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evan bissell
Mar 8, 2015 · 13 min read

Culture and capital in San Francisco

Evan Bissell

“…to rework the pattern of social relationships is to rearrange the coordinates of the experienced world. Society’s forms are culture’s substance.” — Clifford Geertz

In late 2014 I received an email from the San Francisco Arts Commission that offered a new, temporary category of grants: rent grants for arts organizations. Given the year’s earlier events, the arts commission, which is well known for its funding of public art, arts education and performances, jumping into rent stabilization held an unsurprising but unfortunate tenor. In 2014, the first two institutions in San Francisco to support my work as an artist closed; Marcus Books’ SF store, the oldest black-owned bookstore in the country (which is seeking a new home), and Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco’s oldest alternative arts space started by conscientious objectors in 1965 (Intersection has recently reopened in a dramatically different form). Both institutions were held by the nuanced texture of place-based relationships that were created over decades, something that Dr. Jasmine Johnson documented so powerfully in her letter describing her family’s bookstore. The Marcus Books eviction story would be cartoonish for its predictability if it weren’t real: the new owners changed locks, knocked books off of shelves, destroyed art-work and instruments and refused offers to buy the property back.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s close friends and advisors used to joke that he could do whatever he wanted until he started advocating for economic equality, “messing with the man’s money,” they’d say. Their jokes were the knowing kind; King was killed in the build up to a Poor People’s March in 1968. In the Bay Area, the echoes of these jokes resonate; income inequality in the Bay Area is greater than the country or state as a whole and has risen dramatically in the past ten years. Between 2009 and 2012, according to economist Emmanual Saez, the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of total income growth in this country. In land constrained San Francisco, uneven “growth” is transforming society’s forms.

Performative kindness is the appearance of acceptance with the retention of the material conditions of inequity. It focuses the measurement of an equal society on the successes of individuals who innovate their way to the top, not on the repetitive failures of structures and systems that lead to an eleven-year difference in life expectancy for those living six BART stops away from each other: 84 years old in Walnut Creek and 73 around City Center, Oakland. It follows the political contours of my libertarian neighbor and multiple homeowner who commented to me the other day, “I’m fine with gay marriage, but I don’t think redistribution of wealth is a good idea.” It is a performance that peppers conversation with “civility and safety,” “behavior and hard-work,” scorching soap on rubbed raw skin.

King encountered this type of performative kindness in Albany, Georgia in 1962. As the writer Charles Johnson tells it, one of the major stumbling blocks of the Albany campaign was that the police chief was a student of King’s tactics, happy to wait while protesters prayed, was gentle with arrests and stayed within the already tipped scales of law. In Albany, unlike in Birmingham or in Selma, there was no raging bull to tempt into a headlong dive, only to swirl at the last second, the potential of violence setting the national audience on edge and coaxing reluctant action from the Whitehouse. No, that was not the situation in Albany, nor is it the situation in San Francisco today. The young men (and many less women) who ride busses to and from work do not have their lips, “dripping with the words of interposition and nullification” as King painted his most villainous southern adversaries. These young men are not full bellied and bellowing like Sheriff Bull Connor, they are not monster-like Sheriff Jim Clark, or poor southern whites like the imagined “redneck.”

These modern day commuters in San Francisco are ‘innovative,’ and ‘nerdy,’ and ‘young,’ but they are also segregationists. As Dr. Victoria Robinson recently noted, there is no such thing as passive anti-racism, which is to say that compliant acceptance is not the same thing as affirmatively furthering social equity. According to a recent New Yorker article, at Google, “worldwide, only thirty per cent of its workers were female and…in the U.S., two per cent were black and three per cent were Hispanic.” Similar numbers hold across the tech industry, and the correlated effects show in who gets to come to San Francisco, who gets to stay and who has to go. Despite a high minimum wage, according to the San Francisco Department of Health, one would have to work between three to eight full-time minimum wage jobs to afford a 2BR fair market rate apartment. If you can pay or find a way to stay, there are many other ways to make a city less than comfortable; although only 6 percent of the city, the jail population is 56% African American.

Arundhati Roy wrote that, “in order to hope we have to break the faith.” Faith in the market’s ability to manage the growth of cities, of homes, prevents a naïve question from moving into the realm of seriousness, “is there the possibility of U.S. cities that honor relationships, history and the struggle of people carving out home in places that were disinvested only thirty years prior?” The narrative around the failure of public housing — or more precisely, the narrative around the failure of the people in public housing — has bolstered a federal and local shift towards managing affordability through market efficiency in the form of tax-credits and voucher programs. The scattered bones of public housing pale in comparison to the current growth; the total number of new units under construction and completed in San Francisco in 2014 was nearly 3,500 more than there are total units of public housing. San Francisco’s inclusionary zoning is important for reserving a slice of land for affordability, but this can’t keep pace with the hyper-speed development of market-rate units (inclusionary zoning requires that in new developments, 15% of units constructed on-site must be affordable, 20% if constructed off-site, or developers can pay “in-lieu” fees to the city in order to not build affordable units).

