Dot.com Meltdown Real Estate Frenzy Subsides at end of 2000

From FoundSF

"I was there..."

by Victor Miller

Image:mission$dot-con-billboard.jpg

Billboard on side of Galeria de la Raza, late 2000

Photo: Chris Carlsson

For the arithmetically challenged, the year 2000 was the opening of the millennium. For the shortsighted, shallow and greedy, it was the onset of the dot-com millennium, and our neighborhood was old and in the way. False millennial signposts both of them, bit the hoopla and die hype, with uncommon tenacity, prevailed over a common sense.

The year began miserably. House hungry stock-option wolf packs circled the 'hood, pouncing on the most vulnerable members--seniors single moms and semi-documented families--forcing them out of their homes by book ("This is perfectly legal") or-by crook ("Don't make me call Immigration/ get the cops/ put you on the tenant blacklist"). In the early months of 2000, the predators of the new but narrow) prosperity barreled along, transforming the Mission's multicultural richness into a monoculture of the rich.

The dot-com delusion was aided and abetted by a corrupt city government, ruled with megalomaniacal gusto by an apparently indictment-proof chief executive. In subordinate roles, a spineless planning commission and monkey-house board of supervisors vied with each other to see which public body would show itself to be the most slavish in carrying out the wishes of big-money developers.

In June, the approval of Bryant Square—a massive office complex at 20th and Bryant in the middle of a residential area—galvanized a grassroots revolt and the emergence of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition as the major force of opposition in the Mission and, to a certain extent, in The City. MAC produced hundreds of people at planning commission and Supervisor meetings, where they were met with both physical intimidation and procedural changes intended to minimize the exercise of free speech.

Throughout the summer they lost every vote, but in doing so exposed over and over again the arbitrariness of the system and the venality of its toady of officials, revelations that would still be fresh in the minds of the voters when they chose a new and district-elected Board of Supervisors in November.

Money to burn

Meanwhile, the venture-capital fuel for the dot-conomy began to bum up, as the dotcom-dominated NASDAQ market tumbled downward in what would eventually be a $3 trillion (that's trillion with a "t") loss. What had looked inevitable in the spring was showing itself to be mere effervescence in the fall. Had somebody put something in our water supply? If so, it was wearing off just at the time when those who had played human doormat for the office and loft crowd and dismissed the eviction of every working-class family as an the unavoidable cost of progress, were going to have to find a district in The City where the voters didn't want to boil them in oil.

Growth-control and tenant groups got Propositions H (landlord cost pass-throughs). L (office/loft moratorium), and N (condo-conversion limits) on the ballot. Mayor Brown put Proposition K, a fake development-control measure on the ballot and begin to endorse his own slate of supervisor candidates, some of whom were none too comfortable with the mayoral blessing. The first round was mixed: Prop. L lost narrowly, Prop. K lost big time, N lost and H won. Most the mayor's candidates did poorly but made the runoff.

By December there was blood in the scuppers A trickle of dot-com layoffs honed into a torrent. Tech company workers saw, their paper millions evaporate as the NASDAQ continued to bleed out Suddenly, they realized they were were working eighty-hour weeks for lousy pay and with no health plans (except to stay healthy). The "o" word ("organize") and the "u" word ("union") were spoken aloud. And there were ominous rumbles from Valencia Street's gourmet gulch, where Pintxs, a nationally-praised new-economy eatery into which the owners bad sunk $750,000, went belly-up.

Zing.com B&B

Some of the rouge companies just got bolder. Zing.com converted, a 48-unit "livework" building at 17th and Bryant to office space, thereby dodging over half a million dollars in fees that would have gone to affordable housing and childcare. As usual, the planning department staff .looked on with feigned helplessness, as if this were happening on Mars and not a few blocks from their offices. But this time there was an organized response from the community. on December 7, out hundred members of MAC surrounded the building blocking every doorway with bodies and the comforts of home: mattresses, TV sets, lamps and toilets--a civilly-disobedient reconversion of the building to its legal residential use. Among the speakers were representatives from the nearby Day Laborers Program who were understandable outraged that, while their 10-year search for a building had hit a brick wall. Zing.com just came along and gabbed whatever it wanted.

