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How to Discuss This Week's 'New Yorker' Piece on San Francisco Without Actually Reading It

Caleb Pershan | October 8, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

On behalf of San Francisco, we would like to skeptically accept The New Yorker’s nomination for cultural epicenter of the last ten years: “If I hoped to understand the first thing about American culture in this decade,” writes Nathan Heller in his opus in the magazine’s October 14th issue, “I realized I’d need to figure out exactly what was going on in San Francisco.” Good luck with that.

The New Yorker has been scrutinizing the Bay, or a specific stratum thereof, with particular relish this year. First came an article on Silicon Valley’s foray into politics and tech urbanism from George Packer, then Gary Shteyngart’s piece, "O.K., Glass" (which was centered in New York, but borrowed the term "glassholes" from the streets of S.F.), and now, this, currently the most popular article on TNY’s site.

But there are some barriers to entry: The story is nine pages online and about a thousand on your phone. Or maybe someone took your print copy. Okay, maybe you don’t get a print copy (the horror!). Regardless, it’s pretty likely that someone is going to bring this thing up at a dinner party or something, and we want you to be prepared. So, here’s our gazing-over-the-paywall guide:

1. First of all, in talking about the article, you may want to emphasize that you knew all about the “art-and-tech collective” called the Sub that the article begins and ends with. It’s located in what Heller describes as “the iffy section [Ed. note:?!] of the Mission District,” near 17th and Capp. Johnny Hwin—the 28-year-old serial entrepreneur behind such annoyances as Facebook Quizzes (he’s not proud)—is the space's founder and the story's lead-in. If you, like Hwin, went to Stanford, take the opportunity to mention that. Otherwise, you can belittle his proclamations that people in his neighborhood “literally [walk] around with knives” or that his friends are “literally, starving artists in Oakland.” Pro tip: listen to his band Cathedrals; form a negative opinion.

2. Make sure to namecheck Stephan Jenkins, the Third Eye Blind lead singer who, amusingly, lives in Pacific Heights. If you’re his neighbor, rattle off his address. The article mentions he's “trading lives” with Hwin for kicks; yes, you did get Heller’s deadpan joke about Jenkins’ “charmed” life.

3. “San Francisco has traditionally been a Dungeness crab of a city,” Heller waxes poetic, “shedding its carapace from time to time and burrowing down until a new shell sets.” Feel free to discuss the city's crustacean qualities with party guests at any and all functions.

4. San Francisco hasn’t been an industry town, Heller argues, until now, with tech, an industry which he takes to include “anything about computers, the Internet, digital media, social media, smartphones, electronic data, crowd-funding, or new business design.” Perhaps you fear this isn’t an exhaustive list. Debate whether San Francisco (versus new York) is really “the power city.” Bonus points if you bring L.A. into the mix.

5. Naval Ravikant, the “systems thinker” behind AngelList, makes an appearance to say that current VC funding looks “a little more like pre-Industrial Revolution.” Of course you've already heard about AngelList’s new marketplace connecting startup founders with angels and venture capitalists—“an Airbnb of seed funding,” as Heller puts it. This is your way into a debate about the relevance of VC firms in the age of growing seed funding from folks like Hwin, which is kind of the crux of this piece. You could add that VC might not provide a full lens through which to examine the Bay Area, unless maybe you work in VC.

6. Some of Heller’s argument for the change in business practices and attitudes in the Bay is the "young money" gambit. “Along with the freewheeling schedule, it may help explain why much about the growing startup culture has a dreamy, arty, idealistic bent: This is the whimsy of youth carried to a place where youth and whimsy have not often thrived.” Agree or disagree depending on your age.

7. Heller makes a sort of tortured comparison between hippies and techbros, with the useful caveat that “If a big impulse behind the hippie movement was metropolitan communitarianism, what’s going on now drifts markedly toward privatization.” He’s right to posit that “Providing an escape valve for a system’s strongest users lessens the pressure for change.” Make sure to emphasize that his bottom line is fair: “The result is a rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams—and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise.”

Well, you got through the guide, which probably took about a tenth as long as reading the piece would have. Remember these take-away points: the Bay Area is weird, VC has changed, grownups are worried about young entrepreneurs (but Heller isn’t, he thinks they’ll just go work for Google and play Segway polo).

Now you have time to read Amy Poehler's piece instead.

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