Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What's Gentrification Anyway?

From Behind the Wheel: A Lyft Driver's Log

After getting coffee at Philz, I go into driver mode. I cruise through the Mission waiting for a ride request. I’ve found that when I circle the neighborhood east of Van Ness, I’m more likely to get a passenger than if I were on Valencia, where the other drivers congregate with the taxis and towncars. I can see my fellow Lyfters in the app: little black avatars that disappear when they accept rides or go offline.

My first ping is near 21st and Bryant. Pull up to a freshly renovated Edwardian. Mark comes out with two large duffle bags and a backpack. I open the trunk. Help load his gear. 

“Where you off to?” I ask.

“Ethiopia,” Mark says.

So SFO, I think as he goes back to get more stuff. An easy thirty bucks.

“Are you flying into Addis Ababa and then doing some backpacking?” I ask to make small talk.

“We’re flying into Addis, but from there we’re taking a small flight to an orphanage in the mountains.”

While we wait for his wife to finish getting ready, Mark tells me they are going to Ethiopia to adopt a child.

“Wow,” I say. “That’s huge. Are you coming home with a boy or girl?”

He says first they have to fly in to meet the boy, then return in three weeks to finalize the adoption and bring him home. The duffle bags are full of presents for the kids at the orphanage.

“I got soccer balls,” he says with a shrug. “Didn’t know what else to buy.”

His wife joins us. Her backpack doesn’t fit in the trunk so they put in it in the backseat. I assume one of them is going to sit up front, which is ideal when going to SFO, since Lyft doesn
t have a permit to do business at the airport. But they both plan to sit in back, with the backpack squeezed between them.

I suggest putting the backpack in the passenger seat. As I drive down Bryant, it’s so heavy the car thinks a human is in the seat. Keeps dinging and flashing the fasten seatbelt icon. I strap the seatbelt around the backpack. Hit the freeway at Cesar Chavez.

The sign reads twelve minutes to SFO.

The couple is nervous, talking in short bursts, mostly going over their itinerary for what I assume is the hundredth time. We make it to the airport in ten minutes. All the traffic is heading north on the 101, going to AT&T Park for the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

As I head into the International terminal, I spot an unmarked security car on the right. I cringe, wishing I had insisted one of them sit up front.

I pull up to United. Help them unload their duffle bags and backpacks. Wish them luck. Get out of driver mode and hightail it back to the city before traffic gets worse. I’m stuck for a few miles, until the 280 split that filters out the game traffic.

On Cesar Chavez, I go back online. A request comes in for a Margarita at 26th and Mission. An older Spanish woman with a child waves at me. She has a bunch of paper sacks from Party City. I pull up next to a hydrant. Get out and help them put the stuff in the trunk. They sit in the back. Going to Daly City. I ask whether I should head down Cesar Chavez to the 280. She says San Jose Avenue is faster.

“I’ll tell you where to turn.”

As I start the ride, I notice she’s already input her address into the app, a new feature that’s only been active a day or two. I hit navigation and Waze opens and displays the best route. I take Gurrerro to San Jose. Ask Margarita how she likes using Lyft.

She says it’s cheaper than cabs. I give her some referral cards in case she knows anybody who wants to sign up. They get twenty-five bucks toward their first ride. I get a ten-dollar bonus.

“How long have you been in Daly City?” I ask.

“Not long.”

“Where’d you move from?”

“20th and Bryant. We were there for twenty years.”

I think about the couple I just took to the airport. That’s their neighborhood now. “Were you kicked out?”

“No, the rent just got too high.”

We leave the sunshine in the Mission and drive into the fog.

“How do you like Daly City?” I ask.

“It’s nice. The apartment is smaller but not as much money.”

“San Francisco has become so expensive. It’s impossible to live here. I’m in Oakland.”

“It’s warmer there, no?”

“Definitely warmer than Daly City.”

I miss a turn. Despite the stupid navigation. Margarita directs me the rest of the way to her apartment building. One of those ticky-tacky boxes on the hillside.

I park and help her get the bags out. She tells me it’s her grandson’s birthday.

“Quantos Años?” I ask in Spanish.

“Eight,” she tells me in English.

“Feliz Cumpleaños,” I say to the boy.


A few hours later, I get a request for 5th Ave and Balboa in the Inner Richmond. I pull up to the pinned location. One of the many duplexes and small houses that line the streets south of Geary. Look at the picture in the app. Katie has brown hair and a nice smile. I think she might be friendly and it’ll be a fun ride. Perhaps she’ll sit up front and chat. I turn on the defroster and make sure the recirculate button is on to pull in the fragrance from the air freshener clipped to the vent. I usually avoid chemical based deodorizers but I had a negative comment recently that said my car smelled like beer and cigarettes. Apparently I picked up the only person that night who hadn’t been drinking and smoking.

After three minutes, I call Katie to let her know I’m outside. The Lyft system usually sends the passenger a text or push notification to inform them the car they requested has arrived. But if I’ve been waiting long, I’ll call anyway, just to make sure I have the right address.

