This week a curious piece of video went viral: a real time dispute, shot on a cell phone, over the use of a soccer field in San Francisco. It seems that some dudes from Dropbox wanted to play some dudes from Airbnb so they went online and paid $34 to reserve a field. When they got there they were told by the local teenagers using the field that their permit was meaningless; The field had its own longstanding system, where if you want to play you challenge the team on the field, and if you win you get the field and take on the next challenger.
I clicked on this video because of the headline: “Dropbox Dudes Tried To Kick Kids Off A Soccer Field.” Those Dropbox Dudes sound like assholes, I thought to myself. I lived in San Francisco for six years, I still have a lot of friends there, and I left at least part of my heart there back in 2001. I care about the city and I’m interested in what happens to it. So I clicked and read on:
Tech bros will stop at nothing to get what they perceive to be theirs. In the latest example of unchecked hubris, we witness as a squad of adults in Dropbox jerseys argue with and cuss at children over a San Francisco soccer field.
The post concludes, “You couldn’t cast a more symbolic display of tech-fueled gentrification in San Francisco.”
Then I watched the video, expecting to see a bunch of Kevins screaming something like “Get the fuck off our field you little maggots!” at a bunch of 9-year-olds while they chased them off the field swinging baseball bats at them. Instead, I saw this:
Maybe I need glasses or something, but what I saw in that video was an honest misunderstanding between some guys in their 20s and some teenagers that is mostly courteous and respectful, and never gets more heated than a low simmer. The Dropbox/Airbnb guys needed a place to play, they went online and found a field to reserve (precisely so they wouldn’t have to kick anyone off the field), but found when they got there that there is a disconnect between the San Francisco Parks & Rec Department’s reservation policy and the local custom of “winner stays.”
It’s not clear from the video how the conflict was resolved, but apparently both Dropbox (the company) and one of the guys involved apologized for his part in the incident, adding “In case it helps, we worked it out that day so everyone got to play.” Seems like no harm, no foul, right?
But reading the comments under the articles about this, it seems that people can’t wait to pile on and turn this thing into the ultimate metaphor for the Clueless, Entitled, White Privilege Manifest Destiny Techbros and How They Are Ruining San Francisco.
I don’t want to get into the rightness or wrongness of the idea of reserving a field on a public park, though I will say that it is not the least bit unusual where I live (in Brooklyn). My kid plays little league and AYSO soccer, and were it not for the ability to reserve fields in Prospect Park, there would be 500 kids in uniforms waiting all day for their turn to get clobbered by adults every Saturday. Tough luck kids, winner stays.
What’s more interesting is the rush to see everything, no matter how small, as more proof that tech workers (or “techbros,” and everyone seems to have agreed to refer to them) are rude, inconsiderate, entitled, spoiled, overpaid, uninterested in the arts or local customs, racist, classist, elitist, etcetera etcetera etcetera.
I haven’t been to San Francisco in a long time, so I will readily acknowledge the possibility that I’m completely off base with what I’m about to say. Also, full disclosure, I am not a “techbro,” nor is any of my close friends or family. But as someone who loves the city (sorry — “The City” — never did get used to that) and cares about it and would like it to stay the safe place for freaks and weirdos and boho free expression that I fell in love with, I would like to suggest that maybe this knee-jerk, broad-brush demonizing of your new neighbors, the techbros, may not be the best approach.
I decided to move to San Francisco in 1995, a few months after I graduated college on the East Coast, after a meandering cross-country drive where I paid everyone I knew around the country a visit, sort of auditioning places to settle down. I made stops in Buffalo, Chicago, Colorado, Montana, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I had no career plan or prospects, but after a couple of weeks crashing on a friend’s couch in the Sunset District, I decided this was where I wanted to stay, and I soon signed a lease on a studio in the Tenderloin, then flew back to my parents’ to get my stuff out of storage and ship it back to my new place.
On the plane back to SF, I found myself in a conversation with the guy sitting next to me, a dude about my age who was kind of wandering around the same way I was. I told him I didn’t have any furniture yet, but if he needed to crash on my floor he was welcome to do that. A couple of days later he called me and invited me to a dinner party. Since I had literally nothing else going on, I went and had dinner with this dude and two women a couple of years older than me. During the course of the evening one of these gals mentioned that they needed a bartender at the restaurant where she waitressed, so I piped up that I was a bartender, and she gave me the address of the place and promised to tell them I was coming by. After dinner, I volunteered to do the dishes, and the other gal there gently admonished me that California was in a drought, and that I shouldn’t leave the water running while I washed the dishes. She also introduced me to the “if it’s yellow let it mellow” school of water conservation. What she did not do was lecture me about my white privilege sense of entitlement to unlimited water.
