In the San Francisco Bay Area, a booming technology industry has led to increasing inequality, the privatization of public resources and concerns that public institutions and a sense of shared public purpose are in decline. Public Knowledge scholar Jon Christensen, an environmental historian and journalist, sat down with sociologist and economist Michael Storper to explore these and other themes at the heart of Public Knowledge, including the evolving role of public entities, the importance of networks to civic life, and the complex cultural and economic history of innovation in California.
Interview with MICHAEL STORPER, Distinguished Professor of Regional and International Development in Urban Planning, Director of Global Public Affairs at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, and a co-author of The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Stanford Business Books, 2016.
Conducted by JON CHRISTENSEN, Adjunct Assistant Professor in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Department of History, Center for Digital Humanities, and Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies.
JON CHRISTENSEN: Michael, your research on the San Francisco Bay Area shows that in capturing the new economy, the Bay Area gained greater affluence and households experienced rising incomes. Yet, there is increasing concern about the resulting rise in inequality and decline in the commons. How do you see the relationship between those two trends?
MICHAEL STORPER: The most successful urban areas today are, on average, also the most internally unequal ones. Inequality is rising in most parts of the world, and among the Western countries, the United States is where inequality has risen the most for the country as a whole.
The Bay Area is, in economic terms, the most successful area in America today, maybe in the world, judged by its incomes and productivity. When we measure income inequality in the Bay Area, using the index that is known as the Gini coefficient on income, Bay Area inequality is about the same as New York, Los Angeles, and several other large metropolitan areas with high per capita incomes. The paradox is that some other places in America have less inequality, but they are poorer on average. The optics of it are often misleading. When you are in places like San Francisco and Manhattan, it seems outrageous, because you’re looking at $12 million apartments and expensive restaurants, and then people sleeping on the street. But if you go into small town America, or even the less successful metropolitan areas in America, homelessness, drug abuse, lack of social services and so on are probably worse than in San Francisco. Now, I’m not saying this to be an apologist, but to put San Francisco and other highly successful metropolitan areas in perspective.
The other perspective to offer is social mobility. It turns out that the highest intergenerational social mobility in America is in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you go to Atlanta or Dallas, there is a much lower probability that from one generation to another you will move up the income scale. That actually makes a lot of sense because San Francisco is a very dynamic economy.
We can come back to the housing dimension of inequality, but it is true that housing is where inequality becomes part of the lived feelings or fabric of daily life, and in this respect, the Bay Area is feeling the mismatch between income inequality and the array of housing that is available to people.
JC: I thought that San Francisco had much greater social mobility over the last generation than what it is likely to have going forward. Isn’t there evidence that with both inequality and segregation, the conditions for social mobility are not great, especially in an area like San Francisco?
MS: Social mobility in America has declined since 1975 because we reached the end of the United States’s education century, where we spent a hundred years extending educational opportunity to greater and greater proportions of the population. The lagged effect of that is that now America has become less socially mobile than Western Europe. But within America, you still have differences. The worst cases of low social mobility are rural areas and the South, because they have the most regressive social structures.
In cities like San Francisco, LA, New York, and any of the big cities, we understand that we are multicultural and diverse—racially, ethnically, socially—and that it’s a strength. Research in economics demonstrates that diversity leads to creativity, that the mixing of people is one of the reasons why you have that. Homogeneous societies aren’t as creative. Economically, you can measure it. This is probably related to the finding that the Bay Area, though one of the most unequal metropolitan areas in America, is also one of its more socially mobile. So the picture one gets from a snapshot versus a movie of the region is very different.
We can’t peer into the future and know what’s changing, and it might be that a place like San Francisco is getting rigid, that it’s becoming less socially mobile because of the highly moneyed class, combined with national policies that are not supporting education as a tool of social mobility. The future of social mobility in the Bay Area will depend on whether we can continue to compensate the anti-mobility forces—such as the cost of education—with progressive policies that spread opportunity down the economic ladder.
JC: How do these trends relate to a sense of the decline in the commons, public institutions, public knowledge and public purpose? It seems to be something that is particularly accentuated in the Bay Area, perhaps because of the culture of Silicon Valley, where everything can be solved by a start-up.
MS: Once again, we have to see the Bay Area in the national and world setting. The last forty years of policy since the Reagan-era have been tilted against public space, public goods and public institutions. To my mind, that goes along with the end of the education century, where starting in the ’70s, income inequality and segregation led to the decline of schooling as the great meeting ground of the country.
Where does the Bay Area fit in? In a way, there’s a contest for the heart and soul of the Bay Area. There’s the Silicon Valley Bay Area, which is highly individualistic, we think we can solve everything with an app or an algorithm, we want to disrupt everything, we have no respect for the past, we think the past is just kind of old tradition and weighs us down. On the other hand, the Bay Area has this history of being, for a long time, one of the most progressive areas in America, and has a dense tissue of social involvement. It has spawned a variety of progressive social and community movements. It’s the absolute ground zero of the American environmental movement. It has traditionally had high levels of community activism. Even from the nineteenth century, when it was a frontier town, it had a surprisingly progressive elite that built the cultural institutions of San Francisco, and it’s been an inventor of a lot of interesting culture.
