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If You're Going To San Francisco, Be Sure To Have Lots Of Cash
April Clare Welsh , April 28th, 2015 11:37

April Clare Welsh investigates the changing face of San Francisco, where minority groups and artists are being priced out of the city by the all-powerful tech dollar, and talks to activists and artists such as Erase Errata

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When in 1978 punk quartet Crime recorded the tracks that would make up their San Francisco's Doomed LP, I wonder if they could smell the city burning. For over thirty years on, its soul is on fire.

As Crime foretold, the elegies for the city have been coming in thick and fast for a few years now. There's been mourning of the 'yuppification' of a longstanding subcultural haven for the marginalised or progressive of thought, a sense that a city that fostered powerful civil rights movements will never do so again. This is, of course, a familiar pattern of gentrification and redevelopment that is familiar in so many other Western cities, including London. Just as California has Silicon Valley, Shoreditch – a former artist's mecca on account of its cheap rent – has Silicon Roundabout.

San Francisco's Mission District has lost some 1,000 Latino families and gained 2,900 white ones in recent years, leaving many low-income residents homeless, or on the verge of becoming homeless. City-wide, the African-American community has dropped from 13.4 per cent in 1970 to around five per cent today. On his hip-hop blog, Bay Area journalist Davey D blamed the police for this, writing that "as more white folks have been moving in, many black and brown folks, who long made up the majority of folks living in the Mission, have noted they are frequently being profiled and stopped by police. They are often viewed suspiciously, even though they have lived there for generations. Many feel that they are being made to feel unwelcome in their own neighbourhoods, and police harassment is part of a larger process to make it so uncomfortable that folks move out." Indeed, in the aftermath of Ferguson, racial tensions are running high, with 30 people arrested for protesting in October 2014.

Homelessness is a major issue too, and according to the San Francisco Chronicle, currently affects over 6,400 people, largely because the new mayor has shifted priorities from homelessness onto job creation and tech promotion. It's estimated that around 2,200 school students lack permanent homes and even if their families do manage to obtain a sacred rental subsidy, it's getting harder to find a property to spend it on in San Francisco because landlords can make so much more renting their properties to big earners.

On June 13, 1979, the acting Mayor Gordon Lau signed the first rent control law, something that the Tories abolished over here with the Housing Act of 1980. It was intended to temporarily freeze rents, combat inflation and afforded rent control protections for most tenants in San Francisco, with just 15 causes for eviction. 

But all of that was undone in 1986 with the passing of the Ellis Act. This allowed property owners to evict tenants in order to get out of 'the rental business'. Now this law is frequently being used as a way to sell a house off for profit as landlords and speculators take advantage of the wealth being generated by the tech industry, displacing poor and working class tenants to create housing for the wealthy.

As of January 2015, the average apartment rent within ten miles of San Francisco is $3,469, even higher than New York City. And at the rotten core of all of this? Technology.

'Tech Boom 2.0' (number one taking place in 1996 when Mayor Frank Jordan installed the first fibre optic cable) has seen Google, Facebook and Apple all setting up shop south of the city. This has coincided with a surge of evictions - many of them illegal - displacing long-time tenants. According to anti-gentrification activist Erin McElroy, the income gap between the poor and the rich is growing more rapidly in San Francisco than in any other US city. McElroy is part of a group called Eviction Free San Francisco, who organise direct actions with tenants facing eviction. "We protest the speculators, the material impact of the tech industry, and collusions between elected officials and corporate interests," she explains.

One of the biggest evictions they're currently fighting is that of 812 Guerrero Street. This particular case is almost cartoon-like in its commitment to imagined cliché. Jack Halprin, head of Google's eDiscovery (cue: pinstriped, cigar-smoking fat cat lawyer) is currently Ellis Act-evicting six tenants at 812 Guerrero (cue: crushing people like bugs underfoot) so that he can create a private mansion for himself. He's already displaced one tenant there through an illegal OMI (owner-move-in) eviction over a year ago now.

This campaign has seen the group boycott Google commuter buses - the shiny white shuttles which have come to symbolise gentrification, largely because there are often more evictions grouped closer to these bus stops. They've also disrupted Google conferences, demanding that Google pressure their employee into rescinding the aforementioned eviction. There is, of course, a Change petition doing the rounds.

