I live around the corner from San Francisco International High School, in an area called the Mission District. When I walked past the school a few weeks ago there were sheets draped over the side of the building, shielding from view a large mural that was in progress underneath. A breeze blew and lifted the sheets, giving me a glimpse of what lay beneath: an image of a Latino working man in a hard hat, a Filipino medical worker and a Mexican woman holding her hands out towards the viewer. A few days later, at the mural’s unveiling ceremony, I learnt that the mural had been painted by twenty young people as part of an (Art)ivist program. The mural is called Dignity and Danger in the Shadows, and it is intended to celebrate the parents of migrant children, their ancestors and the sacrifices they made. A Tagalog slogan above reads ‘Isang Bagsak’ – ‘If one falls, we all fall’.
San Francisco is home to about 3000 murals. They adorn high schools, businesses and the walls of mini-parks, and are painted by school kids, teenagers, gang members and professional artists. Most contemporary ones are in the Mission.
Since 1971, this area has been home to an extraordinary flourishing of muralism. It began with the Mujeres Muralistas, a woman’s collective that grew out of both the American Civil Rights movement and Mexican muralist movement led by Diego Rivera. One of these women, Susan Cervantes, went on to establish Precita Eyes, an organisation that has overseen thousands of works. Around the corner from the organisation’s office is Balmy Alley, along which the garage doors of dozens of houses are painted with significant murals, some decades old, some only a few weeks. There are murals on the political situation in Nicaragua in the 1980s, on the treatment of Nepalese workers, on the atrocities committed in El Salvador during the civil war and about the orphans of those lost to AIDS. More recent murals document police shootings, Mexican children risking death by crossing the border illegally to reunite with their families and the area’s changing demographic.
When I moved to San Francisco earlier this year, I knew the whole Summer of Love vibe was over, that it had only ever been marketing hype. But the city’s history of social progressiveness is not just hype: San Francisco has been home to bohemians, LGBTIQ folk, artists, immigrants and activists for more than 100 years.
I knew that New York has the largest population of homeless people, but that the homeless of Los Angeles, a few hours below San Francisco, have the least access to shelter. California boasts not only the largest number of ultra-rich in the country – that is, people worth more than $30 million – but also the worst poverty rate in America.
San Francisco doesn’t escape these extremes. It is one of the most liberal cities in America, and its history includes unionised workers, radical activism and more infrastructure for supporting the disenfranchised than exists elsewhere in the United States. It’s a relatively small place, with only 850,000 inhabitants living in low-density housing on a 47-square-mile peninsula. For all these reasons, the gulf between rich and poor is particularly visible and particularly intense. As in Sydney Australia, the cost of housing in the city is staggering, and unaffordable for anyone but the wealthy.
San Francisco started as a military base and a mission – thus the name of our barrio – in the late 1700s, but exploded into life during the gold rush of 1849, which attracted people from around the world. The city still boasts the largest Chinatown outside China, and significant Italian, Japanese and Latino populations. In the past, groups tended to live separately, with the Chinese living in Chinatown, the Japanese in Japan Town, the Latinos in the Mission, the down-and-out in the Tenderloin, the hippies in Haight-Ashbury, and African Americans in the Fillmore (as well as across the bay in Oakland, once home to the Black Panthers). The gay community lived in the Castro, an area radicalised by the AIDS epidemic and then the assassination of city supervisor Harvey Milk, the city’s first gay politician.
But those generalisations don’t really hold any more: over the last few decades, many of those groups have diminished in influence, been pushed out to other parts of the city, or disappeared altogether. The Japanese were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, though later returned. The African Americans were shoved out during the city ‘clean-ups’ of the 1970s. And while the Castro is still a gay hub, it has nonetheless become more polite after the death of a substantial number of its inhabitants during the AIDS epidemic. All these social shifts resulted in real estate grabs – ugly to behold – which tend to favour the rich and the white. The pressure on the city’s real estate has become even more ferocious in recent years – this time around it’s the Latino population feeling the heat.
‘The Mission is ground zero for the fight for the future of San Francisco,’ says David Campos, the city supervisor representing most of the nearly two-square-mile district. He is referring to the eviction of some 11,766 residents in San Francisco over the past eighteen years – more than 3000 occurred in the last year – and the changing identity of the Mission, so different to its historical tapestry of union activism, Latino culture, gangs and art. According to one Mission resident, artist and activist Keith Hennessy, what is happening now ‘is another gold rush’, the consequences of which remain unclear.