Supervisor candidate Chris Daly was on hand, as be had been for nearly every MAC demo of the last year This time, Daly was conferring with his campaign manager, Richard Marquez, who was sprawled across a sofa blocking one of the Zingster doorways. The election was less than a week away, but Marquez hoisted he wasn't leaving -until they serve me breakfast." (Despite this laid-back end game, Daly got 82% of the vote in District 6.)

On the roof, smirky Zing dudes smoked cigarettes and snapped photos of Food Not Bombs serving lunch. down, below. It seemed like a big joke (a zinger) to them, but the amusement value must have worn thin when they realized they couldn't get out of the building. So they had the cops arrest the doorway merrymakers and remove the home furnishings.

Working Conditions Upgrade

The following day at 16th and Mission, angry dot-com proles and Walter Johnson of the Central Labor Council rallied with over one hundred supporters in front of the offices, of etown.com. Former employees claimed they had been fired for union organizing but, nonetheless, 70% of the employees of etown's customer service department filed with the National Labor Relations Board for a unionization election, the first dot-com to do so. "We're going to make sure this is our and not down," Johnson bellowed. "There's other ones [dotcoms] that are hiding out. This is just a launching pad,' Johnson added. Words to chill the dot-bosses' souls.

Chas Roman, an etown employee fired after staging -a sick-out, ridiculed down's so called "open-door policy" for employee grievances: "It's rubbish! We went in through the open door and came out with nothing but lies, lies, lies." On top all this, if etown's expansion plans go through, the nonprofit Global Exchange which has office space in the same building, will be forced out.

On December 12, the voters rejected all the unlimited-development supervisor candidates backed by Willie Brown, creating what looks to be a veto-proof board--unless progressive infighting rears its ugly head. For the time being, political support for dot-com expansion into the neighborhoods is gone.

Of course not everybody was satisfied. The New Mission News received a poem/communiqué from the Army of the Working Poor with the catchy title "On the Night of December 13 We broke the Windows of Zephyr Real Estate." It reads in part: "We tried reasoning and understanding, we tried the streets and the Planning commission, and we tried the ballot box, now we try bricks and the cover of fog. /What we try next is up to you, we have our eye on escalation." (Italics theirs)

The next dot-com company to bite the bullet was Bigstep.com, whose move into the Bayview Bank Building at 22nd and Mission had displaced dozens of small businesses and nonprofits and sparked a sit-in, by MAC in September. A week before Christmas, Bigstep laid off 25% of its employees. An incoherently worded document, supposedly the termination notice, sent to Bigstep employees, was posted on the website of the notorious www.fuckedcompany.com. Hundreds of response postings poured in from members of the new economy ranging in content from the faults of Bigstep's business plan to the sexual proclivities of its founders. At the turn of the millennium they were turning on themselves.

The San Carlos Street Microcosm

I live on a block my neighbors and I share with a rotating band of about a dozen homeless, and a street gang whose numbers vary due to incarcerations and drive-bys In the first half of the year, two neighbors got eased out via the Ellis Act and six people across the street got moved out when the owner's filmmaker son took over their flat (he immediately rented out rooms at a higher price).

Next door to me, Jimmy and Ivy fought a protracted battle against an owner move-in. One night, while they were videotaping the owner in what they considered illegal acts, he punched one of their roommates. No charges were pressed, but the cops came and gave him a long talking-to about just how much trouble he would be in if they had to come back and deal with his nonsense again. Eventually he got Jimmy and Ivy out but they just moved into the next flat down and hit him with a wrongful eviction suit. This situation so appalled their former landlord that he abandoned plans to live in the now empty building. Homeless people in makeshift cardboard shelters quickly occupied the stoop and the driveway. It was chaos, depressing chaos.