"On the whole, we're seeing the city largely privilege tech at the expense of long-time residents," says McElroy. "Small mom and pop businesses - local restaurants, laundromats, etc - are going under left and right as new gentrifiers are more interested in frequenting up and coming bourgeois shops. So the tech industry is leading to massive dispossession across the city, and across the Bay Area for that matter."

In October, the city's last lesbian bar, the Lexington, shut down and the LGBT-friendly Polk Street - scene of the Compton cafeteria riots in 1966 - has suffered drastic changes in the name of urban renovation, where strip clubs, homeless encampments and off licences are being replaced by overpriced nightclubs and high-end apartments. As testament to its impact, the city's LGBT History Museum has run a series of seminars looking at just that, called The G Spot: Gentrification, Transformation and Queer San Francisco.

Punk rock has of course always been a vital force too, with countless bands having formed in SF, from the Mutants to the Dead Kennedys. The Jello Biafra-owned label Alternative Tentacles has been going since 1979, the same year that Flipper were conceived and a few years before long-running punk zine Maximum Rock & Roll was set up by the late Tim Yohannan. There's all-ages venue 924 Gilman Street, and more recently, garage, noise-pop and post-punk bands like Thee Oh Sees, Coachwhips, Mikal Cronin, The Fresh & Onlys, Ty Segall, Brilliant Colors and Erase Errata – among many, many more – all doing their thing beneath the blue Californian sky and San Francisco fog.

Formerly of Grass Widow and now Cold Beat, Hannah Lew has been making music in SF for well over a decade. She says that the DIY community has begun to fracture, notably due to the mass exodus of musicians and artists to LA. "I'd say half of our scene moved because it's cheaper to live there," she says. "When I came back to SF in 2003, there were tons of artists and musicians thriving and moving to and from the Bay Area… what has happened here recently is that there are some people making a ton of money and creating a dynamic where people who have less money cannot compete with the rents they can afford. There has also been a rise in foodie culture and a lot of lifestyle stores - all catering to people with money to spend. These days there are less and less interesting bands."

She continues. "Musicians and artists/people engaged in critical analysis about our world do not make the same wages that tech people do. Currently the only artists I know who still live here are living with rent control." She refers to the measure as golden handcuffs. "Basically, our rents can't be raised, but if we move away, we'll never be able to move back."

Last year, Lew released a 13-track compilation called San Francisco Is Doomed on her own label, featuring exclusively SF bands, from the Thee Oh Sees' scuzz 'n' squall, through Mikal Cronin's lo-fi moment of reflection and a burst of sunshine psychedelia courtesy of Lews' husband's band Night Drives. The title is in homage to the aforementioned mentioned Crime LP and as Lew says "was a little gesture towards creating an outlet for musicians here. The conversation about gentrification started feeling like this dull dialogue. There's really not much we can do except try to find an outlet for our discontent. I wanted to try to make room for that and create a space for those feelings to live."

Also featured on the compilation is 'Don't Sit, Lie' by Erase Errata. The group have been a vital cog in the San Francisco DIY machine since unleashing their first album Other Animals in 2001. They've always dance-partied away at the intersection of no wave, post-punk and pro-queer/feminist politics and their long-awaited fourth LP, Lost Weekend, came out earlier this year after a four-year hiatus. Like all previous albums, it surges with an unrelenting power that shows no signs of fizzing out, despite the band's shifting priorities. Sure, there are quieter flashes ('My Life in Shadows') and on the whole it sounds more considered, but it's still spun from the same kind of Teflon that makes them feel like they could withstand anything.

I ask Erase Errata drummer and long-time San Francisco resident Bianca Sparta for her perspective on the tech boom. "I have mixed feelings," she tells me. "I use tech everyday and appreciate how it has made my life easier - this interview for instance - but I don't really like the culture around it here in San Francisco. It seems to attract young professionals and it's really, really expensive now which is driving out artist types who don't make tons of money."

She continues. "If you can survive on your service industry job - or, gasp... get a job in tech - and keep your rent-controlled apartment, then great - maybe you can find the time to play in bands or make art, but it's not very punk anymore. It seems to be a challenge to balance the cost of living here with a quality of life (time/space) found other places. You really have to compromise to live here. I wish the tech companies would have moved into a different area. I think San Francisco would be just fine if Google and Facebook and Twitter moved away."

