By Megan Wilson
In Buddhist teaching, suffering is explained as a result of the attempt to cling to permanence. For Buddhists, loss and impermanence are things to be accepted rather than causes of pain and grief -- nothing lasts, nothing stays the same.
In the late nineties/early millennium the Bay Area was the epicenter of a massive transformation brought about by the dotcom boom and the new economy. Commercial rents in San Francisco skyrocketed to $80/square foot, long-time residents were displaced (by 1998 two-thirds of the residents in the Mission District were new arrivals), and 1,400 luxury lofts were approved for development in the South of Market District – rashly, as it turned out: the vacancy rate was at 45% by 2001 (year of the dotcom bust).
Many watched as the neighborhoods they had spent years building were dismantled and replaced by dotcom startups headed up by perky twenty to thirty-year-olds, often straight out of college or graduate school and seemingly under the impression that San Francisco was just another college campus. The Mission District in particular felt like a big kegger with hordes of loud, drunken frat kids pouring out onto the streets nightly from the trendy upscale venues that were popping up all along Valencia Street at the time.
In the arts community, we saw the departure of a number of artists and arts spaces. Four Walls, Scene/Escena, and ESP all closed their doors and plans were in the works for the demolition of the headquarters of the Clarion Alley Mural Project to make way for condo development, potentially ending a 7-year old organization that had given many artists the opportunity to create a public work (1). Developers were also looking at the Redstone Building, (historically the old Labor Temple) which houses The Lab, Theatre Rhino, Whispered Media Video Activist Network, Luna Sea, and seven artists' studios (including mine) – in addition to a number of non-profit organizations. (2)
Community members responded passionately and with great resistance, determined to maintain their neighborhoods as they knew them. Protest marches were organized, rallies were held at schools, neighborhood centers, and City Hall, and organizations such as MAC (the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition) and SOMCAN (the South of Market Community Action Network) were formed. Many artists were part of this effort and also contributed through poster campaigns, performances, graffiti, murals, and other public projects.
Much public art, and in particular guerilla projects created as a form of social/political activism, is inherently subject to change and impermanence. This goes with the open territory, as well as the oft-cited (by activists and artists) belief that community space shouldn't be visually dominated by one stagnant voice, imagery, or intent. Interestingly, however, a strong initiative arose amongst many artists then to create work in protest to the changing landscape of the Mission and help keep out the unwelcome change.
A huge poster affixed to the overpass at Duboce Street greeted people with the message “Come Enjoy The Mission … Cleaner, Brighter, Whiter … Tablecloths.” The text was accompanied by a close-up comic book style image of a young WASPy-looking twenty-something couple dining. The work was created by the San Francisco Print Collective, whose series of bills also included: a street sign post at Mission and 24 th Streets infested by flies with the headline “The Dot Com Plague: Appropriation Culture/La Cultura de la Apropiacion;” a “Wanted” poster, offering no reward for Joe O'Donoghue (3) and his “crimes against the people” and an endorsement for slow- growth propositions L, H and N because you … “ L ove your H ome and your N eighborhood.”
I too was inspired to respond when my landlord sued me for eviction. I started painting signs that read “Home” with flower designs inside the “H.” The signs were painted on plywood and ranged in size from 12”x18” to 16”x30”. I made 250 of these and started giving them away in August 2000 to people to display in their carts (if they were homeless) or windows to draw attention to the displacement. I called the project Better Homes and Gardens . I also painted two large 7'x10' signs at each entrance of Clarion Alley (between Mission and Valencia and 17 th and 18 th Streets) – one reading “Home” at the Valencia Street entrance and one reading “Casa” at the Mission Street entrance – as part of the Clarion Alley Mural Project.
The reaction to the signs, for the most part was very positive. One of the most interesting exchanges came when I was holding two of the signs and waiting for a friend at We Be Sushi at 16 th and Valencia. A casually dressed man who looked to be Middle Eastern and in his twenties saw the signs and invited me to sit down and talk – he'd seen the signs around the neighborhood and was curious as to their meaning. I learned that he lived in the Mission and was a "dot-comer," who consulted dotcoms on starting-up. He said he believed in the market as “the force of fate.” As though it were beyond anyone's control if people were being displaced and the neighborhood was changing. His was the capitalist version of karma: the market will adjust itself for the greater good left to its own accord. He couldn't answer me when I asked if he thought we should all (those without financial power) just leave silently. It was a provocative conversation and by the end of it he did agree with me that it's ridiculous to spend $30,000 on a car and asked how to make people change. The best I could come up with was “to resist,” an echo of the vague rhetoric often touted by the left.
And resist we did. Another response was Art Strike's Back, a series of performances that took place over 6 weeks in July and August 2000 every Friday and Saturday night along the “Valencia Corridor” (Valencia Street between 16 th and 22 nd Streets) in the Mission District. Co-organized by Lise Swenson and myself, we sent out a “call for participation” via email and the reaction was overwhelming with more than 70 artists who contributed.
Events included Lisa Marie Patzer's mourning/protest dance; Heather Roger's tour that examined one city block and addressed “the state of repression, and urban space, the arts and the art of profiteering, and the political ecology of fire in urban America;” Angela Leonino as a Homeless teacher, asking people she encountered on the street who appeared to be benefiting from the new economy if they would house her; Lisi DeHaas's grief walk; Laurence Roberts ' spoken word queer rants; Lise Swenson and a band of naked "dot-comers" tied together and scurrying frenetically through the street as they discussed their IPO's, stock options, where they were going for dinner, their SUV's and Extreme sports; a missing person's campaign, searching for those who had been displaced; the unveiling of the "last Mexican found in the Mission;" a rash of eviction notices served by Gordon Winiemko's Evictor to reclaim the Mission's precious space; posters advertising "Black People For Rent" to meet the comfort zone quota for diversity at DCP's (Dot Com Parties); and new murals in Clarion Alley by Gabrielle Thormann and myself (the aforementioned Home and Casa murals).