Splatters of community benefit agreements, such as Twitter employees volunteering with the Eviction Defense Collaborative, or Google temporarily paying for Muni passes for students (it is important to note that this idea only surfaced after a grassroots organizing campaign had demanded this from the city) barely dampen dry soil. Like the recent, well-publicized “Storm of the Century,” that was meant to bring water back to California in one downpour, these episodic interventions fall short of their predictive beneficence. They barely wet the drought.

What then, is the viability of hope in this context? More systemic approaches to equitable development do exist, for example “fair share” practices in New Jersey and in Montgomery County, Maryland, are more robust — and politically embattled — forms of inclusionary zoning. The city of Richmond, California has been exploring ways to keep residents with underwater mortgages in their homes through eminent domain or supporting a third party purchase of the homes before private investors. Others are tying the development of “anchor institutions” such as the incoming UC Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay to the needs of low-income residents at risk of displacement. The social determinants of health demonstrate the connection between health and housing, wealth, education, social support and safety. Following this, Richmond passed a health equity law in 2014 called Health in All Policies, the Minnesota Department of Health is focusing their work through the lens of structural racism and the grassroots housing group Causa Justa/Just Cause teamed up with the Alameda County of Health to write the Development without Displacement report. As Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network asked, why is it, “so much easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?” It may be a matter of faith.

Amidst this drought for some, companies barely old enough to drive are awash in money. Their money attracts real estate money and this money rips out roots. If you are a developer or a landlord you would be silly to aim for anything less than luxury rentals or sales. The demand is there. However, groups like Movement Generation are insisting on an ecological approach (ecology, in the original Greek meaning, “study of home”), which notices disruptions that can’t be measured in the current economy. The arts and creativity that are and have been eviscerated in San Francisco are built on relationships between people, to shared histories, place, struggle, and conflict. Art, as an expression of the substance of culture, creates a sense of belonging, of home. Belonging is a different type of economy, one closer to the word’s original Greek meaning of “management of home.” Homes are ecological systems built around the relationships that sustain many parts. This is what is lost in this moment, homes without relationships, and relationships without homes. Neither situation can tend the complexities of life.

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Marcus Books opening for the 22 Bus Project, 2007 and free workshop at Intersection for the Arts for Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, 2008

Marcus Books and Intersection for the Arts were spaces open to the curiosity of the city, my relationships with them began because I walked through the front door and asked questions with the intention to listen. A lot of times I didn’t ask questions, I just listened, or hung out in silence, watched people come and go. How else does one notice the many functions that neighborhood institutions serve that can never be noted on grant reports, rent payments or brochures? How else do you see the value in a grandchild being recognized by someone else’s mother, who they’ve never met? What kind of value can reciprocate the number of “firsts” that Intersection catalyzed into “ongoing?” There is little room for these interactions or their pacing, they do not register on the value scale that controls space and land in San Francisco. However, as they ripen into the shape of murals, parades, rituals, music, poetry, plays and political leanings, they are plucked from branches and taken to the market, the trees cleared for a more efficient or entrepreneurial variety.

It is not new that those who lack economic, political and social power create life in the cracks, in the margins, the breaks. It’s where dandelions and poppies push up, weeds or medicinal plants depending on your perspective. It’s from where visions of society are presented anew, the after-image of daydreams brought into being. These are the pauses that give birth to jazz, the fragments reconstructed into hip-hop. It’s the crevice where life gets caught and funk ferments. These in-betweens cannot be manufactured through efficiency or innovation. They aren’t safe in the sense of the word that means predictable, manageable, without challenge. As the founders of Black Lives Matter wrote recently, “when a movement full of leaders from the margins gets underway…it opens up new political space for radical visions of what this nation can truly become.” These spaces are the labor centers that drive American culture, a labor that is rarely — if ever — compensated to the extent that it is consumed.

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Balmy Alley with Juana Alicia’s tribute to Oscar Romero, “No One Should Obey an Unjust Law” in the foreground

There were years where streets in the Mission were these in-betweens, home to parades of DIY dragons with shining tails, and splendid scales, floating with exaggerated slowness and ease. Alleys were another in-between that the residents of the Mission began to grow in the early 1970s. Balmy Alley sprouted its first murals under the hands of the Mujeres Muralistas, Patricia Rodriguez and Graciela Carillo. Ray Patlan organized the PLACA project, with around three-dozen artists completing 27 murals in 1985. The back doors and garages activated into portals; histories of civil war and resistance, condemnations of the US role in the Central American drug war, transnational identities in the making. These were collective efforts, groups of artists painting simultaneously, filling the physical margins of the city with life.

