Friday, May 24, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness' Bleak Vision of a Future San Francisco

How do we envision the future?  Are we going to imagine the urban spaces where more and more of us choose to live as tributes to history and humanity, or do we went to scrub away the past to create metal behemoths of industrialized progress?  If the recent Star Trek: Into Darkness is any indication, the fate of just one city, San Francisco, is the unquestioned victory of the latter.  A new Manhattan, transplanted on top of a city that has fought for decades to preserve its character, architecture and, now, its very population.

San Francisco is undergoing a massive developmental transition.  Continuing their coverage of the eviction crisis facing the city, the Bay Guardian's cover story this week was on the Eviction Epidemic and how thousands of long time citizens are being forced out of their homes by policies that favor development and new construction over cultural preservation and social justice, chief among them the controversial Ellis Act under which most of these evictions have been made possible.    Meanwhile, as more and more residents are being forced away from their home (as depicted in the Bay Guardians map, shown below), development plans are already underway to further transform the city into the kind of skyscraper Neo-Manhattan envisioned by Into Darkness.

San Francisco Evictions under the Ellis Act, Bay Guardian 
Obviously the aesthetic choices made by Into Darkness' creative team did not have an explicitly politic intent.  In fact, the gleaming towers of a galvanized skyline are by far the norm in depictions of futuristic cities, popping up uniformly everywhere from fiction to futurism.  Given that neoliberal paradises like Abu Dubai and Hong Kong already look like this, it could almost be argued that these depictions are much more reflective of our current collective idea of what a city looks like than any informed vision of urban space as it may look in a century.

This video by Jay Paul Company depicts the planned 800 foot skyscraper slated for insertion at 181 Fremont.  Approved at the end of March, 2013, this structure would become the second tallest structure in San Francico, coming in at just 53 feet shorter than the Transamerica Building.  Part of a 145 acre Transbay Center development plan, the building is the brain child of SF based developer Karl Bauldauf, while the team of Jay Paul describe their business as "opportunity driven real estate."  181 will house 420,000 square feet of office space, 14 floors of boutique retail space and 74 residential units.

Development projects like this one, catering to the wealthy and befitting the already super wealthy, are happening everywhere in San Francisco.  Just outside my window, a four story mixed used building is nearing construction   Planned for the bottom level is a La Boulange bakery, another in a chain of high end coffee shops recently purchased by Starbucks.  This development takes place barely a block away from multiple local bakeries, including Arizmendi co op.    

None of these examples, from skyscrapers to bakeries to the Ellis Act, can be ignored as taken place in a vacuum.  They are part of a concentrated effort by powerful interests to remake the city into something by and for a chosen few.  In choosing to depict the city's future as following these developmental lines, Star Trek Into Darkness unknowingly placates the very interests that seek to see the Victorians leveled  the Mission cleared and turned into an office park.  What is troubling is the tone with which this is all presented.  Thirty years ago, images like these would have been more at home in Bladerunner or Brazil, images of a dystopian endpoint for urban spaces in which the human scale is flattened by monoliths of "opportunity driven" development. 

But the San Francisco of the recent Star Trek films is not some dark future to be feared but an emblem of utopia.  It is a victim to be demolished by a space terrorist, a paradise whose peace is broken and must be defended.  We may be able to spot landmarks in between the skyscrapers  but the San Francisco of 2154 may as well be Beijing or Taiwan.  It is especially alarming in a series originated by a man whose intentions were explicitly social.  Gene Rodenberry wanted Stark Trek to enlighten existing social issues while alternately imagining a world that has overcome many of the problems plaguing modern day society.  One wonders what he would have made of the crisis facing San Francisco in 2013, and how the depiction of Starfleet's home base endorses the very same threats to social inequality that he hoped to call into question.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You define whiny hipster. That future SF is preferable to the current cramped, overpriced, and outdated situation.