Artists Battle the Dot-Coms for Space
San Francisco -- On the night of August 15, the last class at Dancer's Group Footwork, one of West Coast's most respected venues for dance training and rehearsals, moved with jazzy, rhythmic emotion to the song "Givin' Up is Hard to Do." It was a remarkably tender moment during an evening that would conclude with Dancer's Group's eviction from their home of the last 18 years.
On almost every wall of the expansive studio space, dancers who would soon lose their creative territory had expressed their outrage, disbelief and grief. Drawings, poems, farewells, memories and messages to unknown future residents covered the interior. The sentiments were clear and unanimous: creativity and expression had been forfeited once again to the voracious needs of business and the new economy. Financial pressures of an unrestrained real estate market had doomed yet another community group. Either in reference to this particular building -- or perhaps to the whole of San Francisco -- one anonymous author had written:
"You are in the home of the evicted."
The writing on the wall especially applies to San Francisco's Mission District, an area that has increasingly been the backdrop for the displacement of community groups, non-profits, artists and residents. The Mission has been a community populated by Latinos, artists and the working class, but is now overwhelmed by the homogenizing effects of gentrification. Dancer's Group has fallen victim to the trend: after Pomegranate Design and Development purchased the building in March the rent was boosted 512 percent to $15,500 a month -- an amount that the artists could never afford.
As the evening of the 15th set in, a substantial crowd assembled to participate in a "Circus of Resistance" to protest the eviction of Dancer's Group. What was first conceived as a small gathering of affected artists surged into a convergence of unexpected and welcome size, numbering well over a thousand people. Activists, dancers, artists, performers, musicians and neighborhood residents filled the street in front of the building. It became clear that Dancer's Group was the focus of the latest grassroots crusade against rising rents and rampant evictions in San Francisco.
When midnight arrived at the protest, and the eviction of Dancer's Group became official, a group of artists continued to non-violently but illegally occupy the building. They stayed there for just over two days, holding more performances, teach-ins and meetings, before Pomegranate finally called the police early in the morning on Friday, August 18. A notably sympathetic San Francisco police squad gave the activists the option of leaving. Ten people chose arrest, and were peacefully escorted off the premises.
The protest was organized by A.A.R.G.G. (All Against Ruthless Greedy Gentrification), an organization that "coalesced around this specific situation" according to spokesman Todd Edelman, but will continue to wage a "sustained political protest" against gentrification.
The evening was "one battle in a larger war that we haven't lost and haven't won," said Rachel Kaplan, an organizer of the action.
There was a special significance for the crowd assembled at Circus of Resistance, beyond the normal call-for-unity that motivates most protests. Many in attendance were the direct victims of eviction, whose living or performance space was lost to rising rents, insufficient housing, and government inaction. Others came in hopes that their participation would somehow reduce their chances of becoming the next displacement casualty. Someone had captured the crowd's reasonable desire on the walls:
"Real space for real people."
Much of the blame for this situation falls on the shoulders of landlords and developers, who often charge the maximum rent the free market allows and evict those who cannot pay. The hardest hit are small businesses, non-profits, long-term and lower-income residents who often can not afford higher rents or sustain a relocation. As Krissy Keefer of Dance Mission asked, "Just because you can make a buck, should you?"
Keefer is intimately familiar with the wrath of the free market -- her Mission district dance studio and theatre are scheduled for eviction this November. Her question is an all-too-common response to what appears to be the basest greed of landlords. Pomegranate Design and Development rationalized the 512 percent rent increase by saying that it was significantly lower than what the building would fetch in the free market, and that the building could easily bring in double that figure. To Pomegranate, the rent hike was reasonable and fair within the context of the economic environment.
But to Carlos Romero of Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, "It doesn't matter how progressive landlords claim to be; the ones who decide to displace local folks ... will get tarred and feathered."
Blame has also been placed on dot-com businesses, or more broadly, on the new economy. The new media industry, says Edelman, has brought a "tidal wave of money and people" to San Francisco that are now hostile competitors for local services, workers and space.
In return, the dot-coms defend themselves by saying that they deserve space, just like anyone else, and that their presence often brings new life to vacant buildings and distressed, neglected neighborhoods. They also claim to be injecting San Francisco and the communities they move into with new jobs. However, of the 30,000 new Internet jobs created in California each year, a small fraction are now held by local residents.
Of course, fighting the invasion and dominance of dot-com industry in the San Francisco rental market is like swimming upstream with your hands tied. Anti-gentrification activists even admit that neighborhoods inevitably change. So, as Kaplan stressed, the activists have focused on the "immediate struggle of people who are trying to keep their places."
Anti-gentrification organizations have long been calling on local governments to preserve San Francisco's neighborhoods. City officials certainly have the tools and power to slow the gentrification process enough so the crisis of unchecked eviction abates. Regulations and restrictions can let existing residents have less anxiety over the stability of their living or working situations. Considering that 73 percent of San Francisco voters are renters, officials should be listening.
However, the San Francisco government's inaction, indecision and occasional catering to the dot-com industry, landlords and developers is a growing source of distress for the communities that have become gentrification battlegrounds.
"The city has to defend, has to protect, has to maintain affordable art space," proclaimed Joan Holden of the The Coaliton for Jobs, Arts & Housing (CJAH).
A.A.R.G.G.'s proposed solutions include: the creation of an agency committed to community interests; more truly affordable housing; the use of a portion of the city's budget surplus towards subsidy of rent for those who cannot afford market rates or towards government purchase of property for affordable use; and a system that would designate certain property as space for the arts, non-profits or affordable housing.
These solutions wouldn't just protect those individuals and groups currently struggling to survive, but would be crucial steps for cultural preservation towards keeping San Francisco a vibrant, eclectic and desirable place to live. As Keefer reminded the crowd at Circus of Resistance, art is "critical to the survival of this city."
Or, as the writing on the Dancer's Groups walls expressed it:
"Art is better than money."