SHULTZ: Is California the future?

In Bolivia, many of our friends would make an annual trek ‘home to their village’ to see their families. These were long journeys, freezing in the back of an open truck off to some small settlement deep into the mountains. This past week, I went home in an airplane to ‘my village,’ to the place where I spent the first 40 years of my life, California.

Love it or hate it, dismiss it as the land of ‘nuts and fruits’ if you wish, but the fact remains that if you want to see a preview of the future you go to California. If you believe otherwise, have a look at that mobile phone in your hand or the computer on your desk, or consider big social changes like gay rights. All of this came to you moistly via the Golden State. Today, I see it with an outsider’s eyes.

One thing that is remarkable are the many options people have for just moving themselves around. If crammed highways and traffic are your thing, you can drive your own car, and Priuses are as abundant there as pickups are here in Lockport. If you want someone else to do the driving, for a few dollars you can order up a Lyft or an Uber and be on your way in about five minutes.

If you like public transit, you can take your pick of bus, subway, or light rail. If you are a cyclist, like me, you can pick-up a public bike from one part of the city and leave it in another. If scooters are your thing, the sidewalks from San Diego to San Francisco are peppered with electric ones you can borrow with an app on your phone and leave where you like. To be sure, all this fancy transportation technology is not without its problems, including the perils of having motor-driven scooters whiz by you on the sidewalk. But it is all a reminder that our transportation future is going to be about more than just cars.

New technology also surrounds you in California in other ways. Here, when you stick your credit card in a machine at Tops or Walmart the card’s approval is signaled by a loud, angry buzzer that sounds more like you are about to get arrested. In California, those same machines signal the card’s approval with a happy chirping sound. You can bet that’s coming here soon.

And how about motion-sensor sinks in public bathrooms? None of them ever seem to work in the same way and some don’t seem to work at all. In the Chicago airport, I helped out an older gentleman who just could not figure out where to put his hands to get hot water. In San Francisco, I used a sink that had an easy-to-operate spout with three holes. The first offered up soap, the second one water, and the third one blew out hot air for drying. I hope that’s the future.

But the other side of being at ground zero for the booming tech economy is the widening divide between rich and poor, most especially when it comes to finding a place to live. My wife and I lived in San Francisco when it was still a place where people who are not rich could afford to live, where your neighbors might wait tables or play in a band. Not anymore. Twenty years ago, our family of four squeezed into a tiny two-bedroom house in a good neighborhood for $1,200 a month. Today, my son Miguel, who makes a decent wage working construction, pays that same rent for a tiny room with no kitchen in the back of someone’s garage.

San Francisco is now a city filled with young Facebook, Twitter and Google coders who make $150,000 a year and happily pay $4,000 a month to rent an apartment. Everyone else is getting frozen out. The carpenters who renovate the houses and the maids who clean the hotel rooms have been forced to live in distant places and commute an hour and a half or more each way to work every day. Regular working people no longer belong.

For those living in poverty, the problem is more dire still. In San Francisco today, there are an estimated 7,500 homeless people, more than half of them living on the street. Under freeways and overpasses you can see their rows of tents pitched against the winter cold. In a city where the affluent young line up to pay $15 for a small gourmet sausage, thousands of others line-up at soup kitchens. Is this also the future?

It can be a shock to the system to return to Lockport in winter from somewhere warm and without snow. But I have no regrets. OK, I miss cheap Thai food and bicycling to the sea, but I gladly give it up to live in a small town where young working people can own their homes, where the nightlife is drinks at DRI, where the staff at Niagara Produce take time to chat, where all the kids go to one high school, and where my granddaughter lives just down the road. I guess Lockport is my ‘pueblo’ now.

Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: jimshultz@democracyctr.org.