Editor's Notes

Poor people are better at building communities than rich people


My sister did a sociology project in college that involved the culture of laundromats. Nothing revolutionary, and I suspect it's been done before, but she hung out in coin-ops and watched what happened when somebody ran out of money before the final load. What she discovered (again, nothing that sociologists haven't written about for years) was that the less money patrons had, the more likely they were to lend it to someone else. You can imagine what the poorer folks told her: "Hey, last week that was me needing a quarter."

I know this is a huge, vast, sweeping generalization, but I'll cop to it: Poor people are better at building communities than rich people. If you're someone who is always living on the edge, always one step away from economic disaster, you're more likely to play a role in a community that helps others in your situation.

So check out our cover story this week, because it gives some perspective on the evils of gentrification.

In the 1980s, lower Polk Street had an active sex-worker community. Hustlers and bartenders and guys looking for hustlers took care of each other. New kids in town, many of them runaways fleeing homophobic and abusive situations, got connections, work (not always sex work), and a chance to build a life. There are quite a few prominent, successful San Franciscans who came out of that world. It wasn't always pretty, and was often dangerous, but it was a legitimate community.

But as more upscale businesses and residents started to displace the hustler bars and push the kids off the streets, the community fell apart. It didn't help that the drug of choice was changing from pot to meth, and that AIDS was ravaging queer San Francisco, particularly places like Polk Street, and a lot of the damage would have occurred anyway. Still, the gentrification made it worse.

And as organic, self-sustaining communities made up of people who help each other are riven by economic displacement, the costs are shifted to the public sector. In other words, gentrification is bad for the taxpayers.

I saw this happening way back in the early 1980s, when I was a volunteer with the Haight Ashbury Switchboard. We saved the city millions, mostly by helping people in the neighborhood help each other. My friend Jasin, who was living on SSI, had a flat with some extra space, and we sent homeless crashers to stay with her while they got on their feet. A few of the local communes took in crashers too. We told people how to work the system, how to say out of trouble, how to survive in the big city.

But as rents went up, and people who had plenty of time to volunteer either left town or had to take full-time jobs, and the communes and food conspiracies disappeared, and SSI no longer paid for a five-room flat — as the Haight gentrified — that model fell apart. There are still plenty of community-based services and organizations in the Haight and elsewhere, but it's harder, much harder. And the sense that we're all in this together, that we're all kind of struggling but we're all going to help each other make it through, is almost gone.

I don't know. Maybe the depression brings it back. *

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