I work at Instagram, a company that’s part of Facebook. Every weekday I wait at a shuttle stop, right next to a MUNI stop, and board a big white double decker wifi shuttle that will take me, in luxury, down to my office in Silicon Valley. When people talk about outsider-techies moving to San Francisco and ruining it… they’re talking about me. I moved here from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when I was 25 to take a job that paid twice the salary my single mother brought my brother and I up on. I’m young, I make good money, I take a shuttle to work. It’s hard to know you’re the villain character in your city’s narrative.
I’ve purposefully stayed silent in the conversation. As someone from Pennsylvania who grew up on government assistance, the child of a teacher and football coach, I simply couldn’t identify myself as a “gentrifier.” I couldn’t be one of the people insisting that if Detroit had a whole bunch of forward-thinking companies move in, THEY certainly wouldn’t complain. So, why does the bay area have to make such a stink about it?
Social justice is too deeply built into my bones to identify with anyone but the community supporters, who criticize the tech industry’s strain on city infrastructure. But, as a tech employee… I couldn’t go against myself. And, you know, what’s so wrong with young people with big ideas moving to a city and building it up— right? Plus, it’s not like I’m evicting anyone from their homes. I’m just trying to do good work and live in a beautiful city; I’m not malicious. I was conflicted, felt isolated and didn’t feel a part of either side.
So, I leaned on academic arguments tied to historical patterns, income charts and graphs of change. Frankly, I tried to take my emotions out of it.
But for the first time today, I felt it.
Pittsburgh Magazine published this article about Google’s office in Pittsburgh.
The office has a window from another building, hanging on the wall, that says “Happy Bday Julia.” The painted window was once a part of a historic building in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh for about a decade. Anyone who has lived or spent time in Pittsburgh can close their eyes and picture that window perfectly. It reminds me of driving to the East End Co-Op for food. It makes me think of sipping coffee at Quiet Storm on an awkward first date. It takes me back to walking my dogs with my headphones on or riding my bike to Brillobox. I can remember sitting at a taco place telling my roommate I wanted to move to San Francisco over a margarita.
Google bought the window when they tore the building down about a year ago. The window now hangs as art in their office. The article makes it clear that no one at Google knows who Julia is or what the whole story is behind the window.
As I was reading the article, I noticed I was clenching my teeth. That window belongs to Pittsburgh, not to Googlers. That window belongs to the East Liberty nonprofits using art to transform a neighborhood. It belongs to the retired steel workers. It belongs to artists hanging their art in Espresso a Mano. It belongs in the Larimer Community Garden. It doesn’t belong in a Google office, where only the elite can see it. It doesn’t belong in a Google office, where the only people who will see it… probably don’t recognize it.
The problem with my argument is that I’m assuming that no one who works at Google in Pittsburgh is from Pittsburgh— and I’m probably wrong. The problem with my argument is that you could argue that a lot of my favorite parts of Pittsburgh are probably their own version of gentrification— new restaurants, cafes and tech companies started by CMU graduates. So, how is it fair to call out this one isolated example and be against it?
But, this is not an academic post. I would never claim that I’m right or that this is logical. What did happen is that I got a lighting bolt of empathy for the community organizers in San Francisco frustrated by a bunch of techies calling the bay area home. Because as I read the article, my teeth clenched, all I could think was
“This isn’t your town, Google. This is our town. This is a steel town, hardworking and strong. We rose up from the coal’s ashes and became a leader in sustainability. We’re a town that still supports unions, still values self-made men and women, grows our own food without pretension and Pinterest boards and knows how to hook our own worms.”
That’s when I remembered that I left that town to move into someone else’s home, and hang their window in my office as art.
And, I’m not sure how to feel about it yet.