Megan Wilson, Home/Casa, Art Strikes Back, Clarion Alley, 2000

The following chronicles an experience I had during the first Dot-Com bomb/bust. I share it because in many ways it mirrors the situation that we are currently experiencing in the SF Bay Area, and in particular, the responses from the tech community and the community of new money that has moved in. The interaction that I had in 2000 with a woman from New York who was working for a dotcom PR firm that I share here, reminds me of many of the interactions that I’ve had with folks who are new to SF and part of the community that is displacing longtime residents, organizations and businesses and the attitude that we (those of us who are being displaced) just don’t really get it … and we’re just not working with them enough. In other words, they view the communities that many of us have spent years creating and contributing to as now theirs because they believe they have the right to it – and they have the money to buy it – the market is the force that determines who gets to stay and who must leave – regardless of whose livelihoods are at stake.

Dot-Com Boom/Bust 1.0

In the summer of 2000 – June/July Lise Swenson and I organized the performance series Art Strikes Back (Tim Costigan was involved in the early development phase of the project). We initiated the project as a creative response to the unprecedented growth and displacement in San Francisco and the blind greed and privilege that we were experiencing at that time. We sent out an open email to as many artists as we could asking if they would be interested in participating in the project through a performative work or another medium (murals, posters, text etc). Our plan was to stage performances every Friday and Saturday night at 7pm and 9pm for 6-weeks along the Valencia corridor in the Mission District – the area that was being the hardest hit by evictions. Anyone could participate – they just needed to provide us with a description of their work and the slot that they would like to sign up for (if available). My and Lise’s commitment was that we would organize the schedule, publicize the events, and document the works via still photography and video. For those who weren’t doing performances – we also did the same.

Lise Swenson’s performance The Emperor’s New Clothes, Art Strikes Back 2000

The response was overwhelming and we ended up extending the project to 8-weeks with over 80 artists who participated. The project was not without criticism – by others as well as ourselves – often it seemed like we were just providing free entertainment for the new wealthy interlopers. However, Art Strikes Back also brought a good deal of attention via the press to what was happening in San Francisco, which was our ultimate goal. The project was featured in the SF Chronicle, the LA Times, the London Telegraph, the Drudge Report, NPR’s “All Things Considered,” as well as numerous other publications.

We did not see the situation as being about tech vs. the rest of us – as we used tech to communicate and promote the project. Our press release stated:

As they suck up the atmospheres around them and leave nothing but a cultural waste behind, it is becoming harder and harder to produce the very cultural environments they are so eagerly buying up.  The participating artists are creating work at ground zero, from nothing and for nothing.

We were referring to the people who had moved in and completely disregarded that they were moving into an existing community and that they were creating a great deal of pain and suffering for many who had spent their livelihoods creating and contributing to the communities that were our homes. Basically we saw/see it as a case of contemporary colonialism.

Later that fall in November 2000, I was contacted by a woman named Valorie in New York who was putting together a Website and listening tour about the San Francisco’s Mission District and DUMBO in Brooklyn with her co-workers. When I looked up her email address, I learned that she worked in marketing and PR for a new dotcom company. She was interested in footage of Art Strikes Back to juxtapose with work in DUMBO as a way of “showcasing various artists, musicians and dancers from both neighborhoods.” Her title with the company was “Associate Information Architect.”

Rene Garcia and Marci Klane, Art Strikes Back, 2000

Of course I was suspect of her intentions and challenged her on the underlying motivations for the project, to which she was “shocked” by my tone as I called out her company. She responded with the following:

As I made clear in my opening, I don’t wish to comment how “companies like mine” fit into this equation. This is a personal project of mine, not a company endeavor, and I feel I’ve stated to you my support of the arts. But I will respond to how I see myself in relation to the communities I wish to represent. I live a couple neighborhoods away from DUMBO, in an old-Italian area known as Carroll Gardens. Brooklyn, like all of Manhattan, has experienced dramatic rent increases over the past four years, the last two in particular. The NYT wrote an article early this summer stating that real estate has increased over 40% since January. Everyone feels this pinch. I can’t afford to live by myself even in Brooklyn so I share a tiny 2 bedroom apartment with a dancer. Her and I have discussed extensively the “new economy,” how it’s affected her, her friends (both here and in San Francisco), and never has blame been placed on me personally. We worry about the use of technology and if it inhibits interpersonal communication and people’s relationship with their bodies, not my employer. We both question the cultural benefit of this New Age, weighing its pros and cons. But both my roommate and I feel in order to temper a new technology, one needs to know how to work with it. And that is what I’m learning at my company. Additionally, new media indisputably serves as a global distribution vehicle for all artists. I believe this is a benefit. Technology in itself is not inherently evil, nor are the people creating it.

