Avi Asher-Schapiro in Harper’s Magazine:
Susan Simien was born and raised in San Francisco, but he had begun to feel like a stranger in his hometown. In the Nineties, when Simien was growing up, the Ingleside neighborhood where he lived was diverse—nearly half of its households were, like Simien’s, middle-class and African-American. But in recent years, friends and neighbors had left for more affordable towns and suburbs—so many that Simien had lost track. Over the course of his lifetime, the African-American population in San Francisco had been cut in half. “You can’t throw a rock and hit someone who actually grew up around here,” Simien liked to say.
As a teenager, Simien knew he wanted to work in the tech industry. While other kids in his neighborhood were playing outside, he was shooting aliens on his Xbox; when anyone in his family needed help with a broken printer or new cell phone, they called Simien. In 2017, at age twenty-five, he joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, and he was soon making $30 to $40 an hour as an AV installer—as much as $75,000 a year if he could get steady work. Over the long term, though, the pay wasn’t going to cut it in the Bay Area. “Low six figures was beginning to feel like low-income,” he told me. Simien and his family were just the sort of people getting priced out. He lived with his grandparents near the top of a sloping block in a boxy, two-story, suburban-style tract house—the kind of building that developers erected after World War II to accommodate the upwardly mobile families filling out the city’s edges. Simien’s grandmother worked for decades as a manager at a department store; by the mid-Nineties, she had saved enough money to buy the house for $150,000. The family is still paying off the mortgage. “I didn’t want to ever have to leave that house,” Simien told me. “I knew I had to do something.”
One day in 2017, Simien was riding the BART train when he saw an ad for the Holberton School, a for-profit technology training program. Holberton had plastered the stations with posters that said things like ivy league salaries and no up-front tuition and become a software engineer in 2 years or less. The ads featured flattering photos of people who looked like Simien’s friends from Ingleside: twentysomething African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. They were all grinning.