In April Juanita Rieloff, a fiery Chilean political activist; lost her long struggle with cancer. Friends and family about a hundred and fifty strong marched down Mission Street from the Mission Cultural Center to Pacific Interment Services at 17th and Folsom, stopping briefly in front of Promotoras Latinas Comunitarias de Salud at Clarion and Mission, one of the many organizations she founded over the years. She had spent her last years there providing shelter and assistance to the homeless. Of course, instead of helping her, the City only gave her grief. When she bought an old church pew at a garage sale and set it out in front for the street people to sit on, the Department of Public Works just broke it up and hauled it away.

It was said Juanita hadn't missed a demonstration in 30 years. Juanita's niece Paula, who lives on my block told me that in the 80's Juanita founded Niños Lindos, a childcare center. Parents who considered themselves progressive eagerly enrolled their kids. The depth of their progressiveness was put to the test when Juanita and the toddlers showed up from time to time on the six o'clock news denouncing Pinochet in front of the Chilean Embassy or calling for a boycott of South Africa. There were a lot of stories like that about Juanita.

I hoped her passing at a time the jackals were in the process of devouring the Mission was not some kind a milestone. I tried not to think in metaphors. Then the Kibu guys moved onto the block. Kibu.com. was set up to be something analogous. to TigerBeat magazine--designed for trendy, fashion-conscious teens, an entertainment site with a heavy merchandising component. To work the hustle, Kibu paid hunky-looking guys or "faces" in the $100,000 range to be online personalities: role models for teen boys, fantasy objects for teen girls.

When a two-bedroom place became available on our block, two brothers hired as Kibu faces found the $2000 rent less painful than most of us yokels. For me the whole Kibu concept was so idiotic on so many levels that I developed a superstitious dread of passing their flat, as if the inanity were somehow contagious. I didn't hate the face brothers, but just knowing they were there, that we were up to our chins in a rising tide of bullshit depressed me enormously.

Dots all folks

Then one day in November I came home and found the sidewalk in front of my house littered with Kibu Promotional detritus--mounds and mounds of flyers, stickers and gimcrackery. Kibu's investors, who I later found out had ponied up $7.2 million, had pulled the plug and the faces I es had fled. One of our less tidy homeless people had rifled through their leavings in search of something edible or saleable, leaving little pieces of Kibu all up and down the street. In front of the former face-brother homestead, two big Photo posters of the former teen heart throbs. had blown into the street, which was still damp from the morning's rain, and stuck there. The local kids playing soccer heedlessly ground the images of the faces, the product no doubt of a very expensive photo session, into a gray mush. I watched them until my eyes started to go out of focus and then cleaned up the mess in front of my house.

About a week later, Juanita's daughter Lisa called me up and reminded me I had offered to store the videos posters and other historically important items her mother collected and created during a very long life of protest and organizing. The landlord was on the verge of reclaiming the Clarion Alley place and, since Lisa was leaving for Chile in a few days, we had to move the stuff out that very evening. When we got over there, the street scene, as it does on that particular stretch of Mission, had already taken on an after-sundown creepiness. Each time we loaded up the small handtruck and moved it out to the car, the winos demanded jackets and shirts. Lisa gave them what there was --"US Out of El Salvador" T-shirts that fit Juanita's tiny frame but were much too small for these reeling inebriates, who were fortunately too out of it to notice. How had Juanita dealt with all this for so long ?

We found a spot for the suitcases and trunks in my basement and Lisa promised to deal with distribution when she returned from Chile. I took no small pleasure in the fact that we had rescued this luggage packed with insurrection. Members of a new, generation would find inspiration therein to picket slumlords, stop troop trains, chain themselves to embassy gates, and generally perpetrate the same type of inspired trouble-making Juanita had devoted herself to. The Kibu guys, on the other hand, were just gray mush. Life was looking good.

Towards the end of the year I encountered Jimmy in front of his old digs watching some workmen inside. "What are they doing?" I asked. Fixing up my future home," he said and we both laughed.

Commentary in New Mission News, January 2001


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