When he became the mayor of San Francisco in January 2011, Ed Lee presented himself as a compromise figure, one who could build consensus among the ever-warring factions of the city’s Democratic party. “I present myself to you as a mayor for everyone,” he said at the time. “A mayor for neighborhoods, a mayor for downtown, for business, for labor, for the powerless and the powerful, for the left, the right, and everyone in between — for everyone.”
In 2010, during the trough of the Great Recession, the regional unemployment rate reached 10.5%. So the next year Lee and the Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s name for its city council) passed what became known as the Twitter tax break, an exemption on payroll taxes for new employees for six years. At the time it was estimated the legislation would save the company $22 million, in exchange for which it abandoned a threat to leave town for the valley, and moved to the offices it still occupies today, a stately building on the corner of Market and 10th streets.
For a moment, the Twitter tax break seemed as if it would make good on Lee’s promise to bring the city together.
The deal united members of the moderate wing of San Francisco’s Democratic Party with the progressives. It lured not just Twitter but several other tech companies, including customer service software maker Zendesk, to locate in a seedy part of San Francisco, better known for drug dealers than disruptors. When he unexpectedly ran for reelection in 2011, Lee’s allies cut a deeply goofy, but not unfunny campaign video featuring Facebook’s Sean Parker, Twitter’s Biz Stone, and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Giants pitcher Brian Wilson, and rapper MC Hammer.
Lee won in a rout, but the era of good feelings was short-lived.
In October 2012, San Francisco magazine ran a story by Salon founder David Talbot that posed the question that would dominate the rest of the decade. The title of the story said it all: “How Much Tech Can One City Take?”
Talbot’s answer: as little as possible.
“The unique urban features that have made San Francisco so appealing to a new generation of digital workers — its artistic ferment, its social diversity, its trailblazing progressive consciousness — are deteriorating, driven out of the city by the tech boom itself, and the rising real estate prices that go with it,” he wrote, adding, “And it’s not just about housing. Many San Franciscans don’t feel as if they’re benefiting from the boom in any way. While 23-year-olds are becoming instant millionaires and the rest of the digital technocracy seek out gourmet restaurants and artisanal bars, a good portion of the city watches from the sidelines, feeling left out and irrelevant.”
The progressive narrative hardened from there: Lee, desperate to attract businesses, had sold out the city to high-tech, throwing open the gates to every “Stanford asshole” (as Talbot would later put it) with a pulse and a business plan. Enter stock options, exit the soul of the city.
It was only a little more than a year later, in December 2013, that the next front in the local war against tech would open — this one covered in vomit.