JC: What are the risks the Bay Area now faces?
MS: The Bay Area’s economic success has been premised on its social connectivity and what I would call recombination. It’s the fact that you break open groups and combine things to make innovation happen. When you get cloistered communities, you tend to get stagnant corporate bureaucracies, because they just continue to do their own thing. You don’t get radical innovation, and that’s what the Bay Area pioneered.
Paradoxically, really strong existing social networks in the Bay Area created Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley was not created out of whole cloth by conservative engineers. Through complex Bay Area networks, the traditional engineering community was brought into contact with the alternative technology movement and with environmental activists. One of the main points of contact was the Palo Alto Xerox PARC Research Center. The person who coined the phrases “information wants to be free” and “personal computer” wasn’t an engineer—it was Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog. It was the confluence of these different groups that led to Silicon Valley’s big breakthrough of making the IT revolution user-friendly instead of just oriented to supercomputing or missile guidance systems.
Silicon Valley is now not a small place. It’s become a very large complex, consisting of a hierarchy of the big companies, the small companies and the venture capitalists. It’s mega-money. It’s a world power center. Are those people being drawn through institutions and networks into an inclusive social life of the Bay Area? In an ideal world, this would do two things: It would help them to continue to be humanists, as well as world-dominating technologists, and it would help them to be not just civically involved in the traditional sense but to be involved in philanthropy and social activism, to be drawn into common ground with other people.
To put it bluntly, Silicon Valley capitalism must be more than about disrupting markets and daily life. It has to be involved in constructing. And this requires a broad, humanistic vision of things. Public institutions are the conveners of such visions, and they will be in the case of the Bay Area just as they have always been in every other great city at the time that it has made its mark on humanity. Virtual social networks are not a replacement for such high-touch public institutions and the deep commitments and connections they foster, and the non-siloed dialogues they sustain.
JC: Can the social networks that helped the Bay Area seize the new economy help with the problems that have come with it, especially the flight from public institutions? Or are new networks needed?
MS: I think you’re asking a really important question. There’s a strong trend in philanthropy: “I want to do my thing, private philanthropy. I want my name on it. I want to have my museum, my charity, my project, and I want to keep control over it.”
That’s part of the fragmentation. If everybody has their own museum, it cuts in one direction. If you have all this segmentation and variety, where do we all come together? And that, of course, is part of the media world, too, which fragments us with this immense choice. What’s the common ground?
On the grassroots side, we have this proliferation of involvements—that’s the good news—a strong civil society, but it’s a very fragmented civil society. I would say, in some ways, the degree of fragmentation is such that you don’t have organizations where different viewpoints are confronted. People are into an organization that’s doing their thing. And this is the condition of our time. As we know, this has led to the creation of many silos, separate realities, polarization of views, skepticism and cynicism about the possibility of common truths.
And yet it is in the Bay Area that the first signs of an awakening to the dangers of the internet-fragmented world are coming about, from some of the same people who invented this technological revolution. That reflects, also, the deep intellectual and humanistic traditions of the Bay Area, and let’s hope that it is the beginning of a new wave of balancing the advantages of the Information Age with a new public space.
JC: In your book, The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, you write that the Bay Area Council played a crucial role in fostering public knowledge of the new economy. How did it do that, and how would you translate that to thinking about what’s needed for meeting some of these challenges successfully?
MS: In the 1980s, the Bay Area Council was the traditional business leadership of San Francisco. The city, at that period, was being eclipsed economically by Silicon Valley’s growth. The big action, population and money were in Silicon Valley. The Bay Area Council easily could have been marginalized and replaced by a different leadership group, and the region would have fragmented. Instead, the Council reached out to the emerging tech community in the South Bay. The reason that the traditional leaders of Bay Area business were able to do so is that they were forward-looking, but they also had many diverse social connections to the new generation of technologists in Silicon Valley.
JC: I take it that this networking, as we say now, was a very self-conscious project of the Bay Area Council.
MS: It was. Some networking was serendipitous, like the networking that occurred when the Palo Alto Research Center was set up, and how it managed to involve people from Berkeley and Stanford, alternative technology people from Marin and San Francisco, some of whom were tied into the environmental movement and who, in turn, were backed up by the forward-looking downtown elite of San Francisco. Although some of them were in resource industries, cutting down redwoods, some were also involved in the Save the Redwoods League, and slowly but surely, social and business connections were established.
It was initially spontaneous. But then, the Bay Area Council became conscious about it. It became an institution that developed an explicit, inclusive strategy, and in a very determined way, went to its new business counterparts—mostly in the South Bay—and attempted to draw them in. This highlights the importance of having public institutions that serve as public squares or convening points. And you need to have institutional continuity.
JC: Can cultural arts institutions and libraries be the convening points for creating narratives about who we are in a wider sense?
