June 18, 2019

In San Francisco, Money Doesn't Buy Happiness

“Two years ago, sometime in the spring, I stepped outside my apartment in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to find the block plastered with gone-missing posters for a small black cat named Sergeant Pepper. The cat belonged to the Red Victorian, an intentional community and “experimental hostel” around the corner. During the Summer of Love, in 1967, the Red Vic had been a flower-child flophouse; in 2017, its tenants subleased the front of the building to a vintage shop called Sunchild’s Parlour, which trafficked in fringed suede and psychedelic synthetics and often flung open its doors to attract tourists. Maybe it was through those doors that Sergeant Pepper had escaped.

On the posters, the words “halp,” “lost,” and “kthx” had been superimposed over a blurry photo of Sergeant Pepper’s face. It was a brand of humor popularized by Cheezburger, Inc., a startup that operates the Web sites “Know Your Meme” and “I Can Has Cheezburger?” and has, to date, raised forty-two million dollars in venture capital. The flyers flapped against parking signs and building gates; some were taped to a construction crew’s portable toilet, which was padlocked every night against the neighborhood’s growing population of homeless people. The missing posters struck me as emblematic of the new San Francisco. Millennial communitarians, carrying the torch for a neighborhood that had incubated the sixties counterculture, were using the visual currency of the Internet to send up a flare to their neighbors­, many of whom were recently transplanted tech workers paying exorbitant rent for drafty, bay-windowed bedrooms so that they could participate in our generation’s gold rush. I was in the target demographic, having moved from New York, in 2013, to work for a startup.

I glanced around idly for the cat. I remembered that the former C.E.O. of Cheezburger, Inc., Ben Huh, had recently been tapped to run a research initiative called New Cities, funded by the startup incubator Y Combinator and charged with imagining how to build an optimized, tech-centric metropolis from scratch. I asked myself who would choose to live in a city engineered by a startup incubator. I wondered why successful technocrats were fantasizing about “seasteading” communities and special economic zones. Was it San Francisco’s sclerotic, democratic bureaucracy? Its progressivism, small-scale community orientation, and dedication to processes that were often inefficient? At the time, I considered this collision of cultural references and affiliations uniquely San Franciscan. I still found it charming.”

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