Thus, to summarize my relationship to the art community, I see myself as a patron and legal supporter. I attend gallery openings and exhibits in DUMBO and encourage my friends to support local Brooklyn artists as well. We help them financially and through word of mouth. I do not apologize for my profession nor the fact that I’m not an artist by trade. I leverage my network of friends and colleagues to help DUMBO’s artists as well as promote legislation that protects and funds the profession of dancer, musician, painter, sculptor.

Your comment “we don’t want companies like the one you work for in our neighborhoods, nor do we want the culture that has resulted from the “dot-com Spring” in our neighborhoods” saddens me. Your experience compared to mine differs dramatically. Talent, energy and passion are the three adjectives I use to describe my coworkers and therefore our environment. Those are values I want governing my community, all tempered by a civic sensibility. That sensibility is what I hope to create with this website.

Thus I would like to continue our conversation further. Both of us are entitled to our positions. But I believe Megan, that although our backgrounds are different, our objectives are one. I care about the borough I live in and hope to see it realize itself as an art’s bastion. That said, I ask you the similar question, “How do you see the artists’ role in gentrification and displacement?” I do not mean to be spiteful but illustrate NY’s gentrification history over the past 20 years. The Bowery and Soho, once industrial strips of Manhattan housing numerous immigrant groups, have been popularized by artists. Today they are now one of the most desired and expensive areas to live in Manhattan. Original tenants, who lived there for years, were forced to find affordable alternative housing elsewhere. When I moved to NYC in 1997, I was told that whatever neighborhoods the artists live, those areas were up and coming. DUMBO and Williamsburg prove this point. Each area has witnessed a dramatic rent increase after artists began occupying warehouse space. Thus, in NYC, artists have, indirectly, raised the rent and have driven out the Polish, Italians, West Indians and many other ethnic groups as New Yorkers have followed the artists into these neighborhoods. Therefore I was shocked at the tone of your email. In my mind, I see you holding a similar culpability, if either of us truly own one. This is a complicated matter. Gentrification and urban development are never easy questions to integrate much less experience. That’s much of what I studied in school. Yet I believe both of us acknowledge our civic and artist responsibility and are acting on it.

I don’t mean to put you with this response but if we are to continue our discussion, I want to redirect our dialogue. I want to be part of a solution and see myself as such.


The Dot, Art Strike’s Back, 2000

I responded with the following:

Valorie,

I raised the questions that I did because I think it’s important that we all do that for others and ourselves to check in with how what we do impacts our lives and others – though I am aware that I was much more direct in asking them of you because of the project that you are initiating.  Many of the decisions that I’ve made for my life, including my work, have been the result of that kind of critical analysis posed to me by others.  And as an educator and someone who works for a media literacy organization, asking those types of questions is a daily endeavor.

However, I also know that this issue is not a simple one or one that can easily be couched in terms of black and white – which is why it has become so volatile.  You also raised a good question – that of the role of the artist in the gentrification.  Sadly, we are the market indicator for gentrification.  And I’m not sure what the answer to that is given that artists move into residences we can afford – we tend to be economically poor.  But we also tend to be incredibly community-minded and put a lot of time and energy into the neighborhoods that we become a part of – and it is precisely the manifestation of that time and energy that makes our neighborhoods desirable.  Obviously we too suffer from the result of our commitment in the process – being forced to leave the communities we helped to create.

In reference to my comment that we don’t want companies like yours – or the culture that has resulted – in our neighborhoods, I can only speak from the experience here – as you said, yours has been different.  But I will give you a little bit of background as to why so much hostility – the energy that has fueled the communities here to band together and take action, including our efforts to pass Proposition L, a slow-growth measure that ultimately was defeated by a 1 percent margin – has been felt towards the New Economy.  I also want to make it clear that this is not directed at technology or people having jobs – as you know, it’s much more complex, as are the issues around technology and the economy.

In the past three years – though the acceleration has really been in the last two – we have watched (and responded) as the communities that we have spent years building and contributing to have been dismantled.  And by contribute I mean – we have created many public art projects, often for NO monetary compensation (projects that we are beginning to see destroyed as the buildings they are housed on are being demolished for new condos), we have created community gardens, we have patronized the small family businesses of the ethnic communities you alluded to, we have organized community events, we have taught the kids in our neighborhood, we have worked at community organizations, and we have started our own families here – in essence we have contributed an enormous amount of time and energy to our communities.  This is not just a job for us – this is our livelihood.  The destruction of our neighborhoods has happened in the form of skyrocketing rents, as well as property that’s been taken off the rental market and sold as condominiums.  Every week we hear of more evictions.  And every week we hear of more and more people that are being forced to leave San Francisco altogether.  This has also had an enormous impact on arts organizations and non-profits that are even more vulnerable with commercial leases – many of these are folding.

