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This Is What It's Like To Live In San Francisco If You're Not A Billionaire Startup Founder

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 26/02/2016 Kate Abbey-Lambertz
ATHENA IMAGE © Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

Daniel Zapien dug pools for startup founders who were rising stars in Silicon Valley, and filled in pools for the ones whose companies had gone bust. Mike Sandoval valeted tech workers’ cars. Cecilia Chavez cleaned their sprawling houses, and Anthony King sold them crack from a homeless encampment. Their stories are the ones that rarely surface when people talk about the center of the tech industry.

De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley, a book released last month, tries to change that. It shares a few dozen short and often funny accounts written by young people who have struggled to get by in the Bay Area, offering a raw look into the lives of residents bearing the brunt of gentrification.

“From the inside of the machinery, Silicon Valley was a starkly different place than the futuristic utopia it was projected to be,” co-editors Jean Melesaine and Raj Jayadev write in the preface about the impetus for the project.

“When the image boasted high incomes, most people just saw high rents,” they continue. “When it said more million-dollar homes, we saw more people becoming homeless.”

De-Bug comes out of the community organization Silicon Valley De-Bug , founded in 2001 by Jayadev and other assembly line workers at a Hewlett Packard plant. The collective focuses on criminal justice, advocating for defendants in courts and holding protests. They also produce a magazine and run a community darkroom for print photography. 

Melesaine, now 30, first came across De-Bug when she was 19. She started working with the collective regularly two years later after she had served time in jail. She was due to go back, because she couldn’t afford to pay the restitution fine, when Jayadev gave her a check to pay off the amount she owed. 

“[Jayadev] said, you don’t have to pay this back, but all I’m asking is that you come back every day,” Melesaine recalled. Since then, she’s been working with De-Bug as a writer, videographer and organizer.

More than half of the accounts in De-Bug are from around the time of the dot-com boom, when the organization first started collecting stories about living in Silicon Valley. But it feels incredibly timely, as rent continue to rise and longtime residents are increasingly being displaced.

HuffPost talked to Melesaine, who grew up in San Francisco and now lives in Oakland, about De-Bug and why Silicon Valley’s promise of opportunity should be open to all.


HuffPost: Why was it important for you to publish this book?  

Jean Melesaine: These are stories that people don’t even think of asking, like the ice cream man pushing the cart down the street. You never think to ask, what’s their experience? And so we asked. Without all these folks, Silicon Valley could not happen. 

How have things changed since you started collecting stories during the dot-com boom?

It's easier for folks in San Jose to disappear under all this gentrification and all this tech, because it’s been happening in San Jose for so long. But I think now San Francisco and Oakland are witnessing what San Jose has been going through for all these years.

I could walk into these neighborhoods that people used to say were so bad and see new cafes pop up, and I know that it’s not for someone who grew up in that neighborhood. The tech industry in the Bay Area, anywhere you go you can see that it’s spreading like crazy. Old neighborhoods that you walk into look completely different. 

What’s it like to be a low-wage worker in the Bay Area? Many people in the book talk about what they’ve had to do to make ends meet, including one man who sold his own blood to the medical lab where he worked for extra cash. Others talk frankly about illegal activity, like drug dealing or selling scrap metal.

A lot of the jobs or the work that folks [talk about in the book], they probably are not doing those same things anymore, because jobs change so much in Silicon Valley, especially if it’s a job for low-wage workers.

It’s hard to get a job if you have a record, and it’s really hard to get a job in San Jose. I have two younger brothers who have been trying to get jobs for many years, and they’ve only gotten jobs at temp agencies. A lot of these companies that say they’re hiring, they have contracts with temp agencies with lower pay.

It’s hard to survive in the city when the rent is three times more than their paycheck, so I think with criminal activity, you have to question, why do folks have to go to crime to survive?

Several individuals in De-Bug were homeless at one point, and one of the compelling stories came from Yaveth Gomez, who was living in his car despite making $58,000 a year. How do people afford to live in the Bay Area?

There’s a lot of families that we know that are facing eviction. There’s all these landlords that are trying to develop, that are pushing for new laws to help them evict folks faster.

I know a lot of folks who have lived in their car. You hear it a couple times and you’re shocked, and then you hear more people talk about it, and you’re like, OK, I guess going to the gym to shower and leaving your stuff in storage ... that’s just like regular life over here.

Stability in the Bay is so different. I have a couple friends, I could count on my hands, where they're stable. And then the rest -- you just don’t know what’s going to happen in the next year. Anything could happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz covers sustainable cities, housing and inequality. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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