The Mission’s beginnings were industrial, its early tenants workers, and so the area has a long history of working-class militancy. The people of the barrio were allied with the 1934 general strike and with the fight against the use of the insecticide dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), which poisoned workers before food even got to consumers. Later, in the 1960s, the community worked with groups such as the Black Panthers.
The Latino population grew during the Second World War. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, which Chavez co-founded, radicalised and supported many Latino workers in the 1960s and 1970s. Chavez’s work continues to be celebrated: his portrait still adorns many of the area’s murals and a parade is held in his honour each year. A local major avenue is even named after him.
Artists moved in during the early 1970s, attracted by the combination of cheap rents and the vibrant Latino art scene. The barrio attracted other community activists at the same time.
The tech kids arrived about a decade ago. They didn’t win any friends with their combination of well-paying jobs and corporate transport: buses that float through the neighbourhood early in the morning and late at night. The perception created by those blue-lit buses is similar to the fly-in, fly-out vibe of mining towns. The result is that the Mission’s Latino population is being priced out of the housing market; the Mission used to be at least half Latino, but these days the percentage is closer to a third, and falling.
There are a lot of reasons for this, one of which is that many of the world’s largest digital corporations are based in San Francisco and its surrounding areas. Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Uber and Airbnb are all based here, and they all employ a large number of people. It’s easy to blame the tech companies – many do – for what has been happening here; it’s true that, like most corporations, they seem oblivious to the culture of the place where they set up head office.
Unemployment in San Francisco is low – 4.2 per cent – but many of the jobs going are with technology companies that have a poor record when it comes to diversity: Latinos and African Americans are less likely to have the university education these companies say they are looking for, and even when they do they are employed in lower numbers than whites or Asian Americans.
But there also exists a culture of anti-development in San Francisco. It first emerged in the 1960s, when entire poor neighbourhoods were being bulldozed and freeways were carving off the edges of the city into ghettos. But now there is a high level of demand for places to live, not only from the rich, but also the middle class and the poor. ‘When San Francisco should have been building at least 5000 new housing units a year to deal with the growing demand to live here,’ Gabriel Metcalf writes on Citylab, ‘it instead averaged only about 1500 a year over the course of several decades.’ Perhaps the best way of describing the housing crisis in San Francisco is as a traffic jam so bad all movement has halted. There is no shortage of suggested solutions: more development; development with a compulsory affordable housing component; less development; ban on all development; the acquisition of warehouses and other spaces to ensure artists can remain in the community; more rigorous pursuit through the courts of corrupt landlords. No one solution seems to be gaining serious traction and even if it was, it will come too late to stop the city’s poorest residents from being evicted.
Between 1999 and 2000, the Mission had the highest eviction rate in San Francisco, with over 600 recorded evictions under the Ellis Act, a state law that allows landlords to evict tenants in order to ‘go out of business’. Last year, 1977 of these eviction notices were filed – a 417 per cent increase on 2012. With an Ellis Act eviction, all units in the building must be cleared of tenants. Often, it is used to convert buildings to condos or group-owned tenancy-in-common flats; once a building becomes a condo, it is exempt from rent control, regardless of the age of the building, or whether it is rented to a long-term tenant. The majority of those evicted under the Ellis Act are elderly, or have disabilities. That these kinds of evictions occur within the first five years of ownership suggests that speculators and developers (not long-term owners) are the problem, but it’s just one of the laws that have contributed to the collapse of affordable housing.
There is also Proposition 13, a Californian law enacted in 1978 that limits the tax rate for real estate. The amendment was meant to protect older homeowners but has had a range of knock-on effects, such as drastically decreasing property taxes. This means it’s in the government’s interest to allow buildings to change ownership or be knocked down, as they can then charge a higher level of tax. In short, they welcome developers such as Anna Kihagi.
Kihagi – as but one example – owns nine properties and has been accused of driving tenants out using a range of illegal tactics, such as damaging property facilities. Tenants eventually give up and move out, and the landlord then brings in new tenants who will pay higher market rates. Kihagi’s company has invested $24 million in San Francisco real estate in the last two years. She is, however, currently being sued by the City Attorney for ‘unfair or unlawful business acts’ in connection with her consistent practices of intimidating or unlawfully evicting tenants.
