Millennia before Google, Facebook and the other tech titans sent seismic shifts through our social landscape, disruptions were already rumbling through California.
Deep beneath Silicon Valley in the rocky seams of the San Andreas fault, mother nature’s own start-up was at work, driving the golden veins that later gave the first rush of economic life to San Francisco…
Since the first gold claims broke ground at Sutter’s Creek in 1849, the city has been built on disruption at every level. From the psychedelic shake-up of Haight-Ashbury, to advances in virtual reality, it’s San Francisco’s frictions that make it such a force. Today, the city’s Mission district has become the epicenter of a 21st century gold rush. The currency may have changed from the mining of precious metals to the manipulation of data, but at its core the same Darwinian principles of capitalism are at play.
In the gold fields of yesteryear, mining companies with the most advanced machinery quickly left their pick-wielding competition eating dust. Innovation, whether in the form of more efficient drill bits or sturdier wagon wheels, was literally of life or death importance. Amidst the cutthroat race to riches, San Francisco’s murder rate in the 1850’s was a staggering 1 in 9.
Nobody is likely to be stabbed down in Mountain View for writing bad code, but the cult of the cutting edge still dictates survival in the tech-frontier of Silicon Valley.
Just like the first waves of gold prospectors drawn to San Francisco by the luster of fortune, the city is once again bursting at the seams with an influx of tech migrants looking to do the same thing. From Sydney to Shanghai, the catchall term on the lips of every entrepreneurial young Turk from Optimizely to Ideo: ‘Disruption.’
So what exactly is ‘Disruption’? According to a local tech marketing guru, it is the act of “Breaking the assumptions that define a category.”
Walk down Mission Street on a Saturday and you can’t miss the stream of young entrepreneurial eyeballs filtering Fast Company feeds and Elon Musk tweets for traces of that glittering prize, disruption. That new angle, that never been done design, that novel flip on that ever so simple need that will land venture capital funding like Nadia Comaneci nailing a perfect 10. In other words, every faculty is focused on breaking the assumptions that define the category.
Yet what few techies in the Mission seem aware of, or even remotely interested in, is the entrepreneurialism unfolding on the very street they’re walking down.
Laid out on blankets and sheets, assembled in cardboard boxes and trundled past in pirated shopping carts, is the inventory of San Francisco’s other entrepreneurial class; the recyclers, reclaimers, and miscellaneous retailers who make their living on the street. Many of these people are feeling the aftershocks of being disrupted.
When I first moved to the Mission three years ago, it was the currency of this shadow economy that caught my eye. Rather than invisible data platforms transferring bits and bytes, here was commerce laid bare. A Byzantine market of tin cans and Levi’s jeans, obsolete phones and discarded toys that delivered to its vendors vital returns: food, shelter, clothing and other illicit luxuries elevating them above the concrete reality of life on the street.
Throughout the Mission, with its round-the-block queues for baked tarts and forty-dollar beard trims, thrives an entrepreneurial scene not just of flesh and blood consequence, but of color and character too.
They may not have LinkedIn profiles, but these peddlers of plastic dinosaurs and purveyors of fossilized CD’s do have gritty pearls of wisdom to impart.
Like which dumpsters on Capp Street are the best for diving, and what types of buried treasure typically lay on their stinking bottoms. Or whereabouts in the Foods Co. parking lot one might happen upon suitcases of discarded designer clothes, and what time on Tuesday morning an enterprising soul might rise to beat the garbage truck run along South Van Ness.
The more I stopped to talk with sidewalk salesmen, meandered to the recycling plant alongside trolley-pushers and loitered outside the 16th Street BART station, the more I learned about the drivers of this shadow economy; about how its rusty levers work and wobbly wheels turn; about how its commodities are priced, bartered and transported, and how unpredictable events like rain, police sweeps and bed bugs cause volatility in supply and demand.
Buried beneath the surface staples of aluminum, glass and cardboard recycling, are more imaginative, exotic and alternative forms of value:
Masterpieces painted on Perspex, spirit sticks whittled by modern day shamans and evidence of hieroglyphics gathered by alien archaeologists. The street emerged not just as a motherlode of materials I could see and touch, but one layered with myths and metaphysical treasures buried in the hearts and minds of the people I met.
In the darker shadows of the human experience, I saw glimmers of 24 carat courage that rocked me with silent awe - enlightenment from the hole in San Quentin; the Sisyphean ordeals the handicapped and those hopelessly entangled by bureaucratic red tape struggle against constantly. Amidst the grinding hardship, dreams of a better life manifest in the most fantastic shapes and forms, such as retirement to the Oregon wilderness, or earthly escape via a cosmic portal. I often felt punch-drunk on a moonshine of fact and fiction.
Through the swimming reality of conspiracy theories, black market folklore and muddled identities, the commerce of the shadow economy became the constant within the transient flux of Mission Street life.
Folsom and Harrison Streets - the shopping cart-pushers’ superhighways - serves as arterials flowing night and day to the recycling heart of Bayshore. Here, amongst fleets of caged pick-ups and the din of smashing glass, trash transforms into the lifeblood of hard currency, circulating back down through the Mission and sustaining the next day’s hustle, hopes and addictions.
It seems I’ve walked the length of Mission Street, from downtown all the way up to Cesar Chavez, enough times to reach the moon and back. Beneath a vault of electric blue sky and frayed palms, the street slowly emerged as an urban San Andreas fault line, the trillion dollar tectonic plate of Silicon Valley grinding slowly but irresistibly into the old Hispanic neighborhood. Ironically, as the influx of ‘disruption’ prospectors drives up the rental prices that contribute to homelessness, it’s the conspicuous consumption of the same migrants which supplies much of the shadow economy’s inventory.
After all, one start-up king’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Within the rancid substrates of a thousand split garbage bags, I’ve seen brand new Braun shavers, once-worn Nikes and sealed bags of Single Origin coffee barely a day past their expiration date. In contrast to this casual wastage is the calloused enterprise of those who rescue such items from the landfill of our abundance and add new value to stuff we’ve dismissed as worthless.
Unfortunately, government policy does not support the civil service of recycling and reselling, and many recyclers are often persecuted, fined, and even imprisoned. In order to legally resell items in the street, you need to have a ‘Peddler’s License’, a permit that costs hundreds of dollars a year, and requires a social security number and physical address - things that many street vendors simply do not have. Furthermore, if collected items are not kept tidy - a challenge in itself when you don’t have storage or shelves - a person’s belongings risk being deemed a safety hazard and can be confiscated by police. When I asked a sweet English man named John why people are being punished for collecting and reselling discarded goods, he said
“Homelessness isn’t pretty, and I suppose they feel we are a blemish on their idyllic society.”
If our Silicon Valley society could recognize such street merchants as fellow entrepreneurs - if they could factor currencies beyond cash and reevaluate what the bottom line actually means - we might actually achieve that glittering prize and break the assumptions that define our own category to arrive at that new angle, that never been done design, that novel flip on gentrification that might help level the upheaving landscape of the Haves and the Have-Nots in the Mission and elsewhere in San Francisco.
That would be truly disruptive.