But McElroy believes that, ultimately, everyone can in fact live side-by-side. "I think that there are ways companies can mitigate their impact. Paying city taxes would be a start. Encouraging employees to not move into units with eviction histories would be another," she suggests. "We'd also like to see companies encourage employees to frequent existing businesses. But on the whole, I think that there is a lot of educational work necessary. It seems that many people moving to the city to work in these corporations maintain immense alienation from the rest of the community once here. These companies largely hire young white men with existing forms of privilege, which facilitates ongoing isolation."

Maybe the idea that these new San Francisco urbanites will start checking their privilege, paying history some consideration and try to preserve the original soul of the city, is too optimistic. What with all the legal loopholes it seems that more and more residents are being robbed of their rights, but what will be left of San Francisco's inimitable spirit if there's no one around to preserve it? Is a two-state solution, "where the opposing populations simply slither through and past one another, mutually insulated, like electrical currents in the thicket of wires behind your home entertainment system", the only answer, as this mocking Al-Jazeera piece ponders? For San Franciscans, the time for action surely is now.

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Apr 28, 2015 4:50pm

"artists are being priced out of the city"

Artists are the pilot fish of gentrification...

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Apr 28, 2015 7:12pm

long gone is the bohemian lifestyle of yore, sf has turned into mall living. i grew up there and left 8 years ago because i saw the writing on the wall, everything cool about sf was going, going and gone. the edginess that kept people from afar saying we were fruits and nuts, and how true it was, was becoming extinct. the real problem is that all cities in the u.s. and beyond will have the same fate, look at seattle, let's tear down the cool old buildings and erect a building that could be in any suburb, put retail on the bottom of a ten story apartment building and call it progress. it's our mayors that have sold out to corporations and made mediocrity out of our unique cities. every suburb looks predictable with walmart, a sportsmart of some sort, same restaurants chains killing any main street that had mom and pop businesses. same thing is happening to big cities.

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Julie Levak
Apr 28, 2015 7:45pm

This is a terrific piece. The writer has done an amazing job of presenting the fundamental issues in play, including reference to a big picture extending to the whole of the west in an article that speaks directly to the music scene. I founded and administer a FB page VanishingSF ( cue property rights and hey it's not my fault trolls) that reaches upwards of 900K in a hot week. I read through a virtual stack of articles and studies and reports and literary references, etc. every day and hear from all sides and facilitate as best I can, and I cannot wait to post this. Thank you.

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Taun Aengus
Apr 28, 2015 8:17pm

In reply to deadly_doris:

Amazed to see an article on this subject here at tQ. Perfect---
well done. I left SF in 1978, left the East Bay a few years later, then Portland, then Santa Fe, then Austin for the same reasons. I fear it's becoming a homogeneous world, one neighborhood at a time. Does the future hold artist, musician, bohemian 'camps' to keep all the 'outside the box' people in rent controlled places so the 'authorities' can keep an eye on us?

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Apr 29, 2015 9:37am

Whilst I have no issues with the general thrust of this article, I'm a little taken aback by Bianca Sparta's apparent assertion that playing in a band whilst holding down a job is "not very punk anymore"...

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Apr 29, 2015 10:09am

924 Gilman St is in Berkeley. It's kind of like saying Eric's was in Manchester- close, but not quite, and a huge difference. Great article otherwise.

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Good Grief
Apr 29, 2015 10:48am

What goes around comes around. Middle class faux-bohemians drive the working class from affordable areas, then moan when upper middle class speculators & developers do the same thing to them. It's happening everywhere... stop mithering ffs.

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Dan John
Apr 29, 2015 12:52pm

In reply to Taun Aengus:

At least your have 'rent control'. Have to agree with the cynic above me, this happens everywhere, there's plenty of downtrodden places the 'artists' can move to if they wanted to. 'Edgy', try Detroit? Baltimore?!

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Apr 29, 2015 3:53pm

In reply to Taun Aengus:

the world is becoming a homogenous place, no doubt about that, but in the meantime you have the destruction of communities, neighborhoods that people built only to be overturned by the new money. soma is a fine example, condos went up and the new owners complained about the noise, all knowing they moved into a club district, but then clubs got squeezed out. the elbo room is soon to be shuttered, a cool 2 story 1935 brick building in the mission with a rich history will be razed for an ugly 5 story building that looks like suburbia anywhere. how does this happen? where is the preservation? i am grateful for articles like this, it creates dialogue, but in the end, corporate america wins. they sold us out, maybe the next communities in the future will focus on keeping the big dogs out, we need more freetown chistianias in the world.

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Apr 29, 2015 4:45pm

People smell bad. Machines don't... well, only when they're burning.

