How to Connect the Tribes?

In a recent article for San Francisco magazine (October 2012) entitled "How Much Tech Can One City Take?", writer Daniel Talbot wrestles with the pros and cons of the huge explosion of tech activity and tech wealth in San Francisco.

On the positive side of the ledger: increased tax receipts, vast improvements to blighted neighborhoods such as mid-Market and the Tenderloin, and bold, new, young energy in San Francisco.

On the negative side: spiking housing costs, a growing divide between haves and have nots, and a seeming lack of generosity on the part of young newly-minted millionaires who have not yet demonstrated a commitment to "giving back" to the city.

"A sense of libertarian stinginess prevails among San Francisco's digital elite," asserts Talbot, at a time when as a city we need an infusion of philanthropy and collaboration to replace the older generation of civic leaders whose influence is waning. "In light of this, the time has come for a serious reckoning -- for Mayor Lee, for the tech cognoscenti, and for the rest of the populace.... do we wish to be a city of enlightenment, or a city of apps?"

As the Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theater, which is about to open a new second stage at the Strand Theater in the heart of the tech hub mid-Market, this article made me think long and hard about the road ahead for A.C.T. as an arts groups about to take up residence in that digitally-exploding neighborhood. It would be an incredible shame if we allowed a wedge to be driven between the tech community and the rest of the city, and in particular, between the tech community and the local arts community. If the claims are true that a major reason for these tech companies' desire to be in the city is proximity to the arts, culture, food and urban energy we provide, it would be an ironic tragedy if the arts community got driven out by the exorbitant costs of living stimulated by that very influx of new tech money.

So how can we encourage cross-pollenization rather than demonization? None of us has the answers to what would make these highly specific cultures merge well -- it's like doing an anthropological study of different kinds of tribes and trying to figure out what those tribes might have in common that would make them want to interact. It's not enough to say that the tech community should "give back" just because they have taken up residence in the city -- that kind of interactivity only happens when real relationships are built between constituents who then want to help each other thrive. If, for example, the two thousand Twitter workers on 9th and Market in San Francisco begin to feel invested in their new neighborhood because it actually made their lives better and more interesting and because they have developed personal relationships with people who live and work there, maybe they would want to give back without feeling guilt-tripped into it.

Last week in my class with A.C.T.'s first year MFA students, I heard a story that surprised me: a young actress related the experience of a 24-year-old Google worker who came to the Geary to see The Normal Heart, and were in line behind a couple who were clearly long-time subscribers. The Google worker heard one of our ushers effusively greet the subscribers, asking them how their summer had been and showing them to their seats without looking at their tickets. I thought the punchline was going to be something about the Google worker's disdain for this old-fashioned theater with its longtime subscribers. But the opposite was true. She said afterwards to her friend, our MFA student, that she hoped some day to get to the point where the ushers knew HER name and welcomed HER with the same enthusiasm as the long-term subscribers.

This taught me two things -- first, that we who run large institutions have to be incredibly careful not to privilege our older, longterm subscribers over newer audience members who have an equal desire to feel welcome. And second, that everyone longs for a corner bar, a familiar coffee shop, a hometown joint where people know their names and their preferences, not virtually but in real time. If our new Strand Theater became that kind of place, a live, vital corner joint where people want to gather and interact and absorb, and where someone is interested in THEM, perhaps those "libertarian" techies would start to commit and give back.

So how do we go about building those bridges? Many artists have already started the process, from Intersection for the Arts to Cutting Ball Theater to the Luggage Store Gallery. At A.C.T., we have a lot of questions to ask, as we connect with tech companies surrounding our new theater. Questions like, tell us what, if anything, would encourage you to want to walk into a new 300-seat theater one evening (or afternoon, or lunchtime, or midnight) to see a play? What would inspire you, despite your fourteen-hour-a-day work cycles, to take a shot on live performance? How could we connect all you creative twenty-something programmers and software developers in the neighborhood with our equally creative twenty-something MFA actors, such that eventually you all feel you are one peer group, cheering each other on and looking out for each other's success? Would it be of interest that many of the plays being commissioned were based on San Francisco stories and created by local writers? Or that the Strand was a chance to see major players up close and intimately? Or that there will be Downtown Highschool kids writing their own monologues and stories and collaborating with ACT artists in the black box theater upstairs, in an attempt to survive their tough teen years and create lives for themselves inspired by exactly the kind of creative work happening in the tech sphere you inhabit? What would make you feel welcome, at home, integrated? Do we need to start by bringing our work to the food courts of tech companies at lunchtime, before hoping that those audiences will come to "our house"? Should we create Monday Night Improv Nights at the Strand, so that all aspiring comics and spoken word lovers, including Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, have a community-based venue for their stand up acts? And what about the community that has lived in the Tenderloin and mid-Market long before the tech boom happened -- could arts groups be a bridge between two seemingly disparate worlds, since all of us are interested in storytelling, in investment in young people, and in social networks?

Every study in urbanism has shown that density is actually a positive thing for human interaction, that living and working close to disparate kinds of people makes for a more robust and resilient city, and that despite received wisdom about millenials and their libertarian stinginess, everyone wants to feel connected to a neighborhood or place where they are recognized, validated, and made to feel at home. San Francisco is on a tipping point right now, as a whole new population floods into the city. It would be a tragedy if the tech community ended up in its own silo while the rest of us struggled to deal with rising real estate prices and a new sense of not belonging.

If the arts in San Francisco go under, there is far less incentive for startups and tech companies to relocate here. Let's not make the assumption that the success of the tech industry is unique and separate from the rest of the city. We need to find a way to harness all the new energy coming into the city, and arts organizations are ideal gathering places to help make that happen.