I did get that bartending job, and I worked there a month or two before a regular customer there, who lived across the street with her boyfriend, who also worked at the restaurant, mentioned over a glass of chardonnay that I should take my English degree and see her friend who was hiring writers for a new project called NetGuide, a website that aimed to serve as “TV Guide for the Internet.” I had never seen a website before, and said so; she invited me over to their apartment so I could check out this crazy business called Yahoo! where you type in whatever you want and find millions of websites about it. I sat alone in their little office room for over an hour surfing the web for the first time, and before I knew it I had a job surfing the web that paid me more than I’d ever been paid before. The business, as you have probably guessed, did not succeed, but a high percentage of my best friends, people I still see frequently, came from that job.
Not long into the gig, my supervisor mentioned that he had a date that night, and I said “where are you taking her?” or something like that. He smiled and mockingly wagged his finger at me. “You’re making an unreasonable assumption there,” he said, and as he went on to answer my question I realized that his date was with a him, not a her, and never made that mistake again with him or anyone else. What he did not do was call me a homophobe, or decry my role in patriarchal gender normative society, or accuse me of trying to ruin his city. He just gave a clueless kid a gentle nudge in the right direction.
The point is that I arrived in a city where I knew almost no one and had no plan at all, but thanks to the warm, friendly people I met there I found myself with a job, and then a better job, within three months of my arrival. I still can’t believe how quickly I was able to set myself up in that city, and it’s down to the generous nature of the people I met. I was a stupid 22-year-old kid — you might even have called me a “bro” — but the people I met took me in and took me by the hand and taught me how to live and get along in San Francisco. These few anecdotes do not begin to cover how much I grew as a person in the six years I lived there.
I don’t quite understand what’s changed, that no one seems to be doing this with the “techbros.” The impulse seems instead to be to circle the wagons and try to keep them out. Maybe they are clueless, maybe they are entitled, maybe they have no taste, but isn’t that true of all the San Franciscans who came from somewhere else (which is almost all of them) when they first arrive?
It’s not necessarily just a matter of etiquette. Like it or not, the people who work at Google and Apple and Facebook and Twitter are building the future of this country and of the world. As a result they also have enough money to lobby the government to write the laws the way they want them written. They are building the tools that we are increasingly relying on in our daily lives, tools that could easily be taken advantage of in unsettling ways. Maybe that’s too much power, maybe it’s unjust, but none of that really matters because it IS. It just is. So when they think about the time they spent in San Francisco, and liberal San Francisco values, do you want them to think fondly, or do you want them to think, “fuck those people?” When you say “we have to do something to save the wetlands” do you want the techbros to listen eagerly and get out their checkbook, or just say “fuck the wetlands and fuck you too?” Alienating the entire tech industry may not be the smartest long-term play. I believe the techbros are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way, because like it or not, they’re going to lead the way. If they show up at the soccer field clueless about how it’s done there, don’t scream at them, patiently explain this is how we do it here (which, to his credit, is exactly what the local kid in the video did).
My brother hates Beck. He hates Beck because in college, we were in a band with a guy who loved Beck, who insisted that we cover one of Beck’s tunes. The guy was kind of an asshole in general and to my brother in particular. Even though neither of us has seen that guy in 20 years, my brother still hates Beck. His mind was made up in 1994, when Beck was still the “Loser” guy, and not even “Odelay” or “Midnite Vultures” could change his mind, so intense was his hatred for our Beck-loving bandmate.
People make associations like that. They’re not logical, they have no basis in reason, it’s just one of those weird quirks of humanity. So by singlemindedly, indiscriminately calling a huge and growing subset of people by a reductive name and doing everything you can to get them out of your city — an effort that’s doomed to fail, because they have more money — you’re planting those kinds of associations in their minds about San Francisco Liberals and the things they care about.
Maybe it’s a lost cause. It certainly appears that the battle lines are drawn and it’s too late for any reconciliation or understanding. I’m sure there’s a lot more to this than I’m seeing, and I don’t mean to be so reductive as to suggest that being nice will solve everything. But if the economic history of the last thousand years is any indication, the techbros are there to stay, so it might be a good idea to try a little tenderness.
Mostly I just hate the term “techbro.” Somewhere Herb Caen is rolling in his grave over that one.