After twenty-five years of campaigning to protect wildlife and the environment, I finally stumbled on a surefire way to break through the noise and get my message across: get a tattoo.
Admittedly, this takes the concept of wearing your heart on your sleeve to the extreme. It also precludes me from ever changing careers. But if you think you’re in the field of conservation for the long haul—and can abide the thought of needles—body art is an option to consider.
Courtesy Flickr user Sally Crossthwaite.
The tattoo started as a personal gesture of commitment. It wound up a clarion call for protecting wildlife that was more effective than any press release I’ve ever sent. It attracted the attention of the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
I discovered this quite accidently. What prompted me to get inked in middle age, one month (sorry, Mom) before my wedding? Earlier this year, I had dinner with Jean and Jerry, two friends and long-time supporters of my employer, the National Wildlife Federation. Both had recently retired from practicing law, but continued to devote time to causes they felt passionate about, including bison conservation.
Conversation with these two friends is invariably fascinating, ranging from Japanese art to wild-bird rehabilitation. But I was completely caught off guard when Jerry, while sipping a fine Cabernet from his wine cellar, rolled up his sleeve to reveal a gorgeous profile of a bison on his upper arm. I was so surprised I almost dropped my glass. “Is that one of those temporary henna tattoos?” He assured me that it was permanent.
At age seventy-five, Jerry had gotten his first tattoo. I asked the obvious question. “Why?”
“It just seemed like a really good way to show commitment to the bison.”
Courtesy Flickr user Cchauvet.
Around the time Jerry made his next-level commitment to the bison, I had begun to develop a campaign in the Santa Monica Mountains to ensure the survival of the area’s mountain lions. In February of 2012, I had come across a news article about a cougar, now known to the world as P22, living in the heart of Los Angeles. Incredulous, I contacted biologist Jeff Sikich, the researcher mentioned in the article. Jeff agreed to take me on a tour of P22’s adopted homeland of Griffith Park. He explained that P22 miraculously crossed two eight-lane highways in a desperate move to find a home. The cat was now marooned in this small urban island of green space surrounded by a spider web of LA freeways and sprawl, facing a lonely bachelorhood for the rest of his days unless he braved the ocean of traffic once more.
Like many Angelenos, I rallied around P22. After all, so many of us can relate to being single and isolated and paralyzed by LA’s traffic problems.
When I asked Jeff how I could help, he answered, “Well, there’s this wildlife crossing we’ve been trying to get built….”
I gave Jeff my word that I would help make it happen.
I’ve worked in both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, and been involved with a myriad of wildlife projects. Yet nothing has inspired me more than helping to build what might be the largest wildlife crossing in the world over one of the busiest freeways in the country to help stave off the threat of extinction for Los Angeles County’s mountain lions and other animals struggling to survive in the midst of the city.
As I became more involved in the campaign, I kept thinking about Jerry’s tattoo. The conservation project that P22 inspired—even though it will not help him directly—had become the largest project I have ever been involved with; I wanted to mark the occasion. Besides, didn’t Stephen Covey or one of those motivational speaker-types say you are more likely to complete your goals if you write them down? Surely, if P22 had the courage to cross two major freeways, I could honor him with a little bravery of my own. This wasn’t a love affair that would fade over time. P22 changed the course of my career and opened my eyes to the importance of urban wildlife conservation. A radical gesture was required to honor my muse.
Courtesy Flickr user Deanna Wardin.
Making this even more poignant for me, the adventurous cat will very likely end up a martyr for the cause. He found a home—and captured the imagination of people around the world—yet he’s no success story. He’s trapped, facing a very risky journey if he tries to leave Griffith Park. Relocation is rarely successful for mountain lions, so that’s not considered a viable option either.
One day after a campaign meeting, I sat in my car and, with the assistance of Yelp, found the Brass Anchor Tattoo and Barbershop in Woodland Hills. It was reviewed as the best place to get a haircut, tattoo, and a brew. While combining those particular activities had never occurred to me, I liked the sound of the place. Yelpers liked that they served Pabst Blue Ribbon; someone tagged the place as “super chill.” Another reviewer wrote, “I took my wife here to get her first tattoo.” I was sold.
If Luis, my tattoo artist, was surprised that a middle-aged woman in business dress wanted to talk tattoos, he didn’t show it. He treated me like any other customer. His body of work was incredible—the pieces were colorful, imaginative, and vivid. I could sense the story behind each one. Any hesitation I had melted away.
I showed Luis the most famous photo of P22 in front of the Hollywood Sign, from National Geographic. Luis designed a tattoo that paid homage to the cat’s spirit—and of such fine detail that his eyes leap out at you from my arm. I couldn’t be happier. It’s a permanent reminder of my life’s work. As a traditional Samoan tattoo artist sings, “Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave.”
In September 2014, #SaveLACougars had its official launch in Agoura Hills, the site of the proposed crossing Jeff Sikich mentioned to me back in 2012. It’s a vibrant wildlife corridor in northwestern Los Angeles County, but it’s about thirty miles from P22’s home in Griffith Park. My muse will never benefit from it, yet it will help ensure that the extended family of mountain lions he left behind will have access to wilder places and, perhaps, not have to brave the same kind of dangerous journey to find room to roam by sneaking through Bel Air and Beverly Hills and dodging traffic on major highways.
I’ve since learned that I am a relative lightweight when it comes to using body art to show commitment to cause. I recently discovered Carl Zimmer’s book Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed along with multiple blogs and Pinterest boards showcasing the people who ink their passions. One lonely mountain lion seemed rather small potatoes when compared to the entire solar system spreading across a person’s back, or the molecular structure of fulvic acid covering an entire arm.
Courtesy Flickr user Mez Love.
Still, the striking visage of a mountain lion offers an easier conversation starter than a molecule. About a month after getting the tattoo, I learned my personal pledge had potential as a public relations tool. I was standing in a café about three hundred miles outside of LA, waiting for my lunch when a complete stranger, conservatively dressed, approached me.
“How’s he doing?” she asked and gestured to my tattoo. “I read that he had mange.”
“You know P22?”
“Sure. He’s the mountain lion in National Geographic. Loved the story. Nice tat.”
“He’s doing better now,” I said, “though he’s still lonely. But we’re working on that.”
Making tea on the summit of Liberty Cap on a Sierra Club outing to Mt. Ritter in 1909. Photograph by Edward Taylor Parsons. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.
When twenty-nine-year-old John Muir first disembarked at San Francisco in March 1868, he was a man with a mission. On the road for nearly a year, Muir had walked 1,000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf Coast, sailed south to Cuba and Panama, where he crossed the Isthmus, and then sailed north to California. Legend has it that once off the ship, Muir asked a passing stranger which was the shortest route to any place wild. Without hesitation, the man directed Muir east to the Sierra Nevada where for the next twelve years he more or less made Yosemite and the nearby mountains his home.
A Romantic in the mold of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Muir questioned the value of an urban-industrial life and praised the state’s wilder areas as God’s handiwork, the antidote for those who had to toil in California’s cities. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” wrote Muir in 1901. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”¹
Many Californians heard Muir, and took him at his word when they headed out of San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and other cities to pitch their tents in Yosemite, Sequoia, and other wild settings. Over the next century the annual number of recreational campers swelled into the millions as more and more Californians, as well as other Americans, escaped their everyday lives to enjoy the premodern conditions of camping that they were told by Muir and others would restore and refresh them before returning to their permanent residences. These campers, just as Muir had recommended, became pilgrims to California’s natural “cathedrals.”
Pilgrimage is never straightforward nor simply a matter of traveling somewhere. Regardless of whether the ultimate destination is Lourdes, Gettysburg, Disneyland, or wilderness, a pilgrim does not begin to journey unless he is dissatisfied with life’s customary places, people, and social relations. Something in his or her life must “push” the pilgrim away from the profane, everyday world before the journey can begin. At the same time, the pilgrim must desire some exceptional outcome in order to be “pulled” toward and into a sacred, transformative place during pilgrimage and then, hopefully, return to the everyday world satisfied.2
Pilgrimage is generally arduous, forcing pilgrims to endure challenges as a part of their journeys. One of the world’s foremost religious pilgrimages, the hajj to Mecca, has traditionally been seen as so difficult that devout Muslims are expected to perform it only once in a lifetime. In Spain each year, thousands of pilgrims, the majority of whom are not Roman Catholics, hike hundreds of miles to kiss the statue of Saint James in his cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Of course, one could simply fly into Santiago or drive there from St. Jean Pied de Port, a traditional starting point on the French border, but people who do so are dismissed as “tourists” by those who, like innumerable pilgrims before them, walk the traditional path.3
“No American wilderness that I know of is so dangerous as a city home ‘with all the modern improvements.’ One should go to the woods for safety, if for nothing else.” —John Muir, Our National Parks
Camping is not a religious practice, nor is it usually as arduous as the great pilgrimages, especially these days, but it does share this pilgrimage pattern.4 Campers perceive great power at a place—”nature”—which when tapped can counteract the “evils” of urban life and “restore” them mentally and physically. This restoration will occur only if the camper travels to where nature’s power is readily accessible and there resides temporarily. Not just any location will do—and then there’s the pilgrimage itself, from the preparations that must be made before setting off to the journey itself. At the same time, what qualifies as “natural” and how one engages it turns out to be highly flexible among campers as a whole. Parking a large motorhome along the Pacific Coast Highway on the Ventura County shoreline can satisfy some. Others have long preferred to car camp in Yosemite. While for still others, only a backpacking trip along a remote stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail will suffice. Wherever it is, it must be a place where the pilgrim-in-the-wild will cede some element of control and let nature take over.
