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Mission Meetup: Tech Workers and Activists Share a Meal, Discuss Tensions

| February 13, 2014
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Zach Wasserman and John Mendoza discuss San Francisco's genrification issues at EngageSF. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Zach Wasserman and John Mendoza discuss San Francisco’s genrification issues. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Zach Wasserman is a new employee at Facebook. John Mendoza is a longtime community organizer. The two are at a restaurant in the Mission District talking about gentrification flashpoints — tech shuttles, the housing crisis and evictions.

Mendoza explains how he protests to prevent tenants from being evicted by landlords who want to cash in on the new money that tech workers are bringing to the housing market.

Wasserman says he wishes the city did more to ease the housing shortage.

These are the kinds of face-to-face conversations EngageSF hopes to spur by inviting members of the Mission community to monthly dinners. Tech worker Chris Murphy helped start the organization after reading this article in the New Yorker about the cultural fissure opening up in the Bay Area.

“I think there needs to be easier opportunities to get folks engaged with community in a very quickly gentrifying area,” he said.

About 50 people came to the Feb. 10 event at Usulutan, a Salvadoran restaurant in the Mission District. The long-term residents consisted of mostly organizers past the age of 40. A majority of the tech people were 20-somethings, employed at established corporations such as Google and Facebook or at small startups.

Out for a Quick Field Trip

After mingling, the members of the group went on a quick field trip to learn some local history. They all walked across the street to the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center. Many of the tech workers at the event had just recently moved to the Mission District. At a question-and-answer session, they asked about the history behind the murals in their new neighborhood.

Former Board of Supervisors member Christina Olague is helping organize the EngageSF dinners. She says that at every meeting they will do one cultural event to try and bring tech workers and the established community closer together. EngageSF has also set up committees to encourage tech workers to volunteer.

At the dinner, many in tech said they felt stigmatized by their profession. Thomas Devol says he came out to show the community that not all tech workers were selfish, and that they couldn’t all be lumped together into one category. Stan Rosenthal says he takes the protests and tension personally.

“Just the other day down on Mission Street,” he says, “I walked by this sign that said, ‘Beware of dog,’ and ‘dog’ was scratched out and ‘techies’ was written.”

At the dinner, many in tech said they felt stigmatized by their profession.

On the other side of the room, Mission resident Mark Rabine tells a Google employee how he himself  was a “gentrifier” back in 1977. He says the protests happening these days should not be directed at the workers but at the companies — the real problem.

“The protests around gentrification, I think, are very proper,” he says, “but not aimed at people that are moving in. The tech workers are just like the rest of us who moved into the Mission.”

Well, that is, aside from the six-figure salaries.

EngageSF plans to have meetings every second Monday of the month. Olague says the next one will be held in a setting where tech workers can interact more directly with Latinos and working-class residents.

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Category: News, Technology

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About the Author ()

Sam got his start in radio at WAMC in upstate New York. Before moving to the Bay Area, he graduated from Middlebury College and taught English in Lombardy. After volunteering and reporting for KALW, he joined KQED in 2010 as a local news intern. His work now appears regularly on Marketplace, The World, KQED News, and The California Report. Reach Sam Harnett at samharnett@gmail.com.

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