Arts & Events

Company Town: Celebrating a wild progressive win by Berkeley native over big money politics in the big city

Gar Smith
Friday October 28, 2016 - 08:35:00 AM

Opens at the Rialto Elmwood and the Roxie Theatre on October 28; Opens at the San Rafael Film Center on November 6.

With a testy November election ahead of us, the last thing you might be looking forward to watching would be a documentary about a contentious city election back in November 2015. But don't let that discourage you. Company Town is a sassy, intimate, and engrossing retelling of a David and Goliath battle for control of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. (Spoiler alert for out-of-towners: This is a "downer doc" with a certified "feel-good" finish.)

Company Town is the work of two award-winning Berkeley-based filmmaker-journalists—Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow. The star of this "little guy"-vs.-the-corporate-Godzillas tale is Aaron Peskin, a Berkeley High graduate. A former SF Supervisor, Peskin rises to the comeback challenge as a pint-sized contender with a gallon-sized wallop. His enemy is the misnamed "sharing economy"—Airbnb, Uber, Lyft—an upstart, entrepreneurial force that has no room for the poor and marginalized.

There's a lot at stake in the race for District 3—a major tourist destination that includes Chinatown, North Beach, Coit Tower, and the asphalt slalom-course known as Lombard Street. District 3 also is a neighborhood plagued by forced evictions spurred by the economic disruptions of Tech Company cash. An unlikely Peskin upset would return the board's progressive majority.




The threat is "tech-sector displacement" is about more than long-time residents losing their homes. As Peskin warns, it's also "a fight for the soul of San Francisco." 

Peskin's competitor Julie Christensen (a decent enough minor politician elevated to the District 3 seat on the Board of Supes thanks to the support of Mayor Ed Lee) admits that "techies" and their masters have become a symbol about "all that's wrong with the City" but then insists: "Technology companies are not an issue in my campaign." If only. 

Christensen calls Peskin "a table-pounding politician . . . in the grandest sense." Peskin sees Christensen as "a parks activist . . . not a social activist." 

Mayor Ed Lee presents himself as a messenger of "collaboration and inclusiveness"—a leader opposed to the kind of "obstructionism" that stands in the way of big business and unchecked development. 

Peskin sees it differently: "The problem is a handful of tech billionaires have decided to invest in politics." 

Standing before roomful of enthusiastic businessfolk, Lee validates Peskin's point. Upon being introduced as "our tech-friendly mayor," Lee gives the crowd a smart military salute—the kind of gesture an Army private is trained to deliver in the presence of a senior officer. 

Mission (District) Impossible? 

San Francisco Examiner columnist Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez (he of the fashionably red-streaked hair) serves as a genial guide to the Mission District neighborhoods where he grew up. Chatting and animated, he guides the camera through the hood, praising the District for its history, its diversity, food, murals. On the other hand, the Mission also hosts the greatest concentration of Airbnb rentals. 

Trotting through some of the grittier blocks Rodriguez heads over to the increasingly up-scale digs along Valencia Street. At one point, he pauses in amazement before one of the new bistros: "Nine dollars for a smoothie? Yum!" 

Calling the Valencia precinct "ground zero for tech workers," Rodriguez stops on the sidewalk to phone a sales rep whose number is listed on a sign posted on one of the newly built high-rise housing developments. As the cameras roll, the rep assures him that 90% of the residents are "Apple and Google, with some Facebook." And, yes, there are several tech-commuter shuttle stops nearby. 

Oh, and the going price for one of these penthouse condos? $1.7-$2.7 million per year. Yum! 

At one point, Rodriguez is rattled almost to the point of tears when a chance sidewalk encounter reminds him of a painful family trauma brought on by the wildfire of evictions that has swept through the city's long-established communities. 

Goodbye North Beach, So Long Chinatown? 

Twilight shots of the district's iconic small businesses—Café Trieste, Café Greco, Molinari's delicatessen—take on a wistful air. Are these generations-old haunts now in danger of being replaced by Starbucks, Whole Foods, and upscale boutiques? The camera turns to the east where—looming over the familiar sites of North Beach—a wall of gleaming corporate skyscrapers dominates the horizon. 

The perfect icon for the rise of urban Technification is the Googlebus. Every workday, fleets of these shuttered, self-important, double-deckers ferry workers from SF to their jobs in Mountain View—ensuring that they remain largely detached from life in the city that serves as their bedroom. 