No matter how it is practiced, the patterns of modern camping are closely tied to the long-standing divisions of urban and wild California. According to one powerful strand of our national myth, a free and democratic America was forged on the wild frontier, not in the country’s “over-civilized” cities, which have long been perceived as unhealthy and hazardous environments. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect involved in the origins of Yosemite as a park and the creation of Central Park in New York, subscribed to this view as he justified his 1866 plan for San Francisco’s “Public Pleasure Grounds.” The city’s population, he warned, was “wearing itself out with constant labor, study and business anxieties. . . Cases of death, or of unwilling withdrawal from active business. . . cause losses of capital in the general business of the city, as much as fires or shipwrecks.” What the city needed, offered Olmsted, was a woodland park with “beautiful sylvan scenes” where exhausted San Franciscans could escape the city and relax in nature.5
Americans may earn their fortunes in cities, but they don’t really belong there. Instead, their true home is wilderness, which Muir declared, is safer than any urban residence. The expressions of this tradition of urban skepticism have been pervasive and monumental, spawning America’s great urban parks, its sprawling suburbs, and camping.
Unsurprisingly, most campers have been from urban areas. For more than 100 years, those who preach the benefits of camping have sounded like Olmsted—bemoaning everyday urban places as burdensome, polluted, and irritating. “We want to emphasize here and now,” began the Sierra Club’s David Brower in Going Light with Backpack or Burro, “even to the point of being evangelical in our emphasis, that one gains a great deal by getting just as far from exhaust fumes and ringing telephones as his feet will let him. . . and that so long as one can walk. . . it is possible to use the wilderness as a sanctuary.”6 Again and again, for more than a century, camping has been offered as a positive escape from stress, overwork, in-laws, and other everyday irritations.
Camping, however, also has a darker side. Paraphrasing historian William Cronon, to the degree that campers have seen themselves as somehow displaced from their “true” homes in nature and have turned to nature to find solace, they have missed opportunities to amend their cities environmentally and to place them on more sustainable paths.7 Camping is not just a pleasant form of leisure. It can also be interpreted as an escape from campers’ responsibilities for their cities. Is city life too noisy? Backpack through the quiet of the Sierra Nevada high country. Is the air polluted? RV camp in fresh air along the Pacific shoreline. City streets too harsh? Car camp out in a lush redwood forest. By escaping cities to find nature, campers have been evading the environmental challenges of a truly supportive and humane urban life.
John Muir, circa 1902.
But camping is in trouble. After more than a century of increasing popularity, the number of campers is declining. Although camping remains among the top-five outdoor recreations in the United States, the rate of participation by Americans sixteen and older is down from its peak in the late 1990s. Automobile, trailer, and motorhome camping at “developed” locations (with drinking water, tables, restrooms, etc.) and at “primitive” locations (without such amenities) has decreased approximately 7 percent overall. Only backpacking’s popularity has held steady, although at much lower numbers than other forms of camping.8
Predictably, perhaps, given how much significance has been invested in camping, some observers interpret this diminution in camping as a menace to our civilization. Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic argue that the decrease in camping and other forms of outdoor recreation indicates that Americans are shifting away from an appreciation of nature and toward “videophilia,” which they define as a “tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.” Such a shift, they conclude, “does not bode well for the future of biodiversity conservation.” In an even gloomier piece, author Richard Louv argues in Last Child in the Woods that American children increasingly suffer from “nature-deficit disorder” because fewer of them are camping, playing in streams, and generally enjoying themselves outdoors. This deficit must be reduced, Louv warns, because “our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it.”9
But instead of immediately taking such a sentimental and alarmist view, let’s recall the history and cultural significance of camping, which present at least two potential explanations for its decline:
First, most forms of camping are losing their ability to function as a pilgrimage. As campers embrace the latest in modern, high-tech gear, they transmute “roughing it”—a distinctly antimodern activity—into something comfortable and too much like everyday life. Car campers, for example, no longer have to experience many of camping’s customary hardships. Campers may still sleep on the ground, but it is no longer so uncomfortable when using a microfiber sleeping bag rated to 35 degrees and a self-inflating mattress pad. The culinary limitations of camping have likewise moderated with the use of coolers, propane stoves, and an explosion of gourmet freeze-dried meal options. The physical challenge of hiking vanished when a paved road allowed campers to drive to scenic overlooks. When camping with a trailer, motorhome, or other recreational vehicle, adversity recedes even further. Without its physical and psychological challenges, the transition from daily life to camping can become so “smooth” it’s barely a transition at all. With no bright line between the wild and the urban, how can camping be the refreshing and restorative break it’s meant to be? Like those who fly to Santiago de Compostela to visit Saint James’s cathedral, comfortable campers slide from being pilgrims to “tourists.” By contrast, backpacking’s appeal continues because no matter how much backpackers may adopt the latest in gear, they still have to walk and carry their load. In a fundamental way, it remains “rough.”
“D. A. Stivers and Thor arrive in camp, Camp Kitmear, 1915,” from Panama Pacific International Exposition and Yosemite Camping Views. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.
A second explanation for the decrease in camping’s popularity brings us back to California’s rapid and destructive form of urbanization, where for more than a century cities, farms, resource extraction sites, and pristine areas grew increasingly discrete and isolated from one another. Now, however, the distinctions between these landscapes are beginning to fade as they slowly blend back into one another. “Urban agriculture” is no longer an oxymoron; a billion dollar plan to restore the Los Angeles River has been embraced by the US Army Corps of Engineers; and “rewilding” California’s cities with native flowers has thousands of supporters. Distributed, renewable energy, onsite rainwater retention, xerophytic gardening, the greening of alleys, protecting urban mountain lions, and much, much more are increasing the sustainability of California’s cities and decreasing the differences between them, agricultural tracts, protected wildlands, and natural resource areas. Californians are beginning to bring their cities and nature back together.10
As these landscapes become less sharply separate and as California’s cities become more “natural,” campers are decreasingly feeling a need to heed Muir’s call to climb the mountains in order to get the “good tidings.” Instead, they are finding and making it around themselves in everyday life. And, to the degree that camping is decreasing because Californians feel less distressed by their urban homes, these are all signs that we are embracing where we really live, which are good tidings in their own way.
Glenola and Robert E. Rose, 1938. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.
1 John Muir, Our National Parks (NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901), 56.
2 The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff once characterized pilgrimage as simply “in-out-in with a difference.” The pilgrim begins in everyday society, steps out of that society and then returns to her/his society transformed. See Barbara Myerhoff, “Pilgrimage to Meron: Inner and Outer Peregrinations” in S. Lavie, K. Narayan, and R. Rosaldo, Creativity/Anthropology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 218.
3 See Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 26–27.
4 Gwen Kennedy Neville, Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion in American Protestant Culture (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987) has identified a variety of anti-urban pilgrimage patterns in American life.
5 Frederick Law Olmsted, “Preliminary Report in Regard to a Plan of Public Pleasure Grounds for the City of San Francisco” in Victoria Post Ranney, Gerard J. Rauluk, and Carolyn F. Hoffman, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Volume V: The California Frontier (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 522.
6 David Brower, Going Light with Backpack or Burro (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1951), 6.
7 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995), 81.
8 The current popularity of camping is ranked in Outdoor Foundation, “Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2012” (Boulder: The Outdoor Foundation, 2012), 14. The decreasing participation rates for “developed” and “primitive” camping and the steady appeal of backpacking were revealed by the 1999–2001 and the 2005–2009 National Surveys on Recreation and the Environment. See H. Ken Cordell, “Outdoor Recreation Trends and Futures: A Technical Document Supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment” (Asheville: US Forest Service, Southern Research Station Gen.Tech.Rep. SRS-150, 2012), 33, 35, 37–38.
9 Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Is Love of Nature in the US Becoming Love of Electronic Media? 16-year downtrend in National Park Visits Explained by Watching Movies, Playing Video Games, Internet Use and Oil Prices,” Journal of Environmental Management 80 (2006), 387, 392. See also Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Evidence for a Fundamental and Pervasive Shift Away from Nature-Based Recreation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (2008), 2295–2300. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Updated and Expanded E-Book Edition (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books. 2008), paragraph 13–13.
10 The idea that cities need not be sites of degeneration, but can be places for the mutual regeneration of nature and society is increasingly explored by scholars and students. See, for instance, the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Their website is located at http://www.csupomona.edu/~crs/.
Reports of San Francisco’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Editor’s Note:This is an excerpt of Rachel Brahinsky’s essay “The Death of the City?” from our Summer 2014 issue.
