Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow's ambitious and energetic new film "Company Town" sounds the alert about threats of economic change to San Francisco. "Company Town" focuses on two beloved areas of the City - The Mission District and Chinatown. Both neighborhoods have offered cheap housing and blue collar employment to waves of immigrants. Both areas have produced vibrant cultures that make them attractive to locals, tourists and newcomers of all kinds. In the public mind, they are as iconic San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge.
But the features that have made them attractive, now threaten them. Tech workers have flocked to live in the Mission District. San Francisco Examiner reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez takes us on a walking tour of his family's generational neighborhood. New, expensive stores and restaurants now make the cost of living prohibitive. Housing prices rise as steeply as the luxury condos dotting the Mission landscape. Tech Buses barrel down crowded Mission Streets carrying their well paid passengers from their trendy new homes down the SF peninsula to their pampered workplaces in Silicon Valley.
A short bus ride up from the Mission, Chinatown is also threatened by displacement caused by new industries and wealth. Long the gateway to San Francisco and the United States from all over Asia, Chinatown has also provided low cost housing and less skilled work in assembly, retail or service jobs. But as in the Mission, new development raises prices and uproots immigrant families. Low income housing is converted to use as de facto hotels of short term stays, primarily through the growth of Airbnb.
Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of Airbnb, explains how his company throws a lifeline to middle class families that are squeezed by rising prices into the monetizing of rooms or their entire homes into short term rentals. Chesky justifies this exploitation of their living spaces claiming that this new "sharing economy is profound and could be one of the greatest inventions in human history." Chesky must miss the era of child labor and weekend work. His cohort Billionaire investor Ron Conway tells critics that "it is completely false that Airbnb is part of the problem." Perhaps Conway has overlooked data showing how thousands of longtime residents have been displaced as their once affordable homes have been converted into de facto hotels.
Kaufman and Snitow have not overlooked any of this. They are not here to present a false duality and claim impartiality. They are here to present a city fighting for its economy and soul. Gordon Chin (Founder of Chinatown Community Development Center), Shaw San Liu (Chinese Progressive Association) and political activist Jeffrey Kwong all detail the sweeping changes taking place in their community. . . the push of outside money coming in to displace longtime residents and poor immigrants. Single Room Occupancy residents are not just evicted for just cause, but on any pretext possible including for the traditional drying of clothes outside their units or for posting New Years Greetings on their doors.
"Company Town" ultimately focuses on community pushback in the Board of Supervisor elections of 2015. With San Francisco's governing board evenly divided, the electoral race in District Three promised to tip the Board towards or away from pro-development control. We follow incumbent Julie Christensen, backed by Mayor Ed Lee and large corporate interests, battling former Supervisor Aaron Peskin, supported by a coalition of neighborhood groups, to and through innumerable meetings, campaign events and the colorful streets and characters of the City.
Christensen proclaims herself the champion of compassionate change, bank rolled by new economy cash. She attacks Peskin as an old fashioned, back room, wheeler and dealer. Her campaign runs ads alluding to Peskin's notorious drunk dialing episodes, his history of trying to go around the charter mandated governing process through repeated late night calls and meetings where he has bullied City managers and workers, threatening their jobs. Peskin generally sticks to issues, although exposing Christensen wearing her backers around her neck like an albatross anvil.
While Kauffman and Snitow do an excellent job framing the issues, election and dramatis personae, they are perhaps overly generous to both Christensen and Peskin as central to the City's future. And they end their film much too early. We want to know if Peskin will be ultimately successful in curbing displacement, preserving the City's vibrant characters and creative texture, keeping San Francisco livable and reigning in his notorious temper which earned the diminutive Peskin the sobriquet "Napoleon of North Beach."
Most importantly, we want to know if the lessons, the successes and failures in San Francisco will help other company towns. Is regulation the answer or even possible in the corporate structure within which we live. . . or do we ultimately need a more drastic solution to promote affordability and save our souls. Hopefully we'll one day get a sequel . . . with a happy ending!