Mon, Apr 08, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Activists fight to save their neighborhoods from tech giants

Facebook, Google and Amazon have not just colonized the Internet: Their hubs, campuses and offices are taking over huge sections of cities around the world. But campaigners from New York to Toronto and Berlin are fighting back

By John Harris  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

“It’s a challenge out here. The way the tech companies are building and increasing their size is just pricing people out. Families who have been here for generations can’t afford to be here any more. They’re being pushed off into rural areas — anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours away.”

JT Faraji is a 43-year-old artist who lives with his family in East Palo Alto, the northern California city on the edge of Silicon Valley. Just a stone’s throw away, Facebook’s global headquarters is his most visible neighbor, and he is also close to a big new Amazon office. He has lived in the area all his life and talks volubly about fascinating aspects of East Palo Alto’s history — like the period in the 1960s when black activists set up a high school and college, and there was even talk of renaming the city Nairobi.

“There are a lot of minorities here: Hispanics, blacks, Pacific Islanders,” he says. “But those people are not really represented in the workforce in technology. So the way that northern California is going to look in not too long is going to be very … undiverse.”

In 2017, as part of a local grassroots group called the Real Community Coalition, Faraji began to put pressure on Facebook to — among other things — address concerns about housing and hire more local people. The coalition protested, organized vigils and eventually sat down with people from the company to discuss what was happening to their area.

“What mostly came out of that was a lot of hot air, pushing back,” Faraji says. “Basically stalling and stalling and stalling.”

Facebook has a local hiring program, but Faraji says its focus on people in their 20s has cut out most of East Palo Alto’s community. (In response to inquiries from the Guardian, Facebook acknowledged its work on local employment with a social enterprise called Year Up, which is dedicated to 18-to-24-year-olds, but also mentioned “community job fairs,” efforts to connect “local residents directly to Facebook recruiters,” and workshops on “resume writing and interviewing skills”). In late 2016, the company had also co-founded what it called the Catalyst Housing Fund, and contributed around US$20 million, though Faraji says he has seen no signs of the money being spent; Facebook says that two and a half years after the fund was established, there are now plans for 261 new affordable housing units, but that “timing of project completion depends on the city’s remaining approval processes for the projects.”

The Real Community Coalition has now fallen from view — partly, he says, because of the effects of Facebook donating to the very non-profit groups that have traditionally fought for local people: “They are usually the first line of defense, at least in our community: organizations that are trying to combat gentrification or fight for affordable housing or what have you. But now, some don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. And then there’s just a massive population turnover that’s been happening in the last two years.”

Like a lot of what he says, the words are full of a deep sadness. “It’s hard to fight for people who are leaving, and no longer here.”

The rest of the world is now starting to understand what the residents of East Palo Alto — and indeed, a huge chunk of northern California — have known for years: that big tech has not just colonized the online realm: It has an increasingly visible presence in the physical world. Leaving aside Amazon’s globally ubiquitous fulfillment centers, they, Facebook and Google now have huge premises — “hubs,” “campuses,” old-fashioned offices — in cities across the planet, with even more to come.

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