You may have heard that the wave of gentrification that’s crashing through San Francisco these days has brought “the end of San Francisco.” You may have heard that the cool city of fog and freaks is over and done with, run over by Google buses filled with techies who have no sense of community or history. At the risk of being very unpopular, I’m going to tell you this isn’t quite true. The “Google bus,” which is what people in the Bay Area call the mass of private, tech commuter buses that fill the rush-hour streets, is not essentially the problem. In fact, it may be the seed of the solution.¹
The San Francisco Bay Area is undergoing a period of rapid transformation. In many ways, we’ve seen this boom before. Yet the unsettled atmosphere of the current moment—in which the middle class fears eviction alongside the most vulnerable—has refueled another familiar Bay Area process in the fight against displacement. The San Francisco you love exists because, as capitalism’s “creative destruction” tears through the urban landscape, community advocates fighting for what I call an “ethical city” try to reshape that destruction²—and sometimes they win.
This latest wave of advocacy has been centered around tech wealth and motivated by the great, white shuttle buses. Defended as a way to keep the tech industry “green,” even as it blocks public transit and weighs heavily on city streets, the Google bus has become a metaphor for life in an age of seemingly warp-speed urban change. Neither gentrification nor real estate flipping—in which investors buy and resell property for quick profit—were invented in San Francisco, and neither of them are new. See New York’s SoHo and Lower East Side in the 1980s and 1990s, and see cities around the globe, which have produced enough variants on the theme that academics have created an advanced taxonomy of gentrification.³ Even so, the rumble of urban change has been deeply jarring on many levels, threatening to transform what’s left of San Francisco’s beloved quirks into what Rebecca Solnit has aptly termed an urban “monoculture.”4
It’s true that, amid rising inequality, the regional culture has become more predictable, more formula retail. Even its offbeat places have aligned with similar districts in other cities, the chain-store hipsterisms of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and many others. The monoculture matters not just for the loss of the unexpected or the creative, but because it rises alongside the forced displacement of people.
Bound with the homogenization of culture, tech wealth has flushed through the real estate market, with harsh impacts on small businesses and longtime renters. Though the relative numbers of evictees are small in terms of the greater population, the steep rise in residential evictions has caused thousands of personal tragedies, and storefronts have seemed to flip at an ever-faster pace. San Francisco’s no-fault evictions, in which tenants have not broken rules or laws, are rising, with Ellis Act evictions rising 175 percent in the last year, according to the city’s rent board.5 (The state Ellis Act allows evictions in cases where owners take properties off the rental market.6) Meanwhile, the fallout from the foreclosure crisis continues in the East Bay, drawing capital investments that spill over the edges of the San Francisco market.7
The effects are so widespread that, in a city where 65 percent are renters and where landlords are aggressively using all measures to flip houses to take advantage of the flow of tech wealth before the bubble bursts, it’s safe to say that more than half the city feels insecure in its tenancy.8 In many ways it feels like a moment of “one-percent” power; Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko might be very happy in today’s San Francisco. Each week, it seems, we hear about the impending closure of yet another fixture on the urban landscape that will soon lose its place in the city, another hard-fought mural that will soon be losing its face. Meanwhile, the reports flow about realtors knocking on doors in places like the Mission and Bayview Hunter’s Point, offering cash buyouts for homes that are not for sale.
Even so, another quintessentially San Franciscan story is emerging in the activist challenge to the Gekko-inspired “greed is good” mentality that is gripping The Valley.9 In early December 2013, the first tech-shuttle protests burst into the news. At the time, critics challenged whether protesters had chosen the right target by blocking buses of workers who were simply trying to get to work. Yet by the end of February, the issues that the protesters wanted to push into the mainstream had traveled the globe through dozens of high profile media reports. Locally, the concerns from the streets morphed into a clear set of policy prescriptions, from the resurrection of slain supervisor Harvey Milk’s proposed antispeculation tax and other disincentives to slow displacement, to the proposed creation of a new city office that would be charged with aggressively protecting tenants.
Suddenly, the once-sacrosanct Ellis Act, which is often used to flip properties for profit, was on the table for reform in Sacramento. Silicon Valley’s prominent financiers and the politicians who are close to them are publicly supporting this shift.10 Suddenly, after negotiating a “handshake agreement” to use public bus stops for its private shuttle program, Google Inc. was offering $6.8 million to support a free public bus program for kids.11
Of course, for Google this is a cheap externality. Still, by the time you read this, there may be more stories like this, as the appeal against Google’s use of public stops moves forward.
It has been hard to see that real positive change is afoot amidst the hyperventilation in the media and the cacophony in blogs and comment sections about this war for San Francisco. Real lives are at stake as the private pain of evictees has revealed the timidity of public policy when it comes to addressing the needs of vulnerable communities. Rents and home prices have peaked and then peaked again, each rise bringing news of displacements. First, it was seniors on fixed incomes and people dying of HIV/AIDS, and then it was middle-class families, then teachers, and then came reports of shuttered art galleries, evicted musicians, and so on.12
Sometimes it feels as if the tech-capital influence is a force of nature barreling through the region in ways we couldn’t have imagined. It can be easy to forget that we didn’t have to imagine it. Many of us lived through this story in the late 1990s and stories like it in the 1980s, and in the years before.13 As chroniclers of the Bay Area’s ebb and flow often point out, this is a region born of booms, so we have lots of experience. If we were paying attention, we also saw the counterpoint in, for example, the housing activists who convinced Dianne Feinstein to install emergency rent control in 1978. Then, as now, a key ingredient helped fuel significant policy changes: the middle and upper classes now feel housing stress too.14
Although there is much to be mourned in the loss of places and people that this boom has wrought, we cannot miss that the response to it that has come over the recent winter is also shaping the cultural-political-geographic landscape of the region. The rise of multipronged organizing, where we’re seeing street protests bolstered by deep data gathering and policy advocacy, has shifted the debate at a moment when many people who love San Francisco for its quirks and queerness—particularly those who cherish its remaining anticorporate zeitgeist—thought it might be time to give up.
One sign of this shift comes at the wonkish policy level, among organizations like SPUR (formerly the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association), which has classically insisted that simply opening the gates to all development will solve our housing dilemmas. Most recently SPUR began advocating for affordable housing policies that sound increasingly like the proposals coming from street-level tenant advocacy groups. It’s hard to imagine this new vision emerging without the activist pressures that have arisen in the recent crisis; it’s also hard to imagine that vision becoming long-term policy without continued pressure from below.15
Ellis Act evictions (when a landlord can legally evict all tenants in a building to get out of the rental business) first took off during the dot-com boom of the late nineties. Between 1997 and the burst bubble in 2000 there were more than 900 such evictions.
Through the years of the housing bubble, large numbers of Ellis Act evictions continued. By the end of 2007, there had been 2,905 of these evictions in San Francisco— more than 300 in 2007 alone.
Evictions slowed down during the housing crisis, and in 2010 only 89 families lost their homes due to the Ellis Act. By the end of that year total number of evictions going back to 1997 was 3,336.
But the Ellis Act doesn’t tell the whole story. From 1997 to October 2013, there were 11,766 no-fault evictions in San Francisco; 3,693 due to the Ellis Act, 6,952 due to owner move-in, and 1,121 due to demolition.
All photographs courtesy of Rachel Brahinsky and maps courtesy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
1 My deep thanks goes to those who read and commented on this essay, including Bruce Rinehart, Joshua Brahinsky, Corey Cook, participants in the “Planning, Revitalization, and Displacement” session of the 2014 Urban Affairs Association meetings, and the generous editors and anonymous reviewers at Boom.
2 “Creative destruction”originates with Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1975). Others have explored its role in the urban context. See Max Page, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Richard A. Walker, “An Appetite for the City,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, James Brook, Nancy J. Peters, and Chris Carlsson, eds. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998).
3 Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin K Wyly, Gentrification (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2008); Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996). The blog Vanishing New York published this excellent analysis that fleshes out “hyper-gentrification” in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. Moss is a pseudonym: Jeremiah Moss, “On Spike Lee & Hyper-Gentrification, the Monster That Ate New York,” Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, 3 March 2014.
4 Rebecca Solnit, “Resisting Monoculture,” Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics, 12 March 2014. Solnit has become the prime chronicler of the disappearance of old San Francisco, documenting the clash of cultures in fine detail in a series of essays including this one.
5 See Delene Wolf, Rent Board Annual Report on Eviction Notices (Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board, 2014).
6 The city doesn’t track the number of people evicted in each incidence, but the activist Anti-Eviction Mapping Project estimates that the number of evictees could be between 716 and 3,580, assuming one to five evictees per eviction. See antievictionmappingproject.net. This advocacy-project’s data sleuthing has been bolstered by city reports like the one noted in note 5 (Wolf, 2014).
7 On the economic fallout in the East Bay, see Darwin Bond-Graham, “The Rise of the New Land Lords,” East Bay Express, 12 February 2014.
8 Housing stability has been a key concern in a series of surveys, including this one: Cook, Corey, and David Latterman, University of San Francisco Affordability and Tech Poll, December 2013. This is notable across incomes in San Francisco, where the most recent census showed about 65 percent of residents are renters, about twice the national average.
9 This push back by civil society against pressures of market economics is what Polanyi described as a “double movement.” Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).
10 Tim Redmond, “Everyone in Town (except a Few Landlords) Is Supporting Leno’s Ellis Act Bill,” 48 Hills, 24 February 2014; Norimitsu Onishi, “Ron Conway, Tech Investor, Turns Focus to Hometown,” The New York Times, 18 April 2013.