Many landlords are accused of such behaviour, and some are being sued. Apartment buildings are burnt down; fire sirens can be heard late into the night, most nights. Many of these tactics would be familiar to those who have studied the history of New York in the 1970s and 1980s. In Bushwick, Brooklyn, for example, it was not unusual to have two or three buildings burn down a night. These fires were often set by landlords to force existing tenants out – and occasionally by disgruntled tenants. By the end of the 1970s, some 6000 fires had burned most of Bushwick to the ground.
There are, of course, some good news stories amid the tales of eviction and the stream of people headed out of the city and across to Oakland. Pigeon Palace is one such story.
The run-down, bright-yellow timber Victorian first caught my eye because of its cheerful, if dilapidated, appearance, and the signs out the front proclaiming ‘Affordable Housing Forever’. Pigeon Palace’s tenants have lived and worked at the frontline of AIDS services, the arts and neighbourhood activism for decades, offering a window into an older San Francisco.
One Pigeon Palace apartment is home to Ed Wolf, who moved to the city in 1976 and, after finding himself surrounded by dying friends during the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, began to work as both a health worker and policy-maker. He’s lived in Pigeon Palace for ten years with his partner, the author and performer Kirk Read, who’s also trained as a public health nurse.
Another apartment is occupied by Adriana Camarena, who has been documenting the stories of the Mission’s traditional residents – migrants, homeboys, radicals, the homeless – as well as advocating for families who have had their sons shot by police. She lives with Chris Carlsson, a writer, publisher and editor, who is also one of the co-founders of Critical Mass, a ‘disorganisation’ that celebrates cycling culture and reclaims public spaces from cars. These days, he’s a co-director of Shaping San Francisco, a participatory community history project that documents and archives the city’s overlooked stories and memories. Like Critical Mass, the organisation is committed to defining a new kind of public space. Carlsson and I met on one of Shaping San Francisco’s cycling tours of the city’s labour history.
Keith Hennessy, the artist I quoted earlier, also lives at Pigeon Palace; he is a pioneer of queer performance and activist dance. It is also home to Carin McKay, a community organiser, chef and nutritional educator.
None of these people could afford to live in San Francisco, or do either the creative or political work they do, if they weren’t paying controlled rent.
The day I went to visit Hennessy at Pigeon Palace, an old homeless man was sitting out the front. The man nodded at me, smiled, and said something along the lines that I was welcome to go in. I didn’t make much of it, but when I was having my cup of tea, Keith told me that the man had been born here. I nodded, without quite taking in what he meant. Keith reiterated the point. Not just the Mission, he told me. The man was born here. In this house. And now he lives on the stoop because, as far as he’s concerned, Pigeon Palace is still his home.
Not long ago, Pigeon Palace’s owner, Frances Carati, was placed in an aged care facility, and the state-appointed conservator planned to sell the building – against Carati’s wishes – to ‘maximise her income’. The tenants ran a high-profile campaign to discourage potential developers from buying a place they considered to be on the market illegally, and disrupted attempts to hold an auction. They then raided their own bank accounts and borrowed from friends, and managed to get enough money together to allow the Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing, to pay a deposit on the $3.28 million property. ‘The price of this building – there was no inherent reason why it had to get this high,’ Chris Carlsson said in the San Francisco Chronicle. ‘It’s all about this idea that the fiduciary responsibility of the people running (the former owner’s estate) is to maximize asset value. This is the logic of our culture.’
Now that the Land Trust owns the building, it will remain affordable housing indefinitely (a bit like housing commission properties in Australia). Other details, such as what level rent should be set at and how the building is to be maintained, are still being nutted out.
Many believe that these kinds of strategies are key to protecting the city’s affordable housing stock. Tenants from other artistic housing communities have banded together in a similar fashion, and also managed to purchase their properties on the Land Trust’s behalf. But the Community Land Trust got the money for their portion of the Pigeon Palace loan from the city’s Small Sites Program. In a single year, the Small Sites Program committed its entire budget – the $18 million – to purchase twelve properties (containing sixty-four apartments). Now they are out of money. While these successes are to be celebrated for allowing the Mission to maintain some of its cultural diversity, this approach obviously doesn’t resolve the long-term housing crisis. More apartments are needed, and there needs to be a compulsory percentage of ‘affordable’ housing within those developments.
