How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco — a series of conversations about art, class and race that emerged from “Block by Block,” a public art project

The Guardian Advocating Public Seating to Bridge San Francisco’s Economic Divide

Reflections by Darryl Smith, Co-Director of the Luggage Store Gallery

Darryl Smith, Co-Founder & Co-Director, Luggage Store Gallery. Credit: Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Smith’s role: Smith has run a Tenderloin community art gallery in San Francisco for the past 30 years. It is located in a former suitcase shop at Sixth and Market streets, which is named, simply, the Luggage Store. Smith has an inclusive take on art: he invites youth to graffiti the door of the gallery, and he commissioned the murals in the Central Market neighborhood. He was the lead collaborator and across-the-street steward of “Block by Block,” and also programmed community activities — sewing circles, dance performances — to disrupt the drug dealing and unwanted activities.

Read the series intro: How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco


Darryl Smith’s Perspective

I feel defeated that the bench had to be moved.

We have an intense economic divide now in San Francisco more than ever. Where millionaires are looked at as middle class people — and that is pretty profound — to the most desperately poor, so I think the seating is important. It’s important to start to be able to close the gap in some way.

If you go to other countries, you know there’s always that plaza where everyone sits together no matter their class standing or ethnicity. Seating is a great way to intermix.

Mural on Luggage Store door by Mike Makatron. Credit: Kegan Marling. The Luggage Store’s sign is an illuminated suitcase. Credit: Kenneth Rainin Foundation

There are drugs throughout the Tenderloin and other neighborhoods, but on Market Street, it’s largely pot and largely African American people selling it. No one wants to say [the race part]. The drug dealers would be on the bench, have their music and would socialize. They’re doing everything hoped for, except [selling drugs]. There’s a discomfort: merchants saying well, our business is going down because people are a little intimidated by people who look and act differently.

You have people who have relatively no experience with anyone of color unless they’re in their [economic] class.

I’d climb up on the bench and sit there. Within 30 minutes, the volume would go down, it would be more integrated, and other people would come out and eat their lunch. If people see someone who looks more like them, their class standing, or how they look physically, they’re more willing to come out and sit.

There has to be a willingness to take a chance. If you take a chance, then someone else will.


This post is part of a series of conversations about art, class and race that emerged from “Block by Block,” a public art project.

Keep exploring — hear from the next stakeholder…

The Artist: Marisha Farnsworth
The City Planners:
Paul Chasan and Neil Hrushowy
The Entrepreneur: D’Mond Hill
The Changemaker:
Ilana Lipsett
The Gatekeeper:
Simon Bertrang
The Funder:
Shelley Trott
The Neighbor:
Wayne Shaw

Where does the story begin?

How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco

What did we learn?

Insights From Our First Public Art Collaboration

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