11 Cote, John, and Marisa Lagos, “Google Says $6.8 Million for Youth Muni Passes Just a Start,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 February 2014.
12 One of too many to include here: Baker, Kenneth, “Art Galleries Swallowed Up by S.F. Real Estate Boom,” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 February 2014.
13 On the rise of street-level urban planning during Dot-com I, see Rachel Brahinsky, Miriam Chion, and Lisa Feldstein, “Reflections on Community Planning in San Francisco,” Spatial Justice/Justice Spatiale 5 (2013). Then head back to the 1980s—no techies, lots of yuppies: Dan Morain, “Gentrification’s Price: S.F. Moves: Yuppies In, the Poor Out,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1985.
14 Last fall, after a member of the politically connected Alioto clan found himself facing eviction from his well-appointed Art Deco Nob Hill apartment, tensions rose further with the realization that almost anyone could be evicted, even a politically connected person paying high rent. See Carolyn Said, “Park Lane Tenants Protest Conversion Plans,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 September 2013.
15 See Gabriel Metcalf, “The San Francisco Exodus,” The Atlantic Cities, 14 October 2013, compared with SPUR report, SPUR’s Agenda for Change, 12 March 2014.
DIE TECHIE SCUM—it’s been tagged on sidewalks in Oakland, printed on posters in the Mission, and chanted during protests at Google bus stops. For some, the violence of the phrase is disturbing; for others, it acts as a rallying point, crystallizing the frustration of those displaced by tech-boom gentrification. It’s not the only slogan being used by activists—it’s not even the only one wishing unkind things on new gentrifiers. But it’s memorable and significant because it taps into a long tradition of activism across the country, and indeed around the world.
As the techie is to today’s gentrification battles in San Francisco, the yuppie was to gentrification battles in New York in the 1980s. Inequality in that city was on the rise, and middle and lower-middle class residents were being displaced by a rising tide of young urban professionals. By the late eighties, frustration was beginning to boil over, and in August 1988, during a riot in New York’s East Village, protesters yelled “die yuppie scum” at newcomers to the neighborhood—and a catch phrase was born. Since then, the “die [fill in the blank] scum” construction has been used time and again, most often when class tensions are in play. So it’s no surprise to hear it on the streets of San Francisco in 2014—and really, what’s a techie if not, most often, a young urban professional?
August 1988 in the East Village might not have been the first time the phrase was used, but the protest launched “yuppie scum” into popular culture. “Die yuppie scum” proliferated in places where gentrification was on the rise—it was used in radical newspapers, on T-shirts, in graffiti murals, in comic books, and on bumper stickers. It was even spray-painted on the wall by yuppie-serial killer Patrick Bateman in the early nineties film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It has been used to create unity among the dispossessed, its mutations ranging from an expression of anger at another famed symbol of gentrification (“die hipster scum”) to a rallying cry for transgender individuals (“die cis scum”).
Janet Delaney, Roof Terrace One Hawthorne 645 Howard Street, 2013.
When I tell pretty much anyone outside the tech industry I work at a start-up, there’s usually a pause. I can watch her compose her face, waiting to hear the worst. If I’m lucky, I’ll field questions about foie gras burgers, daily massages, or what it’s like to work with a bunch of clueless bros. I laugh, but I’m careful to say it’s not always like that. Sure, some places are beautifully designed and full of crazy start-up perks, but there are companies that aren’t. Like the one run by people I know, people who spent a year crammed in a tiny two-room office, busy around the clock, emails and messages flying at all hours. In fact, they’ve been going nonstop for a few years now, working on a product they hope will help people be smarter, safer drivers—and maybe even get people to use less gas.
I know those people because they’re my coworkers. I was employee number fifteen. We’ve grown to nearly forty people, and once again we’re working in a space we’ve outgrown. We are a tech start-up, funded by incubators and venture capitalists you’ve probably heard of. We make a lovely piece of hardware. We also make a very cool app—and we hope what we make will fundamentally better people’s everyday lives.
I like to think I am in the tech industry but not of it. One foot in and one definitely out. I have a wonderful job, one that challenges me, with people I think are smart and hardworking and lovely. I work on a product I think is legitimately interesting. I have health insurance through Kaiser and can afford part of a mortgage. I am glad to have these things, especially after the soul-sucking experience of unemployment. Yes, getting a job can be hard here in the Bay Area, if you’re not a developer.
The first time I worked for a start-up was in 1996. I was fresh out of UC Berkeley with a degree in comparative literature and a crippling fear that I had no discernible job skills. I took the first job that came my way, doing marketing at a start-up, and got laid off a year later. I made my way to another job, then was poached by a third, and by the time I got laid off again I was weeks away from what would be a decade in graduate school.
By the time I emerged with two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., it was all happening again. But it was different this time around.
As much as I can, I keep “the industry” at a distance. Life outside the bubble gives me a good perspective on my work, and it’s where I feel most at home. My friends are writers, editors, small business owners, freelancers, engineers, designers, and lawyers. They don’t see me as a “tech person” or a “techie.” I don’t see myself that way either.
But no matter what my friends may think of me, the polarizing forces of pro-tech and anti-tech in San Francisco are very real. People post fliers and wear T-shirts that say “DIE TECHIE SCUM,” and photos of these frequently make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. When I see these and hear the “Die Techie Scum” anger, sometimes I laugh along with everyone. But sometimes it can be weird. Not because I think it’s directed at me personally, but because it’s a landscape I have to navigate thoughtfully. Is everyone in tech scum? Are all scumbags tech people? No, obviously not. So where, what, who needs to change?
San Francisco has always been a boom and bust town, a place for fortune seekers and entrepreneurs, for those who wish to reinvent themselves. A city defined both by industry and by the wild, wooly power of its people. This isn’t the first wave of change to hit the city, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The current industry that holds San Francisco in its sway is one that regularly mints millionaires and billionaires. It breeds a class of people who feel entitled to high salaries and incredible perks, which feeds into rising inequality across the Bay Area.
Like previous industries and their associated boom times, there is no doubt that the tech industry is complicit in the wrenching changes taking place in San Francisco and around the Bay Area. But what about those of us who work in the industry? What is our responsibility?
Is it enough to educate from within? One night I got into a fight at happy hour with a tall guy, a serial entrepreneur who eagerly discussed the goings on at his newest start-up. He was the embodiment of Silicon Valley stereotypes, who everyone probably imagines when they think “Die Techie Scum.” He told me there was no sexism and racism in tech, and if there were, it wasn’t his fault that 150 years ago people who looked like him behaved badly. I wanted to walk away, enjoy my drink, and not make a scene. But I couldn’t, because if I didn’t say something, who would?
Or like another night, when a girlfriend and I were out relaxing in a mostly empty bar. A swarm of very loud young twenty-somethings from a nearby start-up arrived, jostling people and haughtily directing the bartender. I turned and told them: “You’re entitled to happiness and a good time, but you’re not entitled to happiness and a good time at the expense of everyone else’s comfort.”
Entitlement, I think, is the heart of the matter. But I can shout it at every new bar in town and I know it’s not going to be enough.
I like to think I’m not trying to have it both ways, to benefit from the industry while not being “one of them.” But am I? If I am, is it wrong? I think about what it would be like if I had a similar job in another industry, earning a good living and doing interesting work. Would I feel conflicted? Is it the fact that I work at a start-up? I am uneasy about being complicit in everything that seems to be dividing San Francisco and the Bay Area, putting everyone I know into warring camps.
Janet Delaney, Sales Force Convention, Moscone Center, Howard Street, 2013.
Then I think about how my work is part of my community too. I work with people I care about and value. Work is part of where I live, too, part of where my friends are, part of what home means to me. How can doing thoughtful, meaningful work in a city I love be a bad thing?
Not everyone in this new tech wave is like the guy at happy hour or that group at the bar. But not everyone is like my coworkers and friends either. I hear the tone-deafness among those in the tech industry—the refusal to consider other perspectives and to learn from them, to consider maybe we’re changing the world in negative ways while we change it in positive too.
I’ve heard incredible thoughtlessness from people in the tech industry in nearly every possible setting. But I’ve also heard and seen incredible thoughtfulness, as well as significant involvement in civic issues from people in tech. The conversation about what’s happening in San Francisco and the Bay Area has spiraled into a maelstrom of anger and frustration. It’s hard to talk about the good, the bad, and everything in between without emotions rising. There is denial in the industry, and plenty of it, but there’s also a desire to do better. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the quieter voices. Sometimes it’s hard to be quiet. Sometimes it’s important not to be.
Because look, we all want similar things: affordable property, safety, a chance to be a part of a community in a neighborhood we love. But what do these expectations mean? What about when they become entitlements? What does it mean to “discover” or “improve” a neighborhood, and for whom? Where do the evicted and displaced go? Where can they go? The fact is, buying a house in the Bay Area without a financial windfall or the generosity of parents who have saved over a lifetime is nearly impossible now. Renting is becoming unaffordable for many. In this market, with these policies, the saying goes: that’s just the way it is. Does it have to be? It hit me hard when a friend was evicted from her home.
Other industries have changed the fabric of other cities, while creating unfathomable wealth for some and nothing but disruption for others. I know too that tone-deafness, obliviousness, and other forms of willful ignorance come in many forms and from many corners. Everywhere you go, in the tech industry and beyond, there are people who don’t, or can’t, see what’s right in front of them. These things are true, but I’m not trying to talk myself out of my own conflictedness.
