luxe NEMA Building on Market and 10th Streets. Photo: Nathanael Turner

1. There’s a San Francisco story: One night, Mark Zuckerberg knocks on your door. He introduces himself but doesn’t ask your name. Instead, he asks if you own this house. Yes, you say. Terrific, he says. I’d like to pay you $10 million for it. You inhale sharply.

2. Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney at the San Francisco public defender’s office, former president of the city Board of Supervisors, and former Green Party insurgent mayoral candidate, lives in a rented one-bedroom apartment filled with art, just off Divisadero. It was a Tuesday evening when I visited, a night when Gonzalez usually has friends over to make collages from found scraps of paper and cardboard, smoke cigars, and drink wine. Everyone had canceled, and the apartment was at once spare and cluttered: relatively little furniture, so much art. One piece caught my eye: a woven textile by Erin Riley of a skinny, faceless white woman in a red bikini bottom pouring a can of Budweiser over her exposed breasts. You know, the typical sort of art decorating a politician’s apartment.

3. In other parts of the country, there are issues that serve as dividing lines: gun control, de­criminalized marijuana, immigration reform, same-sex marriage. Not so in San Francisco. Here, progressives smugly perform consensus on the issues that are fiercely debated elsewhere and then gather once a year to march in a corporate-­sponsored Pride Parade. In this context, how do you know where a person stands?

I propose that one way might be this: What shading do they give to the word boom? Do they use it to evoke a colorful futurist dream, or do they use it to imply destruction? Do they say it with a hint of awe, or as though they simply hope to survive it?

4. A person could do quite a lot with $10 million. Never work again comes to mind. But what would you do all day? Start a foundation? Go back to school? Now, here’s the thing, Zuckerberg says. You have to move out by Friday. His face has an inscrutable, impassive quality to it. This Friday, he adds, to fill the awkward silence. You can’t tell if he’s joking or not.

5. Matt Gonzalez has been evicted a couple of times—in fact, he was evicted in the middle of his first campaign for supervisor. He found a room through a friend and took it sight unseen—he had to stay in his district to be eligible for the Board. But now he shrugs at the memory, recalling wistfully the cheap rents he’s paid over the years: $900 for an entire house on Sycamore; a two-bedroom for $750 a month on Albion. The numbers seem magical, laughable. “I knew artists paying $250 a month all the way into 2005,” he says. “That was common. And that’s disappeared.” Many in his extended circle are facing eviction. “Can you be an artist if you have to pay $3,000 a month?” He names a few friends who’ve given up and moved to L.A. Then he adds: “I get an email every week from someone looking for a tenant lawyer.”

6. That’s impossible, you say, and from Zuckerberg’s flat expression you wonder if he already knew you were going to say that. We’ve lived here for a decade. We’re raising our children here. We have nowhere to go. Zuckerberg furrows his brow. I understand, he says. He thanks you for your time and walks down the steps. You watch him climb the steps next door.

7. To read contemporaneous accounts of the 2003 Matt Gonzalez campaign is to realize that a decade is a very long time in the life of a city. San Francisco, if you recall, was essentially shut down by massive protests against the attack on Iraq—it’s something the city can be very proud of. Parts of that coalition spent the rest of the year looking for the next fight, and they found it, almost by accident, in the mayoral race. Gonzalez emerged from a crowded field of progressive candidates to face Gavin Newsom in a runoff. Newsom was outgoing mayor Willie Brown’s anointed successor and, like his patron, enjoyed the support of the city’s business class. Gonzalez did not: His base was the Mission District, the sculptors, the muralists, the poets, the nudists, the squatters, the tattoo artists, the musicians, the transportation activists, the AIDS activists, the people who tried to block the Bay Bridge to protest the invasion of Iraq, the people who’d been battered by the dot-com boom. That is, the old San Francisco. In the last month before the runoff, his supporters organized a party every single night.

8. Zuckerberg knocks on your neighbors’ door. He has an air of impatience now; it’s slight, but you can see it at the corner of his eyes. He plays with the zipper of his sweatshirt, up and down, up and down. He asks: Do you own this home? Yes, they say. They’re a lovely couple, standing together in the yellow light of their doorway, clutching one another, as if bracing for awful news. And here it is: I’d like to pay you $3 million for it, Zuckerberg says. Before your neighbors can catch their breath, he adds: But you have to be out by Thursday.

9. In 2003, many in the Gonzalez campaign feared they were losing the city. I still hear people saying this. So, it’s worth asking: At what point can we admit we’ve lost it? “I’ve been in the city a long time,” Gonzalez tells me. “I walk by places, and it’s like … You see ghosts.” He recalls arguments with ex-girlfriends on certain corners, drinks he once shared with now-deceased friends at bars that have long since shuttered. The new arrivals are different, he says.“They work all day. They have everything they want brought to them. Whatever meal they want to eat. They send their shirts out to be laundered.”

10. Your neighbors can’t believe their luck. Zuckerberg turns to you. You can move in next door this Thursday. So, now, how does $10 million sound?

11. This story isn’t even made up, or not entirely. City records seem to show the Facebook founder bought his San Francisco home for $9,999,000. It had last switched hands for less than one-seventh that price.

The Mission: Creative Destruction in Eleven Parts