Not All That is Gold Glitters
The alternative riches and unlikely entrepreneurs driving San Francisco’s shadow economy in the start up era.
Millennia before Google, Facebook and the other tech titans sent seismic shifts through the Bay Area landscape, disruptions were already underway. Deep beneath Silicon Valley in the rocky seams of the San Andreas fault, mother nature’s own venture capital was flowing — golden veins that later gave the first rush of economic life to San Francisco.
Since the initial gold claims 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 the city’s frictions that make it such a force.
Today, San Francisco Mission District has become the epicenter of a 21st century gold rush. The technology industry is booming, and the Bay Area is ground zero. From mining precious metals to manipulating data, 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, meant life or death for many. Amidst the cutthroat race to riches, San Francisco’s murder rate in the 1850s was a staggering one in nine.
Today, while nobody is likely to be stabbed for writing bad code in Mountain View, the cult of the cutting edge still dictates survival. Just like the first waves of gold prospectors drawn to San Francisco by the luster of yet undiscovered fortune, the city is again bursting with an influx of tech migrants looking to strike it rich.
The catchall term on the lips of every entrepreneurial young techie - ‘disruption’. So what exactly does this mean? According to a local 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 a glittering prize, that new angle, that streamlined design, that novel flip on an age-old problem.
What often goes unnoticed, however, is the dynamic business unfolding on the very same streets that serve as bedroom communities and weekend haunts of Silicon Valley’s worker bees.
Laid out on blankets and sheets, assembled in cardboard boxes and trundled 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 whom absorb the aftershocks of true disruption.
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 innovation born of necessity. A Byzantine market of tin cans and Levi’s jeans, obsolete phones and discarded toys that delivered vital returns to its vendors: food, shelter, clothing and other items that allow them to subsist within the concrete reality of life on the street.
Throughout the Mission, with its round-the-block queues for pastries 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 CDs do have gritty pearls of wisdom to impart. They know which dumpsters on Capp Street are best for diving, and what buried treasure lay at their stinking bottoms. They know whereabouts in the Food Co. parking lot one might happen upon suitcases of discarded designer clothes.
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.
I learned how it’s rusty levers work and wobbly wheels turn; how its commodities are priced, bartered and transported; and how unpredictable events like rain, police sweeps and bed bugs determine 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 only as a mother lode of materials I could see and touch, but one layered with myths and metaphysical treasures buried in the hearts and minds of those I met.
Amidst this grinding hardship, dreams of a better life manifest in the most fantastic shapes and forms. Some want to retire to the Oregon wilderness, others to escape this earth via cosmic portal. I often felt punchdrunk on a moonshine of fact and fiction. Through the swimming reality of conspiracy theories, black market folklore and muddled identities, the flow of commerce gave me a constant window into Mission Street life.
Folsom and Harrison Streets, the shopping cart-pushers’ superhighways, serve as night and day arteries to the recycling heart of Bayshore. Here, trash transforms into hard currency, circulating back down to feed the next day’s hustle, hopes and addictions.
It seems I’ve walked the length of Mission Street, from downtown to Cesar Chavez, enough times to reach the moon and back. Beneath a vault of electric blue sky and frayed palms, the street slowly emerge as an urban fault line, the trillion dollar tectonic plate of Silicon Valley grinding slowly into the Mission. As the influx of ‘disruption’ prospectors drives up rental prices, 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 its expiration date. 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 when you don’t have storage or shelves — a person’s belongings risk being deemed a safety hazard and 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 Silicon Valley could recognize street merchants as fellow entrepreneurs, and if we all could incorporate currencies like compassion and curiosity to reevaluate our collective bottom line — we might together break the assumptions that define our own category.
By ‘interfacing’ with those employed in alternative commerce, we could arrive at that new angle, that never been done design, that novel flip that might help close the gap between the haves and have-nots in the Mission and elsewhere in the Bay Area.
That would be truly disruptive.
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Issue 002 - MAGIC: Mayan Talismans, Tropical Storms & Alien Archaeology is available for online purchase here , through San Francisco Street Sheet vendors and in-store at Needles & Pens bookshop 1773 Valencia Street.