Maybe we should all take it personally when 116 families are evicted from their homes in San Francisco in a single year, when disabled seniors are suddenly turned out of apartments they’ve lived in for decades. Tech people like to say, “We’re changing the world!” How uneasy do we need to get before we think about how?
Janet Delaney, Rincon Greens from 5th Street between Harrison and Bryant, 2014.
But I don’t say this as a member of the tech community. I say this as a member of an actual community: the community I want to live in.
All photographs from Janet Delaney’s “SoMa Now” series, featured in the exhibition Now That You’re Gone. . .San Francisco Neighborhoods Without Us at SF City Hall, February 25 – May 23, 2014. COURTESY OF THE SAN FRANCISCO ARTS COMMISSION GALLERIES AND JANET DELANEY.
When I moved to San Francisco in 2003, I found a place to live in one weekend. A property manager had three or four apartments for rent within a five-minute walk of each other in Lower Nob Hill, a dense neighborhood uphill from the Tenderloin and Union Square that was still rough around the edges at the time. It was exactly the type of neighborhood I was looking for, as my budget didn’t stretch to dining at fancy restaurants and I wanted to be within walking distance of a BART station.
Ten years later I went back to look at apartments in the same neighborhood. So many people showed up to look at one miniscule $1,700-a-month studio that half of the crowd was asked to wait on the street because the grand old lobby of the post-quake apartment building wasn’t big enough to hold them. Now, a year later, prices on 350-square-foot apartments have topped $2,000 in some buildings. At another open house in 2013, in a relatively unhip western neighborhood, the realtor showing the unit asked the crowd in attendance to make offers higher than the price shown on Craigslist if they were serious about signing a lease.
The lack of housing availability and affordability during the late nineties dot-com boom is legendary. No-fault evictions soared as the population of San Francisco grew and higher-paid workers in new industries moved into formerly low-cost parts of the city. After the boom ended, many people left and rental prices dropped significantly. While San Francisco was still not affordable for a lot of people, it seemed possible to live here without dot-com money. Once I accounted for the savings of not owning a car, my cost of living wasn’t much different than it had been during the previous year I’d spent living in Ohio.
Janet Delaney, View of the Financial District from south of Market Street, 1983.
Yet in the second tech boom, things are even worse than they were in the late 1990s. San Francisco is now the most-expensive large city in the United States. Protests in front of tech company shuttle buses have made front-page news around the country, housing costs dominate casual conversations, and San Francisco’s already strong antidevelopment sentiment is growing angrier. Yet, common sense and a basic understanding of economics suggests that building more housing is probably the only way out of staggeringly high housing prices in the long term. In the short term, though, we’re stuck right where we are in an increasingly untenable position.
To fully understand what’s happening here, let’s zoom out and take in the wider picture. San Francisco is a relatively small part of a much larger nine-county metropolitan area of over seven million people. Within this area, governance is fragmented at the county and city levels and it is served by a slew of separate transportation agencies, including six separate but overlapping bus agencies and four regional rail or light rail agencies. There are three major airports, run by separate agencies, and while regional housing policy is supposed to mandate that all municipalities provide their respective shares of housing demand, based on employment patterns, this is often undermined at the local level. Public policy is often not coordinated in any meaningful way at the regional level. With many of the surrounding cities and counties abdicating their responsibilities to the region as a whole, San Francisco must, unfortunately, now decide on its own what role it wants to play in providing the Bay Area’s balance of housing and office space. It must also come to terms with its own troubled history with development.
The Bay Area has also led the country’s economic recovery over the past five years, making it a very attractive place for job seekers—especially those in high-paying industries such as technology and biotech. While many of those jobs are within San Francisco city limits, many more—including those with big name behemoths like Apple and Facebook—are in suburban Santa Clara County, that is, Silicon Valley. Although cities in the Valley, such as Google’s home of Mountain View, have been eager to approve the construction of new office space, they’ve refused to allow new housing construction to provide places for employees to live near their offices.
Google, for one, has proposed to build housing near its campus in Mountain View, but the city has rejected those plans. In fact, the city of Mountain View expressly forbade housing in its citywide general plan for the area around the company’s Bayshore campus.¹ Google’s plans would have put large numbers of its employees within walking distance of work, while also building a walkable neighborhood near a light rail station. The truth is that suburban municipalities don’t want to build more housing—there’s no undeveloped land to build on, and density is anathema to many residents in these communities. After all, single family homes with big yards are what suburban living is all about. A housing shortage also benefits homeowners, who see the value of their homes increase and have little to fear from rising property tax bills thanks to California’s Proposition 13. Even if Google, Apple, and Facebook employees all wanted to live closer to work, they could never find enough places to live.
Many communities also set limits for vehicular traffic that employers need to comply with as part of transportation management plans that must be submitted alongside planning applications. Aside from being a recruiting tool, company shuttles are a primary way of complying with these regulations. Why not subsidize existing mass transit? For most people public transportation to peninsula office park destinations is incredibly time-consuming or impossible, and Caltrain lacks the capacity to take that many additional riders because it is already standing room only on many rush hour trains. Caltrain will be upgrading in the coming years with high-speed rail funds, but that is still in the future.
At the same time, limits on development in downtown San Francisco stalled office construction in the city for years. San Francisco currently has the lowest office vacancy rate in the United States, and although some companies have moved into the downtown area, and some have satellite offices in the city, there currently wouldn’t be enough space for a huge company like Google or Apple to move its headquarters into the city even if it wanted to move there.²
It is this failure of regional planning and development that has brought about the “Google bus” crisis. Operated by most of the major Silicon Valley tech companies, these large motorcoaches run on set routes around the Bay Area picking up employees and taking them to their jobs at corporate campuses on the Peninsula. Seen by many as symbolic of the changes that have come to San Francisco since the recession, the buses were elevated to a major topic of discussion when writer Rebecca Solnit published a column criticizing them in the London Review of Books in February, 2013.³
Solnit lives in the Mission District and she sees the tech boom and the buses as “changing the character of what was once a great city of refuge for dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists.” She portrays the Google bus riders as outsiders who are displacing the city’s residents. “My brother says that the first time he saw one unload its riders he thought they were German tourists,” she writes, “neatly dressed, uncool, a little out of place, blinking in the light as they emerged from their pod.” It’s not just Solnit who sees things this way. This is the tone of a now-dominant narrative among the city’s progressives—that workers in the technology industry do not belong here and are not the type of people who are supposed to be in San Francisco. It is a strangely unprogressive attitude for this open-hearted city.
Solnit’s article brought a lot of attention to the phenomenon of technology workers commuting from San Francisco neighborhoods to the peninsula to work, and it spurred larger discussions about class and displacement. The buses are a symbol of change, and this has made them an attractive target for protests as San Franciscans struggle to find a tangible outlet for their frustrations about how the city is changing. On several occasions, beginning in December of 2013, protesters blockaded the coaches in the street with banners decrying evictions and rising house prices that they blame on the tech industry. The buses aren’t really the problem, though. They are a symptom of a long term transition in San Francisco’s role in the region—from being an employment center to becoming one of the region’s and, indeed, one of the world’s most coveted urban residential areas.
Janet Delaney, Mercantile Building, Mission and 3rd Streets, 1980.
Across the country, young people are flocking to walkable neighborhoods and urban centers. Current twenty-somethings live in urban areas at a higher rate than Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers did at the same age and “88% of them want to live in an urban environment.”4 This represents a fundamental change in the way cities are viewed within the United States. San Francisco lost population for much of the second half of the twentieth century; its population peaked in the 1950 US Census and declined until 1980, similar to most other urban centers in the country. It didn’t reach its 1950 population again until 2000, and it has continued to increase since then. Cities are no longer places to be abandoned; urban properties near public transportation now hold their value better than homes in new outer-suburban areas.
It is easy for recent arrivals in San Francisco to assume it was always a desirable place to live, but San Francisco’s history is not dissimilar to much of the rest of North America: many white, middle-class San Franciscans fled the city for the suburbs, encouraged by new freeways and government-backed mortgages. This was coupled with new arrivals seeking an affordable place to live. Mexican, Central American, and Asian immigrant groups moved into areas that white residents moved out of in the decades following World War II and started businesses and community organizations.
Counterculture movements also flourished in San Francisco (and other American cities like New York) in the mid to late twentieth century. From the Beat poets in North Beach in the 1950s, to the hippies and the Summer of Love in the Haight, to the gay culture that developed in the Castro in the 1970s, to punks and artists living in the Mission alongside a large lesbian community in the 1980s and early 1990s, the city attracted outsiders. Perceived as dirty and dangerous (which in many cases they were), cities were not places mainstream, upper middle-class white America wanted to live. As a result rents were cheap and space was plentiful.
The 1980s brought changes to San Francisco as the city began to recover from a loss of blue collar jobs and attracted higher-paying white collar industries. Writers lamented that long-time residents were being forced out by yuppies who were flowing into the city from elsewhere to work downtown; it was dubbed by one “perhaps the most gentrified large city in the nation.” Dean Macris, the city planning director at the time, called it the “boutiquing of San Francisco,”5 though the gentrification mostly focused on downtown and nearby areas like North Beach.
