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Raise Hell in Peace

Andrew Leonard | November 14, 2014 | Story

Some metaphors are impossible to miss. I’m knocking back beers with former San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond at Doc’s Clock, an old-school Mission Street bar—the kind of place where you wouldn’t want to be caught wearing Google Glass after midnight. An oasis of funkiness in an increasingly top-shelf city, it apparently hasn’t changed an iota in 20 years. But directly across the street, an entirely different city proclaims itself: Vida SF, a 114-unit condominium development that is scheduled to open its doors in January 2015. With a crazy-quilt zigzag facade that draws bemused rubberneckers like a six-car pileup, Vida looks like nothing else in the Mission, punctuating the city’s gentrification anxieties with an exclamation point. You’re not imagining things: This city is changing its colors.

Redmond shakes his head in amazement, baffled that people are willing to pay a million dollars or more to live in a building that he considers unambiguously “hideous.” But to him, the more pressing puzzler involves their politics: How will the new residents of Vida vote?

Redmond and I are meeting to discuss what the abrupt closure of the Bay Guardian in mid-October means for the left in San Francisco. For 48 years, the Guardian was the most prominent local voice of the city’s progressive community. During the latter part of that era, San Francisco established itself as the most politically progressive major city in the United States. From Mayor Gavin Newsom’s unilateral legalization of gay marriage, to Healthy SF’s vision of citywide medical coverage, to strong rent control, San Francisco progressives charted leftward while the rest of the country was steering right. At every step, the Bay Guardian was the loudest, and by far the crankiest, cheerleader in town—the soul, if not the id, of the Wild West’s far left.

The fact that the Guardian’s closure co-incided with the current dramatic change in the city’s DNA has led many commentators to connect the weekly’s demise with the purported decline of San Francisco’s left. “The city’s storied progressive movement has been hemorrhaging for years,” declared the Chronicle’s Heather Knight. The closure of the Guardian is seen by some as yet another bleeding wound.

The assumption implicit in such critiques is that tech-economy wealth and demographic change are moving San Francisco, if not to the right, then closer to the center. The logic goes as follows: The writing has been on the wall ever since progressives lost their majority on the Board of Supervisors in 2010 and tech moguls like Ron Conway began bankrolling city politicians. Million-dollar condo owners, it’s safe to say, are not loyal Bay Guardian readers. The Guardian, metaphorically speaking, got evicted.

The truth is a bit more complicated. Redmond reminds me that the Guardian’s death is a sign of broader disease within the publishing industry. Free weeklies everywhere have been devastated by the Internet. The migration of classified ads to Craigslist probably dealt a mortal blow to the Guardian well before the latest influx of tech workers. At the same time, a long, litigious feud between the Bay Guardian and SF Weekly ended with both papers on life support. When Guardian founder Bruce Brugmann sold out in 2012 to a company that subsequently acquired SF Weekly, it was only a matter of time before one weekly died.

“I am very sad about the Guardian closing,” Redmond says with a sigh. But there is simply no way that he will accept the parallel narrative: that progressivism is a spent force in San Francisco. “You can always write a story saying, ‘The left is in disarray,’” he says. “There’s always a challenge, there’s always a problem, we’re always fighting each other, and there’s always something that isn’t going right.” He flashes back to the early 1980s, when he started his career as a political reporter. “Back then, on a good day, [progressives] had two or three votes on the Board of Supervisors, and downtown controlled absolutely everything. You’d pass decent rent control legislation, and the mayor [Dianne Feinstein] would veto it.”

Today, says Redmond, the left in San Francisco is “far more sophisticated and organized” than it was three decades ago. Even within the moderate-dominated establishment, progressive bloodlines run deep (Mayor Ed Lee, for example, the latest be╠éte noire of San Francisco progressives, is a former housing activist). More to the point, what Redmond calls the “existential threat to the future of San Francisco” posed by the spiraling cost of housing is, he argues, invigorating the progressive movement. Tenant activism, he claims, has risen in intensity right along with soaring real estate values. You can draw a direct line from Google Bus protests and anti-eviction marches to the legislation aimed at compensating Ellis Act victims and to Proposition G, an anti-flipping measure that would have imposed hefty taxes on owners who sold multi-unit properties less than five years after purchasing them.

Of course, being a progressive has never been easy. That anti–Ellis Act law was blocked by the courts, and Prop. G died at the polls last month. Activists can make noise and light fires, but tech-driven gentrification is a relentless force. Redmond’s new “voice of the left” project—his online news site, 48hills—doesn’t come close to commanding the bully pulpit of the Guardian’s glory days, a fact that Redmond implicitly admits when he tells me that “being on the left in San Francisco has always been part of a struggle. And the struggle continues.”