Despite our vigorous activism in the name of community concern, the situation escalated, and so seemed the acceleration of finger pointing and self-righteousness. We artists were not exempt from the criticisms and questions of entitlement that were sharply posed from all sides. Some within the Latino activist community pointed out that a good number of the artists “speaking out” were from white privileged backgrounds and held degrees from art schools charging $20K in tuition a year. The charge was also made that artists were the ones responsible for bringing cool retro stores, cafes, and alternative galleries to the neighborhood that helped to create the draw for the “yuppie scum” in the first place. White artist/activists retorted that many of the Latino activists were also privileged and had more in common with the white artists than they did the working class Latino community of the Mission, who might arguably welcome the opportunity to own an SUV and live in a fancy loft. It was also observed that many non-artist activists were in uneasy coalition with the artists, whose commitment to anything but their self-centered lifestyle seemed questionable. Others made the case that the Mission had never been a bastion of everyone living together harmoniously and that turf wars were an ongoing plague to the neighborhood. Compassion itself had become endangered.
From a slightly different perspective, writer Matt Smith praised San Francisco's artists and scolded its activists for their “pointless protests” and “ localized version of what appears to be a national malaise among the radical left” in an article for the SF Weekly entitled “March Madness.” Smith zeroed in on the protest of the Dancer's Group Studio eviction and more specifically on Rachel Kaplan, the main organizer of the effort. The article included many inflammatory statements by Kaplan in reference to the couple that had purchased the space, including: "They are part of the system. They are part of that which we hate, the system of global capitalism. This is San Francisco's version. We are part of the protesters against the march of that capital. They have bought into that system.” Smith then pointed out that Kaplan herself had purchased property in Noe Valley through a tenancy-in-common and “for the sake of charity, we'll assume no renters were displaced -- as is often the case in tenancy-in-common move-ins -- when Kaplan and her co-owners took possession in 1992 of their red and white, neo-Edwardian building. Still, it is clear that Kaplan owns a "nice" $300K apartment as she fights against other people's capitalism.”
Smith's point was a valid one, as were the others. Ironically, what seemed lost amidst the critique was the human element to the situation and the basic instinct to protect ourselves and the things we care about and love, regardless of our contradictions.
Another poignant example took place during Krista DeNio's dance performance “W-
2WeWantU” on Clarion Alley, near the Valencia Street entrance as part of Art Strike's Back. The piece was described by the artists as happening “ inside the metaphor of an airplane cabin, which represents a microcosmic bubble of the consumer-driven, technologically dependent and wasteful society we exist in down here on the ground.”
By 8:45 about 50 people had gathered, with more converging. The dancers were rehearsing and preparing their stage set, which was pretty low-tech with just a boom box accompaniment. Looking out over the audience, it was obvious that it was made up of mostly white, middle-class, leftwing, twenty and thirty-something year-olds. One of the few non-white folks was a black woman who called herself “Janet Jackson.” She seemed to think this evening was the perfect opportunity to show her stuff – and as luck would have it, she had her own boom box to accompany her. Just as the scheduled performance was about to begin, Janet turned on her boom box, stood up on a chair, and started performing an erotic dance while belting out “When I was 17, I did what people told me. Did what my father said, and let my mother mold me. But that was long ago …” The audience egged her on and cheered as she tried keeping her balance while bending over and sticking her bare ass at the crowd. She soon fell to the ground, laughing and mumbling. When she finally got up after lying there for several minutes, she stumbled over to the side to lean against a building. Krista turned off Janet's boom box and the audience settled down and tried to refocus its attention to the scheduled performance. Janet continued to periodically pipe in “ I'm in control, never gonna stop. Control, to get what I want. Control, I got to have a lot. Control, now I'm all grown up.” Krista's performance included music and dance, interspersed with socially conscious monologues. As the piece was beginning to wind down with a very intense musing by a woman performer in a red dress, one of the audience members, a white self-described lesbian eating a burrito turned to Janet and loudly said, “I'll give you $5 bucks if you leave.” All eyes turned, the performance ended and the silence was deafening before an argument broke out. “I was going to leave anyway, so give me the $5,” Janet responded. The woman bit deeply into her burrito and said with her mouth full, “No, I can't. I'm poor.”
In spite of the suffering and volatile emotions that clashed in a cauldron of race, class, and economic differences, the dotcom crisis was a catalyst for bringing people together to discuss and reflect on how issues of community, space, and entitlement are steeped in these complexities and contradictions. I look back and have very fond memories of that era and the strong sense of community we experienced that summer.
Perhaps it was true that the bubble was "the force of fate.” At the time of this writing, the economy still has yet to recover from the collapse of the ridiculous dotcom ventures, fuelled by greed and a narrow vision of success that exemplified the period. However, for many of us success and celebration did follow. In late 2000, we watched almost in disbelief as our efforts took the very real form of a newly elected progressive Board of Supervisors committed to upholding the laws that were disregarded by City officials in the first place. To quote one of my favorite drawings by artist Chris Johansen “There will be many experiences on this trip. You will have ups and downs.”
(1) Clarion Alley Mural Project survived. The headquarters were destroyed and new condos were built, however the Project has continued to thrive, including the completion of over 20 new murals and an international exchange project with artists from Indonesia.
(2) The Redstone survived, as well as the Redstone Tenants Association, which formed during the crisis.
(3) Joe O'Donoghue was the Residential Builders Association president credited with the rash development of lofts and lack of affordable housing in San Francisco.