The increasing economic power of downtown and the growth in construction of office towers in this era set off political battles over “Manhattanization.” The phrase conjures a nightmare vision of looming towers blocking the city’s sparkling light and beautiful views of the bay. It is red meat to San Franciscans, who hate to see their city compared to anywhere else, much less Manhattan.
This antidevelopment sentiment led to the strictest set of planning guidelines in the United States, rules that capped office construction to a set amount each year, required review of all designs, and economic justification for any new building’s construction. The cap on square footage was later halved to 475,000 square feet per year by a ballot referendum in 1986, smaller than the floor area of many individual skyscrapers (the Transamerica Pyramid, as a comparison, contains 530,000 square feet on forty-eight floors).6 This massive increase in bureaucracy successfully limited the construction of offices, so developers started building large hotels instead. Some absolutely awful buildings went up in this era, including the infamous Marriott Hotel, also known as “The Jukebox” owing to its vast expanses of poorly detailed mirrored glass arranged in decorative arches high above the corner of Mission and Fourth Streets. To this day it “remains as grating as the sound of fingernails on chalkboard,” in the infelicitous words of San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King.7 The guidelines also had other unintended consequences.
These restrictions on development helped to change San Francisco’s role in the regional economy during the late 1980s. San Francisco lost 27 percent of its employment share in the Bay Area between 1980 and 2005 while at the same time gaining residents. Office space was constructed in greater amounts in suburban areas, where developers faced fewer restrictions, and jobs left the city while the regional economy grew.8 San Francisco went from 572,100 jobs in 1989 to 508,650 in 2005 while the rest of the Bay Area grew substantially, from 2,824,400 to 3,227,650 jobs, in the same period.9 Despite recent cries that San Francisco is becoming a suburb to Silicon Valley, thanks to tech company shuttle buses, this process has been developing for more than thirty years. Preventing Manhattanization by preventing office construction did little to prevent people from wanting to live in San Francisco—indeed it may have contributed to making the city an even more attractive bedroom community, as many people are willing to commute to work outside the city’s limits in order to live in the city. The recession of the early 1990s helped to temper fears of gentrification, and neighborhoods like the Mission continued to attract artists seeking cheap rent. Writer Michelle Tea recounts her experience of moving to San Francisco in 1993: “It’s not that it was a particularly cool neighborhood, although I later found out that it was. This is just where the cheap rents were. I moved here in 1993, and when the bus let me off on Valencia, I remember the street felt deserted—like almost all of the storefronts were closed.”10
Janet Delaney, Saturday Afternoon on Howard between 3rd and 4th Streets, 1980.
Within a few years, everything changed. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s saw a vast increase in wealth in the Bay Area in a short amount of time, as young workers flocked to San Francisco to work at dot-com startups fueled by venture capital and soaring IPOs. Many of these companies had no profit model and defied basic financial logic, but the mentality of the time was to grow as quickly as possible and figure out how to cash in on it later. Between 1998 and 1999 housing prices increased a staggering 40 percent, bringing the price of the median condominium in the city to $410,000 and the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment to $2,000 a month.11 The hand-wringing over gentrification at that time sounded remarkably similar to what we are hearing today: the gap between rich and poor increased by 40 percent in the mid-1990s, the percentages of Latino and black residents in the city decreased, and as Paulina Borsook put it so eloquently in late 1990s slang, “the result is a city whose unique history and sensibility is being swamped by twerps with ‘tude.”12
The Mission bore the brunt of this series of changes in the late 1990s, along with the South of Market area where many live-work lofts were built and many of the technology startups were located. Still, areas like Twenty-Fourth Street retained their Latino identity, even as some members of the community moved out and wealthier residents moved in. The city soon got a reprieve from rising prices when the economy tanked shortly after the turn of the millennium and the NASDAQ composite dropped 78 percent between 2000 and 2002 as the dot-com bubble popped. Rental prices dropped 40 percent between late 2000 and early 2003, as people left the Bay Area when their jobs disappeared.13
The ad-hoc nature of development in the nineties left a bad aftertaste. Cheaply built “lofts” had sprung up all over, taking advantage of live-work laws that allowed construction of housing units in industrial areas. These units—often cheaper to build because they had more lenient open space and parking requirements and incurred lower development fees to the city—were intended to provide housing and studio space by artists and small-craft artisans. But in many cases, developers used live-work projects to make an end run around the city’s planning process and build luxury units in industrially zoned areas for the city’s newly rich technology workers that were priced far above the means of most of the city’s artists. In the process, the city also missed out on at least $8 million in fees.14
When a progressive majority took over the Board of Supervisors in 2001, in a backlash against pro-development mayor Willie Brown, legislation was passed to put a moratorium on live-work to stop the abuse of the program, and the city’s affordable housing program was revised. Hoping to clarify the development process in former industrial areas to make better use of underutilized land, the city planning department set up the “Eastern Neighborhoods Project” to create a long-range framework that would encourage and guide responsible development. A community planning process began in 2001, and the individual area plans within the Eastern Neighborhoods Project were approved by the Board of Supervisors in January 2009. This finalized the rezoning of 2,200 acres of San Francisco for reuse, nearly a quarter of the city, primarily as housing and mixed-use, but it also reserved space for light industrial uses.
This project did broad-based planning for a large area that included parts of, the Mission, and Potrero Hill, in an effort to balance the needs of current residents with the city’s desire to add new housing stock in a central area well served by public transit. Years of meetings and outreach were held, and planners studied the needs of the area extensively. Affordable housing requirements for new buildings were increased, a new type of zoning to protect small businesses was included, and design guidelines were issued to allow higher density while at the same time promoting a more pedestrian-friendly environment. Most importantly, area plans for each neighborhood in the plan were written and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the area was created, making it unnecessary for individual projects to write their own reports if they complied with the new planning regulations.
Because San Francisco takes a particularly aggressive approach to interpreting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires the environmental impact of potential projects to be measured against alternatives, having blanket EIRs for entire neighborhoods should speed up the planning process considerably. CEQA was created in the 1970s with the intention of ensuring large-scale development projects were studied for potential impact prior to approval. Originally applied only to government projects, a court ruling extended the legislation’s reach to private projects shortly after its implementation. In subsequent years, it has become a favorite tool of people looking to block projects they don’t like for a wide variety of reasons. Preparing a detailed Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to comply with CEQA generally adds at least a year and a half to a project timeline and is costly. A prominent anti-bicycle activist managed to stop the implementation of San Francisco’s bike plan for years by filing a lawsuit requiring the city to prepare an EIR before any improvements could be made, meaning the city was legally prevented from performing even simple functions such as installing sidewalk bicycle racks.
But CEQA is not the only obstacle to new development. A Byzantine system of regulations and zoning laws that permits only one or two family homes in the majority of the city contributes to a chronic shortfall in the production of housing units while the population has continued to increase in recent decades. By 2011 the city’s economy was roaring back from recession and added over 36,000 jobs. All those people needed places to live,15 yet less than 300 units were added to the market.16
The resulting shortage has done a number on housing prices. Small one-bedroom apartments near the Twitter headquarters at Civic Center, or mid-Market as it is now being called, are renting for $4,400 a month. Not that long ago, this was one of the last neighborhoods in San Francisco where one could find an apartment for under $1,000, and now high-rise residential towers are leased out before construction has even been finished for prices that were unthinkable five years ago. The median price on a two-bedroom home is hovering near $1 million, making San Francisco the most expensive city in the United States.
Janet Delaney, 10th St at Folsom, 1982.
It is often said that “the best thing about San Francisco is that everyone has a say, and the worst thing about San Francisco is that everyone has a say.” Making any sort of major decision involves scores of public meetings, mailings, and a vast amount of public input. Most cities allow planning staff to make over-the-counter approval of projects that comply with the existing regulations, meaning that development is fairly predictable. This is known as “as of right” development and is allowed even in some other Bay Area municipalities. In San Francisco, all permits are discretionary, which means that it’s nearly impossible to build anything without both a series of public notifications, meetings, and a design review by the planning department. Even after a building permit is granted, project opponents may file an appeal and have a construction project stopped within fifteen days.
At some levels, this is a vast improvement from earlier eras when decisions were made behind closed doors and imposed on the populace. On the other hand, even public projects get held up in years of expensive bureaucracy. A bus rapid transit project for Geary Boulevard has been in planning since the passage of a local ballot measure authorized funding in 2003, yet eleven years later construction hasn’t even begun as a handful of people in the neighborhood fought for years to preserve each and every parking space.
Neighborhood plans similar to the Eastern Neighborhoods Project have been successful in other San Francisco neighborhoods, such as Hayes Valley, but there are signs that opposition to development is growing and any plan to add much-needed housing in the Mission is likely to meet stiff resistance.