I get the girl’s voicemail. Sometimes people don’t recognize the number, which is the same generic 415 number encoded so neither the passenger nor I have access to each other’s personal information. I wait a few more minutes. Finally, I see activity two doors from the street number in the app. Three girls approach my car.

“Where’s your mustache?” the first one demands as she slides into the backseat behind me.

“It’s in the trunk,” I say. That’s where it’s been since they sent it to me after I completed thirty rides, still wrapped in plastic.

“Then how are we supposed to know you’re legit?” a second girl asks and joins the first one in back.

“Why else would he be picking us up?” the one who most resembles the profile picture points out as she gets into the passenger seat. “Hey, Kelly.”

“Hello, Katie. How’s it going?”

“It’s her birthday.” Katie gestures to the girl who asked about the mustache. “She’s visiting from Seattle and we’re taking her out to show her a good time.”

I wish her a happy birthday. “Where you guys heading?”

“Smuggler’s Cove.”

“The pirate bar?”

“Yeah. Do you know where that is?”

“By Van Ness?” I took somebody there during my second week. I don’t remember the exact streets though.

“Gough and Fulton. Do you know need directions?” She pronounces Gough like “go” instead of “cough.” I can tell she’s a recent transplant.

“Yep.” I turn around and head towards Geary.

“Where are you going?” she asks sharply. “Why don’t you go down Fulton?”


“You sure you know where you’re going?”

“Yes. I just instinctively went to Geary, since it’s the major thoroughfare.”

“Fulton’s faster.”

“Sure.” It’s always good to listen to the passenger if they have a preferred route. Most people don’t have a preference, but the ones who try to prove their knowledge of the city always tell you which streets to take.

The girls are chatty, talking among themselves and occasionally pulling me into the conversation. Katie promises the others that Smuggler’s Cove is a fun place and free of the usual douchebags you find in the Mission.

I laugh.

“You know what I’m talking about, right?”



“What are techies?” the girl from Seattle asks.

“Tech workers,” Katie tells her.

We talk about the tech boom. I mention the hyper-gentrification that’s consuming San Francisco.

“What’s gentrification anyway?” asks the girl from Seattle.

I tell her the story of two rides I had earlier that day. After I finish my story, sans commentary, Katie points out that before the people with money moved in, the Mission was full of gangs.

I quickly add that while the Mission may have been less inviting before and potentially dangerous, it was still a neighborhood of families with a tight-knit culture who had every right to be where they’ve been for decades without getting relocated or forced out of their homes to satisfy the needs of hipsters and yuppies looking for some kind of “authentic vibe.”

“Before the tech workers moved in,” I say, “The Mission was mostly dead at night, except for a few bars and restaurants around Valencia. Sure, you’d see people smoking crack at the bus stops, but now, the entire neighborhood is full of drunken douchebags, techwads, Grubhub delivery guys and bums trying to get a little of the trickle-down. You can’t make a trade-off, one bad thing for another, just because one of those bad things is more acceptable or less frightening to you.”

I mention that I lived in San Francisco during the nineties, back when it was a dirty and nasty city full of crazies, misfits, scammers and bums.

“It was a paradise! I was able to live for eight months without a real job and very little money. I did canvassing to make a buck here and there. Back then, nobody seemed to care how much money you made. It was just about surviving in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, soaking up the history and culture of the place. San Francisco was free of bourgeois traps. After all, this is the city where Emperor Norton ruled, where the gay rights movement started and where beatniks, hippies and punks came to find like-minded souls. Now fresh-faced tech workers in designer jeans and hoodies fill the cafes and restaurants. Not all are clueless, but so many of these tech-bros who get in my car don’t seem to know anything about San Francisco except where to eat, drink and party. All they talk about is work, money, girls… work, money, girls.”

I start to feel I’m getting a little heavy handed with my criticism of the changes in San Francisco. I don’t want to bum these girls out. What’s that going to do for my rating? I mean, the one from Seattle has no idea what gentrification even is because… I don’t know. Perhaps there isn’t displacement of poor people by the affluent youth classes in Seattle. But I need to play it cool. And figure out where the hell I’m going.

As I approach Gough, I turn right, but the bar is above Fulton. I end the ride. Turn left on Grove to Franklin. Fortunately McAllister is both ways so I only have to go one block up to get back to Gough.

I drop them off in front of the bar. Katie and her friends pile out.

“Have fun,” I say.

They smile. I figure they’ll still rate me less than five stars. More so for being an opinionated asshole than making a wrong turn. And why not? Who complains about tech workers while using the apps they create? An asshole, that’s who. My iPhone is clipped to the vent above the stereo for the whole world to see. I take advantage of tech, so why do I bitch about the repercussions? Cause I’m an asshole. That’s why. Part of the problem. A tech parasite infringing upon the livelihood of decent, hard-working cab drivers. Yep, that’s me.

I probably should have said something like, “Hey, don’t forget to give me five stars.” But whatever. I drive off into the night looking for more passengers...

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