The quarantine view from bedroom windows has pushed many people to peer more closely at our neighborhoods. We notice who lives downstairs, who runs our favorite coffee shops, who sleeps on our streets. We become aware of the daily interactions we miss, as well as the neighbors we never bothered to get to know. The Bay Area has long been a place of comers and goers. Indeed, many of us who live here can attest to that vaguely ominous backdrop of a ticking clock: pre-pandemic commutes that consumed our waking hours, rents that feel untenable and widening inequality. Coronavirus, along with issues highlighted through the protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, have made these dynamics more acute and urgent.
“A lot of the positive things we attribute to homeownership — being a good neighbor, knowing your neighbors, becoming involved in your community — these are not actually about ownership. They’re largely about stability,” says Brian McCabe, a sociologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who studies urban planning. Here in the Bay Area, stability already felt like a luxury for the few — a reality amplified by coronavirus and systemic racism.
As tech behemoths like Twitter and Facebook allow their employees to work remotely, there’s speculation about a mass exodus from the Bay Area. Surely, some will leave — already, inbound migration to San Francisco has dipped since last year — but plenty desperately want to stay. And they want to live in a community that’s reimagined. Across the Bay Area, residents are envisioning how a region at its breaking point can use this tumultuous moment to rebuild a more equitable society.
At the core of their considerations are the questions that feel fundamental to the heartbeat of the Bay Area and foundational to its future: Who gets to stay? How will our communities change?
In Donna Hunter’s eyes, the San Francisco she’s known and loved has been swept up by a wave of transience. The 60-year-old Stanford University lecturer has lived in the Mission District for 19 years in a rent-controlled apartment that she jokes she’ll never leave.
Staying at home has crystallized Hunter’s focus on her neighborhood, making her aware of how little she knows the people on her block. As highly paid tech workers have flooded her community, it’s grown to feel like a place where newcomers simply pass through. As it’s gotten younger, it’s also gotten whiter. “These are people who are itinerant livers,” says Hunter, whose father was Black and mother a German immigrant. “I want to feel like people are invested in the neighborhood and the community more than just here for a job and to go to the trendiest new restaurant.”
Hunter is first to admit that her simmering resentment toward “tech people” dissuades her from connecting with those neighbors. Her frustration has mounted as she’s watched longtime residents get priced out to be replaced with absentee neighbors who rent their homes as Airbnbs or don’t live there full-time. That frustration is coupled with nostalgia: “It’s not a town full of progressives anymore,” she says.
“Why am I so angry about it? I feel like the diversity has been lost.”
To Hunter, nothing encapsulates this sentiment more than the rigid divide she sees between the Mission’s lower-income renters and wealthy homeowners. But as she began to deliver groceries to at-risk neighbors through coronavirus mutual aid programs, she remembered what a cohesive community felt like — and wonders if this crisis will be a turning point.
Post-COVID, she craves a community that is present. If remote workers leave, she hopes the Mission will fill with people who intend to stick around — though it’s hard to be sure whether they’ll have the means to.
“Are those the people who are going to stay?”
Alina Musgrave is one of the people trying to hang on. The 31-year-old managed a store on Fillmore Street that went out of business during the pandemic.
Musgrave, who identifies as Latina, calls herself a “nomad of the Bay Area.” She grew up shuffling between her parents’ homes in Vacaville and Mill Valley, and lived in Oakland before moving to the Richmond District last year.
Observing the intricacies of different communities has made her value the one she’s chosen. Musgrave often hears Russian and Mandarin throughout her neighborhood, and sees faces that look different from hers. “I grew up speaking three languages, and I love hearing different languages all around me,” Musgrave says.
This welcoming pull and affordability are what drew her to the neighborhood. “I think that’s pretty much why we all live out here,” Musgrave says. Many neighbors also work in service or retail, and she finds comfort in living among people with similar incomes.
When asked why, she sits in a long pause.
“It’s hard to explain,” Musgrave says slowly. Each time a new luxury apartment complex crops up nearby, she feels a pang of anxiety along with a rush of gratitude that she has a place to live. Rising rents are a lingering existential threat for Musgrave and her neighbors. “I know I’m not alone in those feelings,” she says, adding that Sea Cliff — among the city’s priciest real estate, with stunning ocean views — is a few blocks away.
