I've just returned from a four-day trip to the Bay Area, where Market Street has never looked so lively. The city is bustling with tech money, and especially the young people from other countries, especially India and China, that are flocking here to work for rapidly growing software companies like Twitter and Salesforce, the latter soon to occupy the city's tallest building.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went down the escalator to the Powell Street BART station, not far from both the Moscone Center and Union Square, to find trash blowing around the hallways and the white walls grimy with dirt. Earlier that morning I'd boarded the train at the Ashby station in South Berkeley, where there was also trash blowing around. The common element in both places? Homeless people, living outside or in the walkways of the stations.
Being a Westerner, having grown up and gone to college in this region, it shocks me to find the kind of grime and unkempt qualities that we used to ascribe only to places like New York, Boston and Philadelphia, "worn out" places that could not maintain themselves. This is supposed to be the West, where everything is bright and new, where we keep things up. But the BART system is now almost 45 years old, and they've let it slip. More importantly, all that economic growth in the Bay Area has created a real "equity" problem, of not everyone sharing in the wealth, and the direct result is that a whole lot of people cannot afford the rent. That was the real explanation for the dirt I saw in the BART system, that a fair number of people in our society have nowhere to go. Yes, we need to create more affordable housing, but also yes, we need to raise incomes for people, by creating meaningful and value-added work.