At the same time, a better definition of ‘affordable housing’ is needed. Developers aren’t committed to it, nor are banks or other lending facilities. A lot of these schemes fizzle without providing much in the way of affordable housing at all. There is no doubt these extra developments will lead to the loss of some of the Mission’s warehouses, which were traditionally home to political and artistic groups. But short of closing the city to newcomers, it’s hard to see a way through the housing problem. It could be that large companies are encouraged, via tax breaks, to move to ‘dying’ cities like Detroit, but in a country with such an emphasis on state rather than federal law and taxes, it’s hard to see that happening – at the moment, many large corporations receive tax breaks for remaining in the greater San Francisco area, despite the pressure on facilities their presence is creating.
In these times of high tension, some see murals themselves as part of the problem, encouraging, as they do, cultural vibrancy and change. Just after I arrived here, an established Latino gallery, Galeria de La Raza, installed a ‘digital’ mural, Por Vida, on the corner of Bryant and 24th streets. The work, by a Chicano artist from LA, Manuel Paul, celebrated gay pride in three panels: in the first, two men embrace; in the second, a trans man wears his surgical scars with pride; in the third, two women gaze into each other’s eyes. All the faces depicted are Latino.
I walked past the mural most days. It was, over a period of some weeks, defaced three times. The gallery’s staff was repeatedly threatened. Each time it was painted over or slashed, the gallery replaced it. On 29 June, following pride weekend, things went further: the mural was firebombed. A celebration of the mural and a protest about its destruction was held in Bryant Street, two days after the fire. At least 200 people turned up. A group of women did a traditional Aztec Dance. For peace, they said.
The Mission’s supervisor, David Campos – who, like Harvey Milk many decades ago, happens to be a gay man – said that the individuals involved did not reflect the values of the Mission community. He gestured at the ruins of the mural behind him as he spoke: ‘To go from the incredible high of the Supreme Court using a ruling that extended the Constitution to the LGBT community, to go from that high to seeing this was an emotional experience.’ The community cannot afford to become divided, he said, given the pressures it is facing.
Another speaker, a young transgender man, Luciano Sagastume, talked of the significance of an artistic representation of a Latino trans man. He talked about the need for the community to acknowledge its problem with gender and sexual diversity.
Several speakers mentioned that those who destroyed the mural, or supported its destruction, saw the mural’s ‘agenda’ of sexual equality as part of the gentrification process. Homeboys were said to object to the appropriation of traditional art styles for a work about queer love. The gallery’s director, Ani Rivera, pointed out that queer Latinos have always lived in the Mission: ‘Some think this level of sexual liberty is associated with a level of – a sort of – privilege. They keep saying, “Go to the Castro.” Well, we’ve never been in the Castro … It’s not a new trend we’re starting. It’s part of that cultural history and legacy.’
Gentrification is a word that can be used to dismiss any change in a culture as bad. By this reasoning, equal rights – for women, for the LGBTIQ community, for minorities – is a form of gentrification, as is artistic and activist culture generally. This is why the idea of keeping all newcomers out, and ceasing all development, scares me. Fear for a culture can inspire great conservatism. Maintaining mural culture, for example, ceases to be interesting if people fear doing works of a political nature.
Dignity and Danger in the Shadows bookends a second mural, one that was painted on the back of San Francisco International High School twenty years ago. It was painted by, among others, an art professor from El Salvador, Isaias Mata, who moved to San Francisco to escape torture. The mural is called The Dreamers of Today Still Look towards the Sky. It depicts a young Latino girl doing a science experiment; her face shows focus and concentration. I feel such a rush of pleasure when I look at it: a girl, doing science, painted by a man who did murals by way of offering thanks to the barrio that offered him refuge. This is the spirit I hope the Mission can maintain. You can’t find the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, but you can still find echoes of the city’s political counter-culture in the Mission. San Francisco is a city that needs to develop a more sophisticated understanding of its cultural capital and to understand the losses that will result from allowing the people and murals of the Mission to be reduced to a carnival sideshow that helps push up the price of real estate.