Easy Chair — From the November 2016 issue

Coming Apart

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In early 2015, fire ravaged a three-story building at the corner of 22nd and Mission in San Francisco. The blaze killed Mauricio Orellana, an immigrant from El Salvador, and destroyed the homes of around sixty people, the offices of many small businesses, and the thriving food hall on the ground floor, which had included a taqueria, a produce store, a florist’s, a butcher, and a fish-and-poultry shop. There had been so many fires in the Mission District that some suspected landlord arson, but officials blamed faulty wiring. The building was left as it was, and by the spring of 2016, the grand old structure had so deteriorated from neglect and water damage that the city ordered it demolished, eliminating the tenants’ right to return.

As the old neighborhood food hall was reduced to a hole in the ground, former investment bankers from London prepared to open a place just seven blocks away, called, with no apparent irony, Foodhall. The goal, according to one of the proprietors, was to “elevate the take-home dining experience.” With its wide array of alcohol, artisanal chocolate, coffee, and tiny three-dollar bowls of organic berries arranged under dangling Edison bulbs, the place would provide what its recruitment ad called a “unique shopping experience for food and drink enthusiasts in San Francisco.” They were still looking for workers when I stopped by a few months ago, perhaps because skyrocketing housing prices have dried up the supply of people willing or able to work for service-industry wages.

For many longtime residents of the Mission District, the fires, the evictions, the exploding housing prices, and the police killings of brown, black, poor, and homeless locals are not arbitrary events. They are instead related forces, all meant to drive out people like them. The anguish is so intense that five people camped in front of the Mission Police Station this spring, refusing to eat a bite, as part of a protest they called Hunger for Justice. The fast, which obliged throngs of restaurant and bar patrons to walk past starving, outraged people for several weeks, took place almost directly between Foodhall and the former food hall.

The term we commonly use for what is happening in the Mission is “gentrification.” But the changes at hand are taking place on a far greater scale, and are connected to a nationwide reorganization of places, resources, and possibilities. In his new book, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, Jeff Chang, a cultural historian at Stanford, makes clear how extreme this process is, how shocking it would be if it weren’t so slow, subtle, and complex. He draws connections between the transformed geographies of race, the rise of “vanilla cities and their chocolate suburbs,” the gaping economic divide, and the role of police in enforcing the containment of black people in whatever region is deemed theirs, urban or suburban. His book reminded me that all the things I knew about demographic shifts and economic disparity and police brutality and the rest lock together into something fearsome and appalling, like a mechanical shark with innumerable moving parts.

People move into neighborhoods like the Mission voluntarily, but they often move out involuntarily — and when they go, they are pushed to many kinds of margins. We have witnessed a quiet inversion of what cities are and what suburbs are. We have undergone a massive financial rearrangement that has made some of us rich and a lot of us desperate — and at the same time, have seen the desegregation efforts of the 1960s and 1970s unwind before our eyes. In 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that segregation by income, too, was on the rise. We’re coming apart.

Segregation by race is still the greater problem. Earlier this year, the Washington Post noted that the number of schools in which low-income and non-white students make up more than 90 percent of the population — the “most intensively segregated schools” — more than doubled between 2001 and 2014. The return of segregation undoes the work of the civil-rights movement and the Great Society and the war on poverty. It limits us all, whatever our race and class, in who we imagine we are and can be, and how we connect to one another. It locks not only the poor into poverty but the affluent into insular obliviousness; it prevents us from knowing one another, and perhaps ourselves.

Can we understand the massive rearrangement of wealth and of space as simultaneous things? Many already do. When a homeless African-American mother was killed by the San Francisco police in June, two grim-faced women were photographed at the memorial service holding up a banner that said we are the last 3% of black sf. The radical shrinkage of the black population has taken place as the city has surged and boomed and been annexed as the northern edge of Silicon Valley. Versions of this erasure and outrage exist all over the country, from Seattle to Houston, from Brooklyn to Boyle Heights to New Orleans. So much trouble arises from these arrangements, including the consignment of poorer people to the ill-served sprawl and invisibility of the suburbs and the question of what cities will be when they have once again been turned inside out.

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