What we’ve watched move in to replace the community members (many of whom had been here for years and years) and the community organizations are dot-com startups that (in the Mission) are being deceitfully classified as “business/servers” instead of the correct “office” classification that would disqualify their occupancy in the live/work spaces many are now operating from (check out: http://www.sfbg.com/News/35/07/07oglvwk.html).  The office classification would also have kept many of them out – as the cap for this year was reached early in the year.  Our neighborhoods do not have the capacity to support the traffic and numbers of people this industry is bringing in.  Additionally, as you are well aware, and as many of us predicted from the get-go several years ago, many of the companies moving in here are not sustainable on their own – they are not profitable – once the venture capitalist pulls out after seeing no profit for the third year in a row with no signs of that changing, the companies are tanking.  So that the organizations – many of them very established, long-standing (10, 20 years plus) foundations to the community – that were evicted and as a result had to close, were evicted so that a startup company comprised of young, talented, energetic twenty-something transplants from somewhere other than SF could have a fun, energetic, passionate work environment for two, maybe three years.  In addition, our neighborhood also now feels like a college campus with a kegger happening every night.  The small family businesses and restaurants have had to close shop because the new patrons to the neighborhood want more upscale venues – and they can pay for it.  We also have not experienced contributions from the new boom economy to our community in the form of philanthropy.  As a fundraiser, I can say firsthand that our community organizations are not in anyway a priority to this new money.  Nor are the arts.

I also am aware that it’s probably hard for many of the young folks involved in this boom economy and these new companies to understand the impact they are having.  Many of them are just out of college or graduate school and have never known what it means to be a part of an adult community outside of the college environment – nor do they have any investment in the communities here.  And if it is their first job out of school, or even if not, it’s a really fun environment – and that is great, we should all have the opportunity to enjoy what we do for a living and feel passionate about it.  But we should also have the right to housing and the option to stay in the communities that we have spent so much energy creating and not be forced out because we do not have money.

All that being said, I do believe that you have a genuine interest in supporting the arts and I commend you for that.  I will start sending you more info specifically about Art Strikes Back so that you can begin to understand more about our role in the response here.  I will say too that Art Strikes Back was also problematic in that sometimes it felt more like we were just providing free entertainment for the people our message was targeted at.  Though much of it was very powerful and did hit home, as well as drew a lot of attention to the issue – we did get a good amount of press.

I look forward to seeing how your project takes shape and helping to work with you on it.

Megan

Our correspondence ended there. I sent Valorie additional information and images and she never responded – not even to say “thank you.” Apparently she’d moved on to the next thing. The company she worked for went under soon after our exchange. I looked her up recently and she is still doing PR/marketing for tech companies.


We Lose Space, Installation by Megan Wilson and Gordon Winiemko, San Francisco Art Commission Grove Street Gallery (across from SF City Hall), San Francisco, CA, 2000, photo by Megan Wilson

New Feature on Stretcher:

Preface: When I began researching and writing The Gentrification of our Livelihoods in early March 2014 one of my primary interests was the impact that the collaboration between Intersection for the Arts and developer Forest City’s creative placemaking 5M Project is having on the existing communities that have invested in and called the South of Market home prior to the tech booms. Having worked with many community-based organizations within the SoMa community for the past 18 years, I’ve had deep concerns about the development’s impact for the neighborhood and its impact on the future of Intersection.

However, I would not have predicted the announcement that Intersection made on May 22nd to cut its arts, education, and community engagement programs and lay off its program staff would come as soon as it did. What began as a reflection on the shortcomings of creative placemaking as a tool for economic development and its implications on gentrification and community displacement has become a cautionary tale for arts and community organizations to question and better understand the potential outcomes of working with partners whose interests are rooted in financial profit.

Over the past two months I’ve spoken with many of the stakeholders involved with the 5M development, as well as the creative placemaking projects that are helping to shape the changes in the culture and landscape throughout San Francisco, these include: Deborah Cullinan, former Executive Director, Intersection for the Arts; Jamie Bennett, Executive Director, ArtPlace America; Angelica Cabande, Executive Director, South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN), Jessica Van Tuyl, Executive Director, Oasis For Girls, April Veneracion Ang, Senior Aide to Supervisor Jane Kim, District 6 and former Executive Director of SOMCAN; Tom DeCaigney, Director of Cultural Affairs, San Francisco Art Commission; Josh Kirschenbaum, Vice President for Strategic Direction, PolicyLink, and an anonymous source within Forest City Enterprises … Continue Reading