She suspects that any San Francisco exodus would be cyclical. Its consequences would be complicated. The tech boom brought an influx of revenue into the city, including to her store.
“‘How long can I stay where I am?’ is an active thought,” she says. “The uncertainty of it is not lost on me.”
Even so, Musgrave’s stepfather urges her to stay in San Francisco as long as possible. “They always say, ‘Never leave California, because you won’t be able to move back.’’’
When Heather Starnes describes East Palo Alto, she speaks of her community as if it is a person who lives and breathes: “It has a very grassroots, movement-oriented soul,” she says.
East Palo Alto is a tight-knit and connected place, where food and ideas are exchanged eagerly, says Starnes, who is white. People take pride in the community they have cultivated, a place residents fought to incorporate in 1983.
The city remains a middle-class community among affluent Silicon Valley neighbors. It’s also more racially and ethnically diverse in comparison. More than 60% of East Palo Alto residents are Latino, 12% are Black and 11% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders, according to census data from 2019. These demographics are reflected in East Palo Alto’s leadership: People of color make up the entirety of its City Council and school board. Meanwhile, just across Highway 101, Palo Alto and Menlo Park are majority-white communities.
Starnes’ neighbors show up for one other. A local college student lives in her house for free, while she and her husband rent a below-market rate room to another student’s father. Her nonprofit organization, Live in Peace, has been fundraising to pay three months’ rent for vulnerable neighbors during the pandemic.
This period of instability — between health, economic and equality issues — is “exposing what we know is true: this dual existence in Silicon Valley,” she says, adding, “There’s some comfort, maybe, in knowing that people can see it for what it is.”
How’s your neighborhood?
Tell us how your community has changed during the pandemic, or what concerns you have about it by writing to email@example.com
Her message is both urgent and clear: The region has been teetering on the brink of becoming a monoculture of wealth, and it has reached a breaking point. If Silicon Valley’s tech presence disperses, she worries about “exporting” the injustice here to other burgeoning hubs.
In a post-COVID world, Starnes longs for East Palo Alto to be a place where her community’s college graduates can afford to return and bring their knowledge, capacity and futures. But her neighbors must survive this time of crisis first: “This region deserves a community like East Palo Alto to still be intact when this is over,” she says.
“I really believe that this region has the capacity to not let this community disappear,” she says. But under the weight of all the forces pushing people out, “this could easily be the last nail in the coffin.”
Thornell Washington, a 37-year-old Black homeowner who lives in Oakland’s Eastmont Hills, delivered food to older neighbors before the pandemic. The neighborhood is a place where people keep an eye out for each other.
Members of his community give to each other freely: a carton of peaches, fresh zucchini, canned food. The pandemic has heightened awareness of economic problems that have been compounding in Oakland for a long time, he says: “It feels like a third-world country, where there’s truly no middle class. It’s either the haves or the have-nots.
“You can go three blocks in one direction, and if you were driving in the car and your eyes were closed, when you wake up, you’d probably think you were in a completely different city,” Washington says. Potholes and trash abound in East Oakland, while the Oakland hills look like a “wonderland for the wealthy.”
He points to the duality of renters paying $4,000 a month for apartments downtown, adjacent to homeless encampments where residents lack running water. Many people don’t consider unhoused people living on their blocks a part of their community, Washington says.
But this pandemic has urged Americans to think more deeply about who their neighbors include and what that means, says Claire Herbert, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who studies housing.
“Do you consider people who are visibly homeless a part of your community? Do you feel a sense of responsibility to them?” asks Herbert. “Who’s in my group? Who am I responsible for?” are questions that we’re being forced to reconsider, she says.
The way Washington sees it, Bay Area progressivism has been masquerading as fairness for too long. Oakland has become a place where wealth has been extracted — but post-pandemic, Washington envisions his city as an investment of it. He imagines a place where city programs assist educators with down payments so they can buy a house where they teach. Where city officials and employees, like firefighters and police, spend paychecks in the community where they earn them.
Washington hopes that a wave of departures could be a healthy reset for the region, easing the burden on people who want to be here. “They’re holding onto hope that they can own a piece of their community,” he says.
Carly Stern is a Bay Area writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org