MS: I believe that they can and we can use Los Angeles as an example of such institutions changing the narrative of that region in a very positive way. LA has always had vibrant arts communities, Hollywood as a cultural force, various kinds of bohemian movements, and a strong public library system created early in the twentieth century. But, as we know, LA is also very fragmented, socially and geographically. LA was more conservative than the Bay Area politically, having been ruled by a cohesive downtown elite—the so-called Committee of 25—until its loss of influence in the 1960s. LA then went through some rough times. It had a tradition of segregation and rebellion, starting with the Watts riots in 1965. It had the Rodney King riots. It had a police department that was put in federal receivership. There was a feeling of generalized decline in the region in the early 1990s.
But if you look at LA today, there is a widespread agreement that we are a diverse, multicultural metropolis looking to the future. How did this sense emerge? It has emerged through a renaissance of civic activism—community, labor, and leadership groups and networks—and some public institutions play a role in that. The incredibly high-quality programs of the public library come to mind, and how they collaborate with universities and associations and radio stations and museums, which now form a solid tissue of region-wide conversations that make LA an incredibly stimulating place to be today. After a long period of crisis, LA now has forums where we analyze and come to common understanding of how to move forward. It’s a much brighter time in part because of this tissue, in which public institutions play an essential role.
JC: It seems to me that there are several threads here. One is that creating the networks that are essential to taking advantage of what comes next requires the networks to be open and flexible and dynamic. One of the key reasons that Los Angeles was not able to seize the new economy in the 1980s and 1990s and the Bay Area seized it was because of those networks.
The openness between the universities, firms and venture capital—and the movement between them—was part of that story. Perhaps this next phase in our cities needs to bring into that story the cultural institutions. And it’s hard work. You’ve got to commit to it over the long run. But that’s what institutions can do. And if the Bay Area can’t do this, who can?
MS: One thing about those networks is they have to be composed of different kinds of people. There have to be networks of networks. You’ve got business networks, you’ve got people in the arts world, but there have to be convening spaces that are the public squares, where ideas get mixed and recombined—that’s what creates newness and the ability to go forward together, and that’s what the Bay Area had. It had them both spontaneously but also because the Bay Area Council constructed them.
This goes back to the problem of silos that we mentioned earlier. The silos can be virtual or they can come about when people lose the means of connecting in the real world. Along these lines, a worrisome point for the Bay Area, which affects the arts and which everybody talks about, is that it’s really expensive. LA is an amazing artistic powerhouse right now because we’ve got space for artists, and the institutions I mentioned are actively weaving the artists into the fabric of civic life, helping LA to imagine what kind of community it wants to be, and helping people to think about meaning, in ways that go beyond the merely economic. Though the Bay Area traditionally has had strong artistic communities, it is now challenged to maintain them. Artists— but also all the other communities in civic life—build up networks that are hard to create, but relatively easy to destroy.
JC: As you pointed out in the beginning, all successful metropolitan areas—and even some of the struggling metropolitan areas—are grappling with these issues. In some ways, we look to learn from the Bay Area. But what we learn here will also have implications around the world.
MS: Absolutely. The lesson from history about city regions that are successful is that’s the moment when you can really do things. Unfortunately, it’s only when you get into a crisis that everyone says, “Oh, we need to make change.” But by the time you’re in crisis, when there’s a down slope of the economic cycle, there are immediate problems. So this kind of forward-looking, real building stuff—this is the moment to strike in the Bay Area, because the Bay Area is riding high.
So, the core issue for the Bay Area in economic terms would be, how do we keep its innovative—technology and creative—energy going and not become another just-corporate town? How can this be coupled with the humanism that makes the region more than just a successful economy, but one that is humanly successful through social mobility, mixing and joie de vivre? Along these lines, there’s a danger when you become highly successful, and it is that you can become straight-laced, bourgeois and comfortable. And then, to put it bluntly, you’ve lost your soul. We shouldn’t be complacent, because in the Bay Area today there are a lot of people suffering—but also because cities have to keep moving, changing, mixing and not just be pretty and perfect. If you think about the arts playing a generative role within the urban system, the arts can’t just do their thing off in their corner. They have to do it somehow in these networks, enmeshed in these networks.
The arts aren’t just about artists, as producers of art. Great artistic cities in the past have been great in that way because they also had a public that was thirsty for art, that saw art and creativity as just as essential to living as earning a living or eating. The arts become central to what people talk about, essential mirrors of the important issues of the day, whether political, social or economic. If you look at places that are centers of artistic development, it’s not just that you have the artists, musicians and playwrights, it’s that they are responding to a hungry public—a public that has a culture of wanting this stuff and of being informed and involved and critical enough to push the artists to be better and better. It may sound like a cliché, but art must be everywhere, lived and breathed, not as a sideline or as Saturday entertainment, but as an essential component of economics, technology, society, politics, because it is the space where we can see things that go beyond the debates of experts and unify the human spirit. All great artistic cities have had this zeitgeist, and they have had public institutions that nourished the zeitgeist.