Coming Apart, by Rebecca Solnit

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

To change your password click here.

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.

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.

I moved to San Francisco shortly before Ronald Reagan took office and the national economic revolution, or counterrevolution, began. By 1980, many of the industrial cities were dying. The blue-collar jobs had faded away, and the foundries, factories, and breweries left behind were ruins — unless they were being rehabilitated as artists’ spaces, like the old sweatshop district of SoHo in New York City, or torn down and carted away as post-industrial refuse. Jobs were beginning to go overseas, in a trickle that would, by the 1990s, become a flood. There was a powerful sense of being at the end of something, a sense of decline, decay, decadence, and the shadow of nuclear war hung over us. In other ways, though, it was still the evening of a golden age. Tuition was minimal at California’s public universities, housing and other living costs were far more manageable on low wages, and the safety net of social services had not yet been dismantled. Just getting by had a kind of glory to it.

White flight was then discussed as a bad thing, as though it were whiteness and not investment and policy that had made cities thrive, as though it were whiteness and not access to education and jobs and financial services that made citizens thrive. The suburbs to which white people were fleeing were subsidized with roadbuilding and tax breaks for homeowners. Cities, with their diminishing tax bases, were meanwhile hit with cutbacks that made things fall apart. Detroit, for example, had been a city of nearly 2 million at midcentury. Then 1.4 million white people left, driven by the declining auto industry, weakened unions, racism, and the allure of suburbia. The city now has about 700,000 people, most of them black, though young white people unable to find footing in more affluent urban areas are now arriving, seeing it as a place of opportunity. A predictable boom in real-estate speculation has begun, and Detroit is changing again. Yet these financially flailing cities have been places of tremendous cultural production and political vitality; in their regained affluence, they tend to be culturally senescent.

New York’s population declined for the first time in its history during the 1970s: 1.75 million white people left, and they were only partly replaced by non-white arrivals. Then, slowly, incrementally, the trajectory reversed. White people wanted cities back. Manhattan’s white population, proportionally in decline since 1940, began to rise in 2000, and other cities followed similar patterns. This is an epochal change. Before the current millennium, urban centers had become leftovers, as well as containment systems for non-white people, kept out of the suburbs by covenants and redlining and hostility. Now affluence and whiteness are retaking the city, slowly but surely turning it back into an exclusionary zone.

The men who ran for the presidency in 2016 didn’t seem to be tuned in to this reversal. In the spring, Bernie Sanders talked about “what it’s like to be living in a ghetto” — a term that evoked the way cities used to be when he left them for Vermont, decades ago, as part of what we might call countercultural white flight. It was even more peculiar to hear Donald Trump refer to an epidemic of inner-city crime and add that “for too many years, our inner cities have been left behind,” as though what used to be called the inner city hadn’t started its march toward gentrification way back when the G.O.P. nominee was still a local real-estate operator and figure of fun.

Crime, in fact, has been declining since the end of the 1970s, but cracking down on crime was long a conservative mantra, and perhaps that’s what Trump was thinking of. In any case, crime and punishment also have their geographic dimensions. A few years ago, the prison scholar Lydia Pelot-Hobbs pointed out to me that the penal facilities dotting the landscape of rural Louisiana can be considered exurbs of New Orleans, since so many of their inmates are from the city. The same is true of California: you can view the construction of twenty-two prisons in remote locations around the state since 1984 as a peculiar and barbaric scheme to export urban residents as the raw material for rural employment.

A fact: when the prison system was much smaller, so was the billionaire-making system. Back in 1980, when California had around 24,000 prisoners, there were thirteen billionaires in the United States. There are now 540 billionaires in the United States and 124,000 Californians in prison. The link between the two numbers is anything but arbitrary. Wealth exists in direct relation to poverty, and poverty and incarceration feed off each other. Overcrowded homes, prisons, decaying suburbs, the streets, and early graves are some of the places to which the poor are being pushed. You can see correlations in all this data, loops and vicious circles and traps and dead ends, a geography like one of those board games where some rise and gain, while others fall and fail and hit the wall.

Black Lives Matter has been applying a similarly panoramic lens to police killings, not only decrying the losses but calling out the way all the pieces are arranged on the board. When Eric Garner was choked to death by a Staten Island policeman, he had been reduced to selling loose cigarettes to support his family and had already been arrested many times for minor illegalities. When Walter Scott was pulled over by a North Charleston policeman for a missing taillight and subsequently shot in the back five times, he was indeed running, because he was behind on child support and feared being jailed. We know those stories now, but it’s the conjunction that we need to see, the way these stars together make up a constellation of — well, maybe of a policeman strangling a father of six.

