It's hard to ignore the impact that Internet entrepreneurship has made on San Francisco. The skyline is peppered with billboards for dot.com-everything-under-the-sun. The twentysomething crowd cruises around town in sportscars, chatting on their cell phones. And hot topics of conversation have moved away from local politics and free love and toward stock options and retirement at age 40.
As the rest of the nation is just starting to see the effects of the tech climate on city cultures, everyone's keeping a close eye on the Bay area-for good reason. Perhaps nowhere else has the impact of the Internet been demonstrated so clearly, and so quickly. South of Market (SOMA) and Mission districts, once light industrial and manufacturing centers, now contain a slew of new Web start-ups, including LookSmart, USWeb/CKS and Spinner. "Multimedia Gulch" is filled with warehouses converted into trendy offices outfitted with high-speed Net access and steel beams. Pricey restaurants are popping up, lunch lines are long and the cyberprofessional crowd has arrived, seemingly overnight. In many ways, it's a brand new day for the city by the Bay.
"It's an interesting phenomenon," observes Mark Quinn, district director of the San Francisco SBA and a San Francisco resident of 15 years. "Up until a few years ago, you didn't notice much of an impact on San Francisco from high-tech ventures. But the Multimedia Gulch phenomenon has really changed parts of the city."
Exactly how much the Internet has affected the city's characteristic charms is unclear. However, there's no denying that the preponderance of Internet companies has clearly influenced new housing developments, traffic patterns and property values, making the gentrification of San Francisco by the "Internet people" a topic of much-heated conversation. It also has many local residents worried about their city's future.
Historically, San Francisco's banking community and large industries have made long-term investments in the city and its neighborhoods. However, people don't expect that kind of behavior from Internet start-ups, which have a reputation for a get-rich-quick mentality.
"It has made sense for [traditional San Francisco] businesses to work hand-in-hand with the community," says Quinn. "Now many wonder whether small start-up Internet businesses have the same level of invest-ment in the community."
Not everyone is comfortable with the bad rap that cyberprofessionals are getting, though. "It's not easy" to be an Internet entrepreneur, says Soon-Chart Yu, the 34-year-old CEO of Gazoontite.com, an online health-product store based in SOMA. "I'm acutely aware of the issues we face socially and politically as well as in business."
Yu, a resident of San Francisco for 12 years, insists that he and his business are here to stay. "I visit all the local restaurants, and live in the neighborhood so I have a real interest in the community," he says. "I'm not only concerned for a few months to ride this great wave, but [I want] to run my business on a long-term basis. I want to stay in San Francisco."
Yu believes open communication is the only way to resolve issues like congestion and parking availability that stem from such rapid growth. "There has to be an attitude that people will work with us," says Yu, "so [residents] can protect the integrity of [their communities], while we can still allow for proactive growth."
This past year, Yu helped form the Information Tech-nology Coalition, a San Francisco organization dedi-cated to bringing high-tech businesses and the community together. "We have some of the most creative people in the Internet sector," he says, "and we can work together to resolve some of these issues."
Quinn agrees that there's a solution. But rather than viewing the wave of Internet businesses moving in as something new, Quinn prefers to look at it as part of an evolution, pointing out that the Internet is attracting a lot of talented people to the city. "Historically, San Francisco has always embraced new kinds of people moving into its city, whether it was the beatniks in the '50s or hippies in the '60s," he says. "The energy and talent that come from creative people in this city is one reason why San Francisco has always been successfully ahead of trends, and that's the case here, too."
Heather Alter, former Entrepreneur technology editor currently lives in the Bay area.