His black fedora floated in the air before landing atop a shopper’s shoe. The Michael Jackson impersonator danced to his mentor’s classic songs. A group of teenage tourists from Japan took out their iPhones and digital cameras were recording, as the dancer’s hips swayed. At 865 Market Street, tourists, professionals, and shoppers stopped to take a minute to watch one of the city’s fixtures.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen him, but today I spoke with him during a break between songs. The street performer, asking coyly to be referred to as Michael Jackson’s protégé, told me that he has danced on this exact spot every day since 2010. “I do it for the city. For the fun it used to be. The tips barely cover my coffee, but this is what San Francisco used to be about,” he said, before picking up his hat and queuing up the song “Billy Jean.”
“How cool is this,” asked an anonymous woman, to nobody in particular.
I spoke with Tanya, who told me that she is a San Francisco native who frequently walks Market Street to get to work, yet has never paid much of any attention the slew of street performers, chess boards, and outdoor activities that are strewn about between the area of Hallidie Plaza and the Embarcadero Center. Instead, she said, she has been too busy navigating the dirt on the ground, the swarm of pigeons attacking people during lunch, and the homeless encampments that litter the area. “I don’t get to see the fun side of the city anymore, just too many people moving in. I usually spend time at home or out of the city.”
Tanya’s friend echoed her sentiment, as do many generations of San Francisco’s natives, now dealing with a sudden, rapid influx of the tech and startup industries. While technology is rapidly becoming the way of the future, it has left San Francisco residents outside of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers in its wake. Homelessness and drug abuse, problems that have plagued San Francisco since well before Harvey Milk’s time as mayor of the city, have become a norm, no longer the exception. According to Zillow’s Home Value Index, housing costs have increased 4% since 2016, and are predicted to rise another 1% by the end of 2018.
Aside from the overall cost of living in the city by the bay, native San Franciscans are experiencing a cultural shift. San Francisco, once a city known for the debauchery of the Barbary Coast, full of people with diverse backgrounds, hobbies, and professions, is transforming into a city where the question “Which startup do you work for?” is the new “Hello.” As new startups are born, buildings keep rising, creating a skyline that is dwarfing the city’s many historic landmarks such as the Coit Tower, St. Peter and Paul’s Basilica, and the Transamerica Pyramid, to name a few. Cultural and professional diversity is being pushed aside in the name of technological assimilation, with only a hint of the city’s importance on the sociopolitical stage left to remind people that they are, in fact, still in San Francisco.
Is this a case of “money talks” or a case of people giving up the fight to hold on to a city’s illustrious, historic past?
Ilya is not good at standing still. He enjoys long-haul flights to exotic unknowns, getting lost in bustling cities, navigating language barriers, and haggling for unique items.
Ilya is a graduate of the George Washington University in Washington D.C, where he received a master’s degree in Safety & Security studies.