The next day, I attend a downtown rally to memorialize the Bay Guardian. Close to 100 current and former Guardian staffers, local media representatives, and progressive politicians (including longtime liberal darling Tom Ammiano) have gathered to hear speakers extol the Guardian’s virtues and mourn its passing.

I feel caught between worlds. The Guardian gave me my first job in journalism 22 years ago, as a feature writer. It was a great gig: San Francisco was a wonderful, goofy, and profoundly political town in the early ’90s, and covering it for the Guardian put me right in the middle of the action. Passionate advocacy was part of the job: The Guardian stood for something, and that was cool.

Of course, the paper was far from perfect. Owner Bruce Brugmann was notorious for his temper tantrums. He demanded incessant coverage of his pet issues—the municipalization of PG&E, the joint operating agreement between the Examiner and the Chronicle—to a degree that often seemed vain and self-defeating. In the 1970s, he busted an attempt by the Newspaper Guild to organize the Guardian’s staff, a move that hardly seemed appropriate for the voice of the pro-union progressive community.

After two years, I’d had my fill, so I quit to cover a story that seemed more meaningful than the latest drama at city hall—the rise of the Internet. Convinced that the digital revolution would change everything, I was impatient with the Guardian’s reluctance to fully embrace the future. Just as the Internet had begun to explode, the paper had built its own self-contained online site, walled off from the rest of the Internet. It was a telling moment. As ex–Guardian managing editor Lynn Rapoport put it, the paper never quite wrapped its arms around the city’s emerging technocultural identity.

As it turns out, though, there might have been a little unintentional foresight in the paper’s attitude toward the rise of the web. When I left, I didn’t realize how the forces unleashed by the Internet would undermine the economic infrastructure supporting my own profession, nor did I imagine that the relentless tech boom would catalyze an existential crisis for the entire Bay Area.

Twenty years later, listening to speaker after speaker at the rally emphasize the need for independent media, I can’t help feeling a tiny bit complicit in the creation of this crisis: The industry that I left the Guardian to cover had helped cut the paper off at the knees. And every day seems to bring new proof that San Francisco has become a little less goofy and wonderful. Just a few days after the rally comes news that another Mission landmark, the lesbian bar the Lexington Club, is closing. Another one bites the dust.

At the Guardian rally, many in the crowd take the opportunity to trumpet their own pet political causes. Several hold signs promoting Proposition G. Rally organizers pass out copies of the Guardian’s last endorsement slate and make frequent references to the showdown between Supervisors David Campos and David Chiu to succeed Ammiano in the state assembly.

Campos is the favorite of San Francisco’s progressives. Chiu is backed by key players in the tech economy, including Conway and Reid Hoffman. Although Chiu would be considered a progressive anywhere else, the left has framed the showdown as a “battle for San Francisco’s soul.” In the end, Chiu will win, and Prop. G will be soundly defeated. Want evidence that the left is fading in San Francisco? Count the ballots.

Then again, there’s a strong counter-argument to be made that the left’s issues are winning even if its candidates are not. Longtime activist Calvin Welch tells me that the demographic changes transforming the city have yet to result in significant voting changes. “The socioeconomic status of the Haight-Ashbury, where I live, has been totally transformed over the last 25 years,” says Welch. “But look at the voting patterns—instead of being 80 percent left-liberal, we’re now 70 percent.”

Welch argues that San Francisco’s recent history is a testament to progressive triumph, not steady decline. The same 2010 election in which progressives lost their Board of Supervisors majority also saw the easy passage of Proposition N—a real estate transfer tax that hit the city’s wealthiest landowners. What’s more, city voters have shown time and time again how truly liberal they are by repeatedly voting to tax themselves. According to Welch, between 2008 and 2013, San Franciscans passed five propositions that added a total of $187 million in revenue to the city’s General Fund.

“By any objective measure, the progressive movement in San Francisco has achieved one big victory after another,” says Welch, taking particular delight in 2013’s Proposition B—the voter-passed initiative that killed the 8 Washington luxury waterfront development. He also predicts the easy passage of Proposition J, which will raise San Francisco’s minimum wage to a national high of $15. “How do you explain that,” he asks, “if we have become some gentrified clone-zone of tech?”

“So let’s see what happens to Proposition G and Campos–Chiu. If Chiu wins and G loses, that’s a significant loss for our side. If it’s the other way around...”

Well, we’ve seen what happened. The Guardian is gone, and the left lost this month’s battle for San Francisco’s soul. Election results are even harder to ignore than metaphors.

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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