You are reading Part 4, the concluding piece of a series of long form articles on San Jose. This essay series is primarily focused on the dynamics between urban politics and powerful companies. Part 4 is shorter than the first three and summarizes San Jose’s descent into a cyberpunk city with particular regard to its treatment of the homeless.
San Jose is becoming a neoliberal utopia for the rich, and a cyberpunk future for the poor. There is no other city in the world that better exemplifies our national trends than San Jose: improvements in technology will continue to bring prosperity for an elite group of people, while a decaying social order will leave everyone else behind.
Let me describe the utopia first: well established scholarly literature provides us with an accurate description of what happens when the “creative class” moves in. Richard Florida, a leading urban studies scholar, identifies the rise of this group (educated, with specialized skillsets, typically drawn to burgeoning industries) in contributing to a new vibrancy and revitalization for downtowns through demands for better amenities. The creative class has brought new vibrancy to the American city, which has been in decline for decades.
Florida is not totally wrong. San Jose’s metro area is one of the richest areas in the world. It’s an American jewel, a home to companies that are household names all across the world. In an era scholars have characterized by a huge drop in federal funding, San Jose has been able to extract billions of federal dollars for transportation projects and the airport. It even got a regional branch of the US patent office established thanks to strong civic and corporate leadership. Corporate and civic leadership alike have pushed for progressive policies at both the local and state level: just days ago San Jose’s city council approved a plan to build tiny homes for the homeless. Techies have done wonders here.
San Jose is prosperous with a strongly progressive leadership, and there’s no denying it, but its growing wealth has not come without losers. Florida’s creative class is a little different nowadays. Here’s the growing dystopia: since 1989, income for the top 1% has increased nearly 250%. Everyone else saw a gain of 23.2%. From 2010 to 2015, San Jose had the second largest growth in income gaps between top and middle class earners, behind only neighboring San Francisco. One study found 17% of local high school students are couch surfing instead of living in stable homes. It’s not just the youth: Santa Clara County is the 16th largest American county by population, but has the 4th largest homeless population. The poverty rate has been steadily rising in the county since the dawn of the 21st century. Pew research ranks San Jose as one of the most unequal metropolitan areas in the country. And so on, and so on.
Please don’t misunderstand me. San Jose is far from the worst place in the world for the poor and middle class. It’s not the most unequal place, it doesn’t have the worst infrastructure, it doesn’t even have the worst social services. Regional leadership has made Santa Clara county a “self-help” county that is the envy of counties nationwide.
But therein lies the issue. San Jose is becoming the ideal city of a dying fantasy. It’s a utopia for the neoliberal fantasy of social progression walking hand in hand without economic regulations. Instead of striving for a stronger economic base, we find ourselves hoping the new elites are progressive enough to care for their communities. Cities around the country are envious of a city with a one of the biggest homeless populations. The building of these shelters is probably a step in the right direction, but it’s barely anything more than a hi-tech band-aid. Class revolution isn’t coming to San Jose, but you better believe the cyberpunk future is.