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Tech’s proposed utopian communities don’t seem to be for everyone

A poster in Alamo Square advertises the city campus on April 25.

A poster in Alamo Square advertises the city campus on April 25.

Manuel Orbegozo/Special to the Chronicle

Frustrated with San Francisco’s current “social infrastructure” and a post-pandemic sense of isolation, a group of tech workers wants to build their own community and fill it with like-minded tech workers and their families on 1 square mile of the Lower Haight, Hayes. The Valley and Alamo Square neighborhoods.

Early promotional artwork for what they call the “City Campus” shows a cafe-lined street full of residents eating and socializing. The image, located on the manifest section of the City Campus website, shows only white residents.

City Campus co-founder Jason Benn described living in the techie neighborhood as being like living in a “Friends” episode. Just like the art on the City Campus, ‘Friends’ didn’t really have much diversity.

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Last fall, California Forever, a Solano County project backed by tech billionaires looking to build their own city, released its first promotional images. They were also largely without people who were clearly of African descent. (The project has since apparently had a focus group test its marketing materials to be more inclusive.)

California Forever Founder and CEO Jan Sramek unveils a plan for a new city in Solano County during a press conference at the Rio Vista Veteran's Building on January 17.

California Forever Founder and CEO Jan Sramek unveils a plan for a new city in Solano County during a press conference at the Rio Vista Veteran’s Building on January 17.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Tech money is making San Francisco’s post-pandemic politics more conservative and more open to housing and public safety policies that worsen inequality. Whether intentional or not, the early marketing of these techno-utopias conveys a subtle but powerful message about who these visions of paradise are designed for and who they are intended for. These projects also speak to the disturbing reach of big tech and how gentrification and displacement remain unresolved problems, especially for the city’s black population, which has shrunk from a high of 13.4% in 1970 to 5.7% today.

The manifesto on City Campus’ website speaks highly of tech enclaves during pre-pandemic life and the value of recreating that environment in urban areas.

“The moment is ripe for us to actively build a neighborhood that reflects the communal and self-actualizing spirit of our campuses,” the message reads.

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Historically, those campuses have been largely white or Asian and male.

A rendering of the proposed new city in Solano County by California Forever.

A rendering of the proposed new city in Solano County by California Forever.

California forever

The groups behind these community projects might argue that their mix of Asian and white members means they prioritize diversity. But the concept of diversity is nuanced when it comes to the tech industry. Asian Americans, who make up just 6% of the U.S. population, hold about 20% of tech sector jobs, second only to white people, who hold about 63% of the sector’s total jobs, while holding about 59 % of the population.

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Concerns about diversity in the tech sector are clearly about the underrepresentation of Blacks and Hispanics, as Latinos make up 19% of the U.S. population but only 8% of the tech workforce, and Black people make up 14% of the U.S. population but only 7 %. of tech workers.

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Technology is also a sector where Black people have been hit the hardest by recent layoffs, and where diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives stemming from the 2020 George Floyd protests have already been gutted or completely eliminated at major companies like Zoom, Meta, Tesla, Google and X., according to the Washington Post.

The literature on City Campus (much like the initial information on California Forever) does not address how the project risks perpetuating cycles of exclusion.

Gabriel Metcalf, chief planning officer at California Forever, unveils the plan for a new city in Solano County during a press conference at the Rio Vista Veteran's Building on Jan. 17.

Gabriel Metcalf, chief planning officer at California Forever, unveils the plan for a new city in Solano County during a press conference at the Rio Vista Veteran’s Building on Jan. 17.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

After racist policies of the 1950s such as urban renewal, redlining and blockbusting drove black residents out of San Francisco, the dot-com era of the 1990s and 2000s arrived, bringing waves of white prosperity to the city, driving up housing prices and more forced black people out. City Campus starts as 1 square mile, but has ambitions to grow.

A post on the City Campus website describes a possible day for someone in the community as starting “with working together in a community cafe, having a meal together in the local cafeteria, starting an impromptu Frisbee game in the park, followed by meditation in the local secular church, and ending with a philosophical discussion in the community teahouse.”

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As anthropologist Setha Low, director of the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York, said in the Chronicle: “What seems to be happening is that people actually want to ‘stay in San Francisco,’ but they want to leave society. … They don’t want to deal with the complexity, the differences, the poverty, the needs, the care for others that have always been part of urban culture. They want to escape. They want their own currency, their own culture, their own people. And they wanted it to look like Disneyland.”

Attempts to master futuristic cities are not new. Last August, the New York Times said that talk of these projects “has been flying around the gatherings and salon parties of Silicon Valley’s tech elite for years.” Billionaires bought up land for the California Forever Project in 2017. It’s hard to talk about these types of projects without mentioning the concept of the Network State, which has come to the fore in the tech sector in recent years and seems to have many supporters, including in California.

The Network State idea is a virtual community with the ability to acquire real land and establish political institutions. For some techies, one of the common goals in these communities is to remove progressive Democratic leadership from liberal places like San Francisco and replace it with leaders who are far more willing to embrace more conservative policies.

Balaji Srinivasan, a technology investor, entrepreneur and former chief technology officer of Coinbase, wrote a book in 2022 titled “The Network State: How to Start a New Country.” According to the New Republic, “the book outlines a plan for tech plutocrats to abandon democracy and establish new sovereign territories.”

Benn told the Chronicle that the difference between the city campus and the network state is that the latter is “exit” and the former is about “loyalty” and investing in the community in which it is located.

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“If you try to make a place where everyone already wants to live, even better, you don’t have that cold start problem — and you’ve already bought in all your favorite people,” Benn said this week.

I just wonder how many of those “favorite people” in the tech world are black?

Silicon Valley’s utopian projects have the ability to unite and divide, which is itself a paradox. In their quest for perfect communities, these tech leaders may be erecting barriers that separate and exclude the very people who have suffered most from decades of inequality in places like San Francisco.

Perhaps these technology leaders are so wrapped up in their desire to live in isolation that they don’t care about the potential consequences of their efforts.

Reach Justin Phillips: [email protected]