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Judging lowriders, photo from El Tecolote archives

But lowriders and Balmy Alley aren’t about romantic cultural pasts, they are ways of seeing and being seen. From the in-betweens, seeing and being seen is a conversation, springing life into the open, into public space and imagination when other avenues of democratic inclusion are cut out of reach. In this way it is both resistance and belonging. To see and not be seen on the other hand reinforces asymmetries of power — from reflective bus windows to the algorithms that passengers on those buses create to watch and capture the details of our lives.

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18th and Valencia

In this contest of power, what we know in San Francisco is that history, relationships, arts and culture are not enough to stay. San Francisco has its share of rent control apartments, permanent SROs, inclusionary zoning, and strong housing organizations, but loopholes exist and are threaded. Less than a decade ago, when walking to Dolores Park from Mission Street on 18th you would be greeted by the image of Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous Guatemalan activist, at the top of the Women’s Building mural. A few blocks from where the original Spanish Mission was established and indigenous people were kept in captivity, Menchu’s presence is a reminder of the centuries long relationship between European colonization and indigenous American resistance. Today, a five-story market rate development covers much of this view of Menchu. The new building is guarded by one of the many new neighborhood sentinels; a restaurant that projects onto the sidewalk, blasting heat on white-clothed tables in a town known for its cold summer nights.

My last project at Intersection was in 2014, when I co-created the sets for Chinaka Hodge’s incredible piece Chasing Mehserle with Tanya Orellana. During the closing week of the play, an email was sent out by the Intersection board, essentially closing the doors on the 49 year old arts organization and ending programming. The play is about one man’s journey — a black man from West Oakland — to find Oscar Grant’s killer Johannes Mehserle. More broadly it is about the insecurity of being black and not-wealthy in the Bay Area. In the play, the main character Watts is increasingly driven out of control by the threat of a Mehserle free and roaming the streets. The statistics show that Watts might not be so paranoid, a Mehserle appears every 28 hours. Simultaneously Watts’ world, his block, is changing before his eyes and he spends the majority of the play marooned on and protecting the stoop of his dissolving family’s home. Watts is not safe outside of his house, but neither is he safe within it. Parallel stories litter the streets of San Francisco — the police killing of Alex Nieto, or a 170% increase in Ellis Act evictions between 2010–2013. As Watts’ mom says with clenched body,

“if you are that afraid of my son’s body, any black boy’s body, then it must be good to just end it, dead it, put space between his life and your own. That’s the only thing I can think. Good. It’s good! Better this way, I suppose. Better to know how little it means and for me to tell my son, broken more times over than I can count, for me to tell the boy straight out. They will kill you. They will undo all of my work in seconds, while everyone watches, they will make you a holiday before you can argue or protest or run. And when he asks me, momma, why? When he comes to put his grown man head in my lap and just weep. I will tell them that it is because they are cowards and we are fearsome. And that’s just the way it is.”

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Shortly after Four-Barrel Coffee rented a building to sell coffee and donuts on Valencia Street in the Mission, Intersection left its home of about the same size a block down the street. There were many reasons for this, but the bottom line was that Intersection couldn’t find a stable home in its home of twenty plus years. Around that time too, while I was working on my last project in the Valencia Street Intersection, the city widened the sidewalks with 6.1 million dollars of public money. As we watched the process each day we knew what it meant to have Posada inspired skeletons bronzed into planters around new trees and workers in orange vests toss glitter into wet smooth cement. The arts commission held a contest for new public art to christen the changes. The winning submission was four “public posts” with Victorian ornamental toppings, sanctified areas to ‘post bills,’ like college or cafe cork boards. I think of them as tongue-in-cheek (but deadly serious) victory flags; displaced slivers of struggles to see and be seen.

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Take a walk that starts at Balmy alley. Go up 24th street, down Mission past the soon to open Vida, a 114 unit-condo project with off-site affordable units yet to be built, up 18th to the Women’s Building and Rigoberta Menchu, back to Mission via Clarion Alley, by 16th and Mission and the project proposed by Maximus Real Estate (yes, that is their name) for 351 units, 42 of which would be designated affordable. Walk one more block to the public posts at 16th and Valencia. You will be less than twenty blocks from Balmy Alley. From Balmy Alley to public posts, uncountable stories and relationships distant, countable bodies whiter and wealthier. The distance between Balmy and the public posts is the distance between placekeeping and placemaking, between home and passing through, between hope and faith.

Thanks to Intersection for the Arts and everyone who has worked there and given me many opportunities to learn in place, especially former program directors Kevin Chen, Rebeka Rodriguez and Sean San Jose. Thanks also to Karen Johnson and the entire Johnson family for all that they have and continue to contribute to this world. The frameworks around ecology, economy and the Thomas Goldtooth quote come from Movement Generation. Thank you to Chinaka Hodge for allowing me to include the selection from Chasing Mehserle and for the many opportunities to collaborate at Intersection.

Evan Bissell has facilitated numerous public art projects in San Francisco and is co-creator of and


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