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Apr 29, 2015 5:21pm

One problem I've noted is that too many aggrieved locals have painted targets on mere tech workers. Most of us moved here chasing work (as I did 30 years ago). The end result is a squabble between differing levels of working class people -- fine entertainment for SF's idle rich who aren't threatened by the idea of paying $1.5 million for a two-bedroom box bang up against another million dollar box.

Focusing on the tech companies is sensible. They are essentially in the business of consuming young people and hanging them out to dry. Focusing on tech workers and the tony public transport they enjoy simply provides a valuable "divide and conquer" service to the idle rich, free of charge. Who actually wants those kind of prices for property in SF? I can assure you it isn't people who work for a living and end up renting.

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Luke Turner
Apr 29, 2015 5:51pm

In reply to Julie Levak:

Thanks Julie, sharing to your community would be much appreciated xtQ.

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Apr 29, 2015 6:54pm

Ah the super 'hip' mixed use building! Absurdly small over-priced condos for those who dream of magazine living, a few rentals for those who can't afford the mortgage of the above, but still want that new magazine feel, and retail on the bottom floor (anyone need a $350 bike courier bag?). Damn, i thought these super cool buildings were exclusive to Portland - hurts to find out you're not as cool as you thought.

Nothing will change, by the way, whilst service industry jobs lead and/or are near the top of the 'growth' the government champions every quarter this economy actually adds jobs. We'll have the established (money) and the growth (low wage service industry) and ne'er the two shall meet until one is serving the other over-priced tapas style entrees. Industrial districts in most cities have turned from supplying middle-class jobs to housing and feeding the wealthy.

Not sure i'm buying the complaints from the musicians tho - i don't recall living in a "cool" neighborhood being a prerequisite for creativity. And I can record, mix and master a single/EP/LP in my room for less than a $1,000 in instruments, hardware, software - not much work from a job required there.

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Taun Aengus
Apr 29, 2015 8:14pm

In reply to Apop:

Looking at history---creative endeavors of all kinds seem to flourish when there are places for people to interact and share ideas and passions. I agree that lots of fine art of various types can be produced alone in ones bedroom, but I believe creativity is enhanced by debate and exchange of ideas in meetings with other people. This is coming from a confirmed shy introvert who works almost exclusively in his bedroom.

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Apr 29, 2015 9:09pm

In reply to Taun Aengus:

You certainly make a valid point - I've been lucky enough to live in an area where i can walk to friends' art, music, fashion shows, you name it. One does feed off the energy of the other - it certainly kicks my butt to get my questionably relevant music out of my bedroom and into a venue. Not a necessity tho, and that may not have even been their point in the article.

What's interesting is something that has already been mentioned here in the comments - my friends and i certainly weren't the first to see what was possible in this area and move in, but i'm now quite certain we were part of the initial gentrification of the neighborhood. It used to be a shit-hole. It's now arguably the hottest area in the city - we're not losing artists and venues, yet, but we're very much on the verge of being unaffordable as far as housing is concerned. So there you go...we had more $$ than those living here before us, not by much, mind you, but we had more... 10 years later and we're now getting priced out. Vicious circle.

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Hulk Smythers-Jones
Apr 30, 2015 1:01pm

In reply to Julie Levak:

"I founded and administer a FB page VanishingSF ( cue property rights and hey it's not my fault trolls) that reaches upwards of 900K in a hot week"

....but isn't that the problem - you're just handing your data en mass to Zuckerberg for profit and you get nothing - Jaron Lanier, siren servers and all that ?

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Tom Perdue
May 1, 2015 4:58am

Erin McElroy says, "These companies largely hire young white men with existing forms of privilege, which facilitates ongoing isolation."

Erin McElroy has never worked a day in her life. Her private education and her careerist activism are underwritten by her dad's biotech fortune.

Erin: cool it, you phony-ass phony. Or I'll post a pic of you with your original nose.

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May 18, 2015 11:37am

Did San Francisco just spring up in the '70's? The Mission was predominantly Irish. Yes, gentrification occurs. It will continue. Fastest growing ethnicity in SF is...Asian. In California. ...Hispanic. True blacks are down to about 6% in SF, 3% in San Jose. The City continues to evolve, as it's beautiful. Nobody owns it, we're all passing through. Set asides aren't fair, but benefit a privileged few. Homeless flock to the City as the benefits here are better than the majority of places. There's still a lot of old San Francisco families, just west of twin peaks, west portal.

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