At a rally of North Beach artists, Peskin meets three locals who were recently victims of owner-precipitated, Ellis Act-enabled evictions. Displacement by gentrification is becoming the new law of the land. Over five years, the City registered 9,000 evictions, many due to the pursuit of short-term rentals. At the same time, median rents for two-bedroom apartments increased 105%. 

The Sharing Economy Isn't about Sharing 

Peskin deftly eviscerates the myth of the "sharing economy" when he notes, "it's an economy, but it's not about sharing." He warns about the clear downside of kicking out local residents in order to transform 2,000 rental homes and apartments into pricey, rent-by-the-day hotel rooms. 

In a compelling film clip, Company Town shows Chris Lehane (a former Bill Clinton advisor) praising Airbnb as a force "so big that no Army could really stop it" and assuring his audience of entrepreneurs: "You are on the side of history!" 

Local Chinatown progressives warn that plans to convert the historic Empress of China tower into a tech office building will unleash devastating ripple effects that will spill across the entire neighborhood. The screws are already being tightened. Families in Chinatown now are getting eviction notices for drying clothes on their balconies, a Chinatown traditional that spans generations and centuries. 

In a telling moment during a Moon Festival parade through Chinatown—lead by Christensen and Mayor Lee—an announcement over a sidewalk PA blares that the event is being "sponsored by AT&T." 

Asked about evictions, displacements and corporate transformation, Christiansen confesses the key question boils down to: "What do we want to save and what is destined to change." 

Company Town illuminates some underappreciated truths. While many of the people who live in SF may not be homeless, they are one-eviction-notice-away from becoming street dwellers. At the same time that the city is being transformed by a growing class of "rent-rich" newcomers, there is a large class of apartment residents who could be classified as "poor renters." The divide between rich and poor extends beyond the public bane of homelessness. There is an "underclass" of renters living marginal lives behind the doors and walls of America's economically segregated cities. 

The battlelines over the District 3 seat are as clear as a red-painted curb. Peskin is trying to defeat a candidate backed by millions of Airbnb dollars aiming to protect a $25 billion investment. 

Christensen claims her vote will not be influenced by corporate money but when the City considers new laws to regulate Airbnb rentals, Christensen warns that such restrictions would make it hard for existing city residents "whose ability to remain in SF is dependent on the extra bit of income they gain from home sharing." 

Supervisor David Campos calls out Christensen during the debate with an impassioned speech that may prompt many viewers to join in the on-screen applause that erupts when he finishes. 

In the end, Christensen casts the swing vote that lets Airbnb off the hook for reporting potential abuses of its home-rentals. 

We Need a Revolution 

Company Town briefly turns its attention to Uber, a company that relies on volunteer drivers so desperate to earn "extra cash" that they are willing to pay fill their own gas tanks and provide their labor without workers benefits. 

As Rodriguez observes, if you have to prostitute yourself to earn enough money to survive as a teacher, a carpenter, or a food service employee, that may be a sign that the real solution should be to address failures of the basic economy. 

Over the past year, a tide of Uber-strikes and taxi-stoppages have paralyzed major cities in the US, Europe, Africa and Latin America. And the resistance to Airbnb continues to mount as well. 

And, in response to the city's refusal to crackdown on Airbnb, citizens placed an initiative onto the 2015 ballot to prevent the kind of illegal, short-term rentals that had proven so lucrative to Airbnb. 

This was the smack-down year for hardball politics. At one point, the Big Money behind Christensen's campaign produced an infamous "Mad Men" TV spot that featured Peskin plunging to his death while a narrator accused the candidate of a litany of abusive comments. (Company Town includes the entire ad, unedited.) 

During the arduous campaign, Peskin is shown walking the precincts, speaking at Chinatown gatherings (accompanied by his dedicated campaign lieutenant, Jeffrey Kwong), standing on street corners trying (and largely failing) to convince self-absorbed millennials to grab one of his political handbills. But he keeps plugging away at it with a tenacity that borders on the transcendental. 

And, in the end, he wins. 

Company Town is a timely reminder about what it takes to win a campaign when you're up against an entrenched candidate with Big Money backing. 

When Peskin finally steps onto the Beach Blanket Babylon stage at Club Fugazi to declare victory, it's a real-life Hollywood ending, well worth savoring. 

How good is it? It's like seeing Hillary beaten at the ballot box by Bernie.