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Back to <-- DotComs and the Information Revolution

'Beat city' fights dotcom gold rush
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Source: Sydney Morning Herald

'Beat city' fights dotcom gold rush

Date: 08/09/2000

Kerouac's favourite bookstore is at the centre of a struggle to stop computer firms 'ruining' San Francisco, reports Simon Davis from California

Led by the owners of Jack Kerouac's favourite bookshop, San Francisco's embattled free-thinkers are fighting a rearguard action against the swelling legions of dotcom millionaires.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the 81-year-old owner of City Lights bookshop, once a favoured hangout of the Beat Generation, has voiced a widespread anger that the city's atmosphere is being changed beyond recognition by cash-rich dotcom and computer firms.

"San Francisco is getting to be the farthest thing from Bohemia," he complained.

Mr Ferlinghetti was drawn into the struggle when a computer company sought to evict his business by offering a grotesque sum to the building's owners.

San Franciscans of the old school flocked to defend the bookshop, which was opened in 1953 and remains a beatnik mecca.

After resounding complaints, the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board granted the site landmark status in recognition of its "cultural value". It was the first time that landmark status had been offered to a business rather than a building.

Nancy Peters, the co-owner of City Lights, said: "The old San Francisco is under attack to the point where it's disappearing."

Over the past 15 years the celebrated laid-back tone of San Francisco has changed beyond recognition as the wealthy from nearby Silicon Valley have set up home in the city, while young businesses have started up in residential districts.

As a result, San Francisco has become the most expensive city in America to live in. The streets around Haight Ashbury are bereft of the eccentricity and artistic verve so noticeable when renegade free-thinkers once sat and pondered life's deeper meaning.

In their place sit young men and women on mobile phones shrilling about how much money they have raised for their latest e-commerce scheme.

City Lights is at the forefront of a backlash against the new wave of prospectors arriving to make their millions from the computer industry at the expense of the city's traditional ethos. Locals say they are being "dot-conned".

Later this year San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is putting forward two measures on the city ballot that will help to stifle the dotcom surge.

Certain areas will be reserved for arts and community groups, with computer companies barred from purchasing property.

A second ordinance will prevent computer companies from buying cheap office space in traditionally working class areas and then gentrifying them to a point at which local people can no longer afford to live there.

In a bid to draw attention to the millions of dollars computer companies and dotcom millionaires are paying for both residential and business property, a local newspaper has started a name-and-shame column entitled "Surreal Estate".

Recently a small dance company was asked to vacate its studio because it could not afford rent that has trebled in under a year. It refused, saying that this was an example of the "clear-cutting of San Francisco's community and culture". It was later moved out by police.

Hundred of bands will be evicted from one of the city's most famous musical rehearsal sites next month when a new computer company takes over the space. Most community or arts-based groups have already been forced to leave the city and relocate to cheaper property across the Golden Gate Bridge in Oakland.

There was outrage earlier this year when a bar in the centre of San Francisco offered half-price drinks to anybody working for a dotcom company. It sparked a public outcry from the city's doctors, teachers and volunteer workers who were seeing the city's wealthiest new residents getting even more perks.

The debate did not last long, as the bar was bought by internet entrepreneurs who promptly closed it to make office space.

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