A perfect example can be found at 1050 Valencia Street, formerly home to a KFC restaurant and surface parking lot. A proposed twelve-unit condo project here fulfilled all of the city’s planning guidelines: no on-site car parking in a transit-rich neighborhood, bike parking, on-site affordable units, and ground floor retail. Development of the site was fiercely opposed by wealthy homeowners in the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association. After narrowly surviving a CEQA appeal to the Board of Supervisors by one vote, the project was cut down to nine units (removing the affordable housing requirements) by the Board of Appeals, which called it “out of scale in the neighborhood,” despite its compliance with the neighborhood’s fifty-five-foot height limit and its proximity to a number of similarly sized public and private mixed-use buildings within a few blocks on the Valencia corridor. Only when the Board of Appeals was charged with violating California’s Housing Accountability Act, which forbids local agencies from reducing the density on a site to less than what is allowed by law, did they reverse their vote and allow a fifth floor to be added, restoring the previously dropped affordable housing units.
Janet Delaney, Flag Makers, Natoma at 3rd Street.
San Francisco has had a very strong tendency to try to stave off change through regulation and legislation. Limiting growth artificially usually has many unintended effects, however, as there is no way to prevent people from moving in, and we probably wouldn’t want to if we could. For individuals who want to live in walkable neighborhoods with reliable access to public transportation, there are not that many places in the Bay Area that are as attractive as San Francisco. The city is at or near the top of this list regionally, nationally, and even globally. The demand for such beautiful city living is not going away. It’s only going to increase.
Janet Delaney, One Rincon from Perry Street, by Janet Delaney, 2013.
Caution is warranted when considering construction projects in such a beautiful place. But the current state of permitting regulations for building and the glacial pace of infrastructure projects in San Francisco benefit very few people and risk turning it into a caricature of its former self for tourists and residents rich enough to live in a fantasy, not a living city. If there was ever a time when San Francisco needed to embrace a dynamic, expansive policy for building housing, offices and transportation, it is now.
Photographs from Janet Delaney’s “South of Market” and “SoMa Now” series, featured in the exhibition Now That You’re Gone. . .San Francisco Neighborhoods Without Us at SF City Hall, February 25 – May 23, 2014. COURTESY OF THE SAN FRANCISCO ARTS COMMISSION GALLERIES AND JANET DELANEY.
So many columns filled, so much hand wringing, but no one seems to be able to answer: What’s the matter with San Francisco?
Reporters have parachuted in from far-flung locales to poke and prod and pass judgment. Residents respond with horror stories from the house-hunting frontlines, dispatched from bus stops blocked by idling private coaches. The city is changing in ways no one seems to understand and growing faster than it can handle, its residents by turns ready for revolt and terrified of change. Some insist there’s nothing to see here, but each week brings a new story declaring that yes, there really is: San Francisco is the most expensive city in the country, San Francisco has its lowest-ever unemployment rate, San Francisco is on the frontlines of a new culture war between techies and. . . well, what’s the opposite of a techie when we’re all up to our eyeballs in technology?
This question of what’s wrong has been asked before of other places, and at least twice of Kansas. Both William Allen White in his 1896 editorial and Thomas Frank in his 2004 book came to the same conclusion: the people. Specifically, the people who act time and again against their own interests, people who adhere to a narrow political line, whether it’s antipopulist in the nineteenth century or antiprogressive in the twentieth. By focusing on one set of values, this analysis asserts, the people don’t notice what they’re really losing until it’s too late—and San Francisco is no different.
But for all that’s troubling San Francisco today, much has been right with it for a long time. In fact, a glass-is-half-full kind of person could argue that the problem with the city is that it’s much too wonderful. Too many people want to live here, too many people who have been captivated by its views and energy want to fashion the city just a little bit more in their own image, and themselves in the image of The City, as they like to call it in initial caps.
The City, as we know it, has been shaped by generations of activists who have fought to preserve a charming urbanism that they like to think is European in style—though many European cities have developed in a very different direction—surrounded by nature, the bay views, and green hills ringing the scene. They didn’t win every battle, but they won enough that San Francisco has remained for many years diverse, welcoming, and easy to love. Its small size and pedestrian-friendly scale make it the kind of place where one can be easily at home. The whole picture makes it easy to conclude that it is truly the best possible place to live in the world.
It is these qualities that make San Francisco the favorite American city of just about every European we know; New York leaves them a little overawed, LA a little lost and lonely. To the Old Worlders, San Francisco is familiar and just right. Maybe that’s because it feels something like their past too. This resistance to change served the city well for a time, but that time has ended.
A study released earlier this year examined the 2011 and 2012 incomes of people born between 1980 and 1982 in 741 “commuting zones” across the country to measure economic mobility. (Commuting zones are similar to metropolitan areas, but also include a metro area’s rural locales from which people commute to work.) Its aim was to determine where children born to parents whose income fell in the bottom fifth for their city had the greatest chance of winding up in the highest-earning quintile by the time they were thirty years old. In other words, which areas foster upward mobility and which don’t. The Equality of Opportunity Project researchers at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the US Treasury found that San Jose and San Francisco were number one and two for upward mobility in large American cities during this period, on par with some of the most mobile societies in the world, like Denmark.
These researchers also found that segregation and inequality were the top two factors affecting a child’s chances to rise through the income ranks, followed by quality of schools, social capital, and family stability. Another study from the Pew Charitable Trust in late 2013 adds an interesting dimension to these conclusions, finding that economic diversity within neighborhoods has been the driving factor of economic mobility in the country’s largest cities.
While fostering economic mobility is an achievement that San Francisco and San Jose—and since we’re talking about commuting zones, really the whole Bay Area—should rightly be proud of, what is in store for children born in the city since the early 1980s? Or say, this year, 2014?
Income inequality is often measured by the Gini coefficient—a number between zero and one that indicates how far from perfectly even income is distributed. The closer to one, the more uneven the distribution. In 1980 the Bay Area and California as a whole had a nearly identical Gini coefficient, both lower than the rest of the country as a whole. The inequality gap actually shrank in the Bay Area until the mid-1990s. So far, so good. But as a result of a large increase in high-paid workers and a drop in middle class jobs, inequality has skyrocketed since then. The United States is less egalitarian than it was in 1980, but the trend in San Francisco has been even more remarkable; the region’s Gini coefficient is now higher than the state’s and the country’s. The Bay Area and San Francisco proper are now among the most unequal places in the nation.
The Equality of Opportunity Project and Pew Charitable Trust studies focused on metro areas or commuting zones rather than changes within a city’s limits because metropolitan regions are so deeply intraconnected now. San Francisco is no different, as we see Silicon Valley workers commuting from San Francisco, or San Francisco residents priced out of the city and moving to the East Bay. Anyone looking to fix what’s the matter with San Francisco must look at the wider region or risk failure or simply relocating the problem, or most likely, both.
Unfortunately, when people talk about the current upheaval in San Francisco, likely as not they’re talking specifically about the 47 square miles of the city itself. And the biggest upheaval of all has been the vertiginous, eye-popping, just plain crazy leap in the price of housing. San Francisco is in the throes of a profound housing shortage, which has now driven home prices past their pre-recession peak. Mayor Ed Lee is hoping to add 30,000 residential units to the city’s supply by 2020, but others say it would take an additional 100,000 units to meaningfully affect housing prices now. To put that in context, 100,000 is the number of residential units added to the city between 1920 and today—a period in which the city’s population grew from roughly 500,000 to over 800,000. But whether 30,000 or 100,000 is the magic number is academic to people who need affordable housing right now and those who will need somewhere to live in the next several years.
While certainly not their primary objective, activists who have been unwilling to sacrifice San Francisco’s medium-density character and good looks have made it considerably harder for the city to grow sustainably. So it is growing unsustainably—at least for its current residents. The basics are familiar: evictions are on the rise, rents are zooming up when apartments hit the market, and houses are selling fast, way above asking prices, often for all cash. So the only people who can afford to move to San Francisco now are almost by definition quite different from the ones who live there now or are having to leave.
Longtime San Francisco residents who fought for so long worry that the city they love is disappearing. They’re too late. That city is gone and they, in some ways, have aided its demise. Cities are like living organisms, not flies trapped in amber. Protestors long fought the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco—not wanting to see their mostly low-rise city dominated by high rises and dark urban canyons. Instead they’re getting the other kind of Manhattanization—a playground for the rich with little room for the artists and regular folk who held down the fort for so long.
But lest we fall into the “us versus them” trap that has plagued too much recent writing about San Francisco, consider a recent survey of likely voters in San Francisco that gauged attitudes toward the Google buses that have become such a potent symbol of the changes sweeping the city. More than half of the respondents had positive feelings about the shuttles. Nearly 80 percent believe the tech boom has been good for San Francisco. But a majority also believe that controlling the cost of living and preventing evictions and neighborhood gentrification is important. While the survey isn’t perfect—it would be useful to see all residents polled, not just likely voters, and to include Spanish speakers, not just English and Cantonese—it is a reminder that many of San Francisco’s immediate problems stem from too much good. The local economy is doing well and too many people are turning up to get in on the action. This is a problem much of the rest of the country would love to have.
Does San Francisco have the resources to find a way out of these seemingly vexing contradictions?
Clearly, the way to fight change you don’t like isn’t to pretend it’s not happening. Just saying no isn’t a strategy that can work forever either. It may be time for San Francisco to harness what’s inevitable and bend it as best it can before it’s too late.
This progressive city has been so focused on staying in place as the world changed around it that it may have lost something profoundly good and important—the conditions that made San Francisco one of the few places where the American dream and the California dream were actually possible.