Then there are the constellations of economic policy and policing and public health. Oakland, where many of the displaced San Franciscans have gone, lost a quarter of its African-American residents between 2000 and 2010. They have been uprooted — but those who stayed behind have also suffered. At the end of August, Muntu Davis, the director of Alameda County’s public-health department, announced that the housing crisis had become a health crisis, causing an increase in hospitalization for hypertension, mental disturbances, asthma, and other stress-related conditions. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, around the same time, four Black Lives Matter activists chained themselves to the doors of City Hall before dawn to protest housing policies. “Meanwhile, the people of color are disappearing,” said one of the organizers. “Meanwhile, Cambridge is getting less and less affordable for average people. Meanwhile, families are disappearing. We’re here because we’re saying we want to keep Cambridge, Cambridge.”

I want to record and cross-reference it all, to fold in how Silicon Valley produces software with racial biases and eliminates jobs and workplace stability, creating wealth out of poverty like the rest, but there are too many details to set down. Instead, I collect stories. In 1965, on their first wedding anniversary, Franzo and Marina King heard John Coltrane play at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop. “When John Coltrane came onto the stage, we could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit moving with him,” they say. They considered the saxophonist a transmitter of the divine, and jazz a means of spiritual communion. Spreading this vision has been their life’s work. The couple founded an organization that eventually became the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Its longtime home was a storefront in what was then part of the Western Addition, a central San Francisco neighborhood with a large black population that has since been eaten away by gentrification and by real-estate agents’ rebranding of nearly every square inch of it.

With its jazz services and its tall decorative panels of dark figures painted in the style of Byzantine saints, the Coltrane church exemplified the kind of hybrid, eccentric culture that flourished in San Francisco in the twentieth century. In 1999, during the first tech boom, its rent was more than doubled, a de facto eviction. A boutique replaced the church, which remained in exile for years. In 2006, it found a second home on Fillmore Street, which had once been the center of a thriving black cultural community and is now a sort of memorial to it. Church secure, the Kings became victims of the subprime mortgage crisis, fighting to keep Wells Fargo from foreclosing on their house. They eventually won an adjustment. I often saw Franzo, a tall, slender, elegant man, defending others at foreclosure protests in San Francisco’s poor non-white neighborhoods.

In 2016, however, the church was pushed out again. This May, the Coltrane flock found temporary quarters inside an Episcopalian church not far from where it was evicted in 1999. At around the same time, the Sierra Club left San Francisco because it could no longer afford the rent. A small jazz church and the most powerful environmental organization in the country might not seem to have a lot in common. But both were idealistic products of the city, and they fostered a particular, even peculiar vision of the world that arose here and nowhere else. Both defined the place for me. The Sierra Club, after 124 years in the city where it was founded, will be fine in its new home in Oakland. It’s San Francisco that is bereft, whether it knows it or not.

I have joked for a few years that I am not leaving San Francisco, but that perhaps it is leaving me. The city seems to me now like that friend of your youth who gradually changes, does things you’d never do, believes things that violate your dearest beliefs — and then one day, you behold a stranger.

Cities have always been cruel, of course. They’ve nearly always served and been run by elites; corruption is the mortar that held many of them together. But until recently, there was room for more complexity, more diversity, more unregulated and unpatrolled turbulence in them. There are cities around the world, from Lima to Kathmandu, where this is still true, and perhaps the great cultures and movements of the future will come from there, but the North American and European cities that are becoming elite strongholds are pushing out diversity, complexity, cultural production, and dissent. They are becoming what is worst about the suburbs.

Culture is tough. It thrives in ruins and survives in exile. Still, cities have been where insurrections and movements and a lot of creative work got done. How this will unfold in the future is hard to imagine. Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, in 1964, and you could read that as a case for suburban vitality. But Rudy Van Gelder’s celebrated recording studio, built in the rough shape of a chapel, depended on proximity to New York City — a different New York City from the one that exists today.

In a country where the white majority is shrinking, where non-white people are crucial to national and many state elections, what does the rise of these concentrations of whiteness at the center mean? How do these two forms of growth counter each other? Will the unaffordability of cities make them so dysfunctional that they fail, or will the modestly paid people who keep them running just commute from far away to drive and clean and cook and teach? What edges are depends on what centers are, and what our centers are mutating into is strange and troubling.

More from