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Dot-Com Boom Makes S.F. a War Zone

California and the West

Development: As expanding firms move into the Mission District, they drive up rents and displace longtime tenants. Tensions are playing out in vandalism, street theater and ballot issues.

October 03, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In a pattern of civil disobedience that concerns city officials, activists are turning increasingly mean as they demonstrate their distaste for what they call San Francisco's rampant dot-com development.

Demonstrators have scratched the finishes on sport utility vehicles, slashed the tires of imported luxury cars parked outside technology company offices, and thrown paint-filled balloons and sprayed graffiti on high-tech companies' buildings.

San Francisco police have also reported several suspicious fires at dot-com offices in the city's Mission District, as well as anonymous threats against builders and high-tech company owners.

In the second such incident in two months, 15 protesters were arrested recently after they seized the offices of Internet firm Bigstep.com, linking arms and chanting "Stop the displacement!" until police arrived.

Several dot-com firms are now hiring security firms and off-duty police officers to provide 24-hour protection, officials say.

"They're hot; relations are hot between some longtime residents of the Mission and these new companies moving in," said Officer Jim Deignan, a department spokesman. "We're keeping a close eye on things."

Officers in the Mission District say they have stepped up patrols to guard against further trouble.

Capt. Ron Roth, who heads the Police Department's Mission District headquarters, said 25 protesters were arrested in August after they seized the offices of a dot-com company that had recently displaced a popular neighborhood dance studio.

Forty police officers called in by the company staged a predawn raid to make the arrests after the protesters had occupied the site for two days.

"They were squatters, just like the protesters who seized the offices at Bigstep, disrupting workers until we moved in to arrest them," Roth said. "The people who run these high-tech firms are very concerned about what's going on here."

Protesters Cite 'Colonization'

The tension has cut both ways. An activist was tackled by a sheriff's deputy for speaking beyond his allotted time at a recent planning commission hearing--touching off a testy standoff between hundreds of protesters and dozens of deputies and police officers called in to quell the crowd.

Protest groups such as the Yuppie Eradication Project and AARGG! (All Against Ruthless Greedy Gentrification), promise an unruly campaign against the technology industry's "colonization" of the Mission District and the "Starbuckization" of San Francisco as a whole.

Technology companies have recently seized upon the Mission District as the newest hub of dot-com culture, attracted by its gritty mix of Latino families, free-spirited artists and cause-oriented nonprofits.

The Mission District, south of Market Street near the trendy Castro neighborhood and within quick freeway access to the Silicon Valley, also features cheaper rents and more space than other areas, such as the city's Financial District.

Willing to pay whatever price landlords name, the dot-coms have driven up rents while displacing longtime tenants. Their presence, activists say, threatens the economic and cultural diversity that attracted them in the first place.

Commercial real estate prices have recently risen more than 50% in the Mission District. Residential evictions have more than doubled there since 1995, the first year of aggressive Internet growth, statistics show.

Even artists--ever-present figures in San Francisco's unique cultural landscape--have weighed in with shock tactics. They formed Art Strikes Back, a coalition that has staged several confrontations.

In one recent piece of edgy street theater, Gordon Winiemko donned an undertaker-black suit he bought at a thrift store just for the occasion and approached a new-economy couple at a sidewalk cafe.

Thrusting a notice into their faces, the 34-year-old painter matter-of-factly explained how the Internet company they work for has been snatching up property throughout the Mission District, displacing not only artists like him, but also countless nonprofits and struggling families.

Now, he said, he's turning the tables.

"I'm sorry, but I'm evicting you. If you wouldn't mind getting up, I'm going to occupy your space," he informed the dumbfounded dot-com pair. "Business is business, so join the crowd; you're getting the boot."

Artists have also mocked the mannerisms of young high-tech workers by walking Mission District streets while yelling into toy cell phones about stock options and 20-hour workdays.

Tactics like these have made an impact. In the face of the protests, a developer dropped plans to renovate the National Guard Mission Armory into a 250,000-square-foot high-tech complex. Other developers remain wary of San Francisco's uneasy atmosphere.

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