That’s something worth fighting about, but there’s no sense blaming the Google buses or the Twitter millionaires or the even the libertarian political predilections of many techies these days. Today, they may be the ones driving up real estate prices and making San Francisco unaffordable for mere mortals. But San Francisco has been on a path toward inequality since at least the last tech boom, and the seeds of the housing shortage that are contributing to the growing inequality were sown even earlier.
In 2014, San Francisco was declared among the best places in the country for a person to rise out of poverty because of conditions that prevailed in the Bay Area back in 1980. It will be a long time before we fully understand how the current boom will echo through time. San Francisco will be a different city by then, but there’s still time to figure out and even fight about how it will be different. Let’s just try to fight about the things that really matter.
Editor’s note: Rebecca Solnit is an impassioned voice for San Francisco—around the world. And she comes by it honestly. She grew up in the Bay Area and has lived and worked in the city her entire adult life. She has made it her city, while becoming one of the city’s—and, indeed, the world’s—most gifted, insightful, consistently relevant, and provocative writers, independent scholars, and public intellectuals. Many of her books have taken a hard look at San Francisco and at the same time celebrated the city, from Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism to Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, and many others. In the last couple of years, her columns on the perils the city faces—most notably symbolized by the great white Google buses—in the London Review of Books and elsewhere have made her an international voice for what’s at risk in San Francisco and other cities in our new Gilded Age. And that has made her a lightning rod, too. Here at Boom, we wanted to step back from the byte-sized debates and flame-wars that have raged online around Solnit’s views and take the time to listen to her concerns in full and in the context of the diverse voices in this issue exploring what’s the matter with San Francisco. We spoke with her across the kitchen table in her home in the Mission District.
Photograph of Rebecca Solnit by Sallie Dean Shatz. Courtesy of Viking Books.
Boom: What’s the matter with San Francisco?
Solnit: You can imagine San Francisco as full of dynamic struggle that’s been pretty evenly matched between the opposing sides since the Gold Rush. There have always been idealists and populists and people who believe in mutual aid in the City of San Francisco. And there have also been ruthless businessmen and greedy people: the “come in and get everything and be accountable to nobody and hoard your pile of glittering stuff” mentality has been here since the city was founded. But it has not been so powerful that it has rubbed out the other side.
Now, however, it feels like Silicon Valley is turning San Francisco into its bedroom community. There’s so much money and so much power and so little ability to resist that it is pushing out huge numbers of people directly, but it is also re-creating San Francisco as a place that is so damn expensive that nobody but people who make huge amounts of money will be able to live here. Of course, San Francisco has been a really expensive city since the 1980s. It has been steadily getting more and more so. Or not steadily. It has really been more like “punctuated equilibrium,” to use a Clarence King geological term. Whatever equilibrium we had after the last inflationary spiral of both the housing boom and the dot-com boom is over. And now we’re in the midst of a huge boom. And with each boom, we’ve lost a little more of the affordability and economic, ethnic, cultural, and maybe professional diversity of the city. It has become more like a resort community: the rich live here, and the people who service them and perform the vital functions are going to have to live somewhere else.
There are ways in which Silicon Valley now is absolutely unprecedented in human history. It is this bizarre, new, corporate, global power center with no accountability. It’s also just a new phase of San Francisco’s increasing gentrification and unaffordability, its housing crisis. That’s an old story. Or you can tell the story yet another way as a more intensified clash in the global conflict between the haves and have-nots as the economic middle gets hollowed out, and we have rising economic inequality. And it’s a clash of values. In a way, it’s all those stories and more than you can tell. I don’t think one framework explains the whole phenomenon.
So what’s the matter with San Francisco? It’s becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, while Silicon Valley becomes a global power center for information control run by a bunch of crazy libertarian megalomaniacs. And a lot of what’s made San Francisco really generative for the environmental movement and a lot of other movements gets squeezed out. And it feels like the place is being killed in some way.
Boom: Is this different from the situation you wrote about in Hollow City?
Solnit: This feels different for a number of reasons. We lost so much in the dot-com boom. A lot of cultural organizations and nonprofits, ways of life got pushed out. And the city became much more exclusionary. We have already lost so much. We can’t afford to lose anymore. It’s like, okay, you lost one limb, but you can still walk with a prosthetic. How many more cuts can this death of a hundred cuts, a thousand cuts sustain?
There is a lack of meaningful conversation about what’s happening in the Bay Area. You don’t hear newcomers say, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t be the engine of mass displacement. Maybe we don’t want to be completed hated in this city. Maybe we don’t want to run so many tech buses that they’re displacing public transit from its public bus stops,”
I’m just somebody who sees the Google bus go barreling by every day and sees my city changing. How can I not look at it? I think it’s everyone’s business.
Boom: It’s a horrible metaphor, but it seems like this bus kind of ran over you and you had to respond. As you said, it’s in your face. It’s in your life.
Solnit: It’s kind of amazing to me that my most recent very San Francisco book, Infinite City, my atlas from late 2010, has so little to do with Silicon Valley. I would be mapping a very different Bay Area if I were doing that atlas four years later. And it’s interesting, because we had really kind of stopped watching Silicon Valley nervously, the way that we had at other times, and then it just exploded again. I’m a San Francisco watcher, and now that Silicon Valley has decided to annex San Francisco, I’ve got to watch Silicon Valley. If the crazy billionaire who wants to divide the state into six new states has his way, the whole Bay area will even be called Silicon Valley, which is a kind of ugly, weird name on top of everything else.
Boom: In a sense, Silicon Valley is becoming the synecdoche for the Bay Area and even California. You travel around the world and you say you’re from San Francisco, and people’s eyes light up.
Boom: Do they do that for Silicon Valley?
Solnit: Hell, no. It’s interesting, because I used to always say that I was a San Franciscan and a Californian rather than American. Schwarzenegger kind of ruined your standing as a Californian in Europe.
I was in Reykjavík last summer. And everyone has got iPhones and MacBooks and is using Google and Yahoo! and Gmail and stuff. And you realize this is not just some local thing. This is what the world looks like. This is where the new world is, and a very sinister new world. I keep using the word “unaccountability.” We are not in an era of antimonopoly. Google has left a whole host of antitrust lawsuits in its wake. They are the dominant search engine and they skew results in very weird ways. They are the dominant mapping entity and have attempted to buy up and rub out other mapping entities. They buy up robotic corporations like crazy. And it feels like they have a drive towards monopoly with everything they do. And that’s really scary.
Boom: So what happened? What was it you didn’t see in Infinite City? And then in the last couple years and even in the last few months, what happened that made this explode?
Solnit: Silicon Valley keeps getting bigger and bigger and creating new billionaires and becoming more powerful. Twitter moved to San Francisco. Google keeps enlarging and buying up more corporations and expanding its clutches. And more and more crazy things keep coming out of the mouths of billionaires. And they keep messing with politics in more and more weird ways. The fact that Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and some of the others all belong to ALEC, the deeply antidemocratic, pro-petroleum industry American Legislative Exchange Council, is really creepy.
There is good journalism. But the picture is so big, it feels like the blind man and the elephant. You’ll get a great report on the leg or the trunk or the tusk, but do we even have an overview of what it all adds up to?
Boom: One of the reasons that this kind of relationship in part became visible, I think was because of the map that Stamen did. So then this relationship became visible, and it was like a very old mapping technique. It’s like the Minard map of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
Solnit: I don’t think it was that influential. San Francisco just kept seeing the damn Google bus every day. When Stamen’s map came out, somewhere in the middle of it all—and I would circulate it on Facebook and stuff—I did not see it widely circulated on Facebook or referenced a lot elsewhere. Actually, MUNI, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority, put out for public comment maps showing where the 200 bus stops are that the buses are now stopping at. It’s so much more scary than Stamen’s map, which kind of makes it look like they’ve got a few big arteries and a few stops. They’ve got 200 stops now, and they are really running a major transportation system inside the infrastructure for public transit.
I think it’s about the experience for us of literally seeing the Google bus. I’ll be sitting at a window in a café or a bar or in a restaurant anywhere in central San Francisco, and they will roll by every few minutes for hours. And part of what makes them sinister is they’re unlabeled. The double-deckers are usually Google buses, but how do you tell an Apple bus from a Yahoo! bus—you know, there’s just tons of them out there.
They couldn’t have chosen a better vehicle to be kind of scary and sinister, these things that look like, as I put it in another interview, a cross between armored personnel carriers and limousines, except that they’re much bigger than either of those. They are bigger than—they’re so fucking huge. So I think that we just responded to what’s actually out there on the street.
One of the big mysteries for me is I got really interested in this because I live here, but Europeans and people all over the world seem really interested in this. Is this because they are all being governed by Google and Facebook and Twitter? Or is this because San Francisco seems like a bellwether for the new economic divide or the new hipster Stasi or what?
Boom: So how did the Google bus become a kind of meme or a synecdoche for what’s the matter with San Francisco?
Solnit: Google is the biggest, and it runs the most buses, and so Google became the shorthand for all the tech buses. And I think Google is also the biggest corporation of them all, in terms of power and financial and political and a personal kind of presence. You may not use Facebook, but you probably use the Google search engine. There’s a good chance you also use Gmail and Google Groups and Google Maps, and that it’s on your phone and your computer and iPad. Google has become so pervasive so quickly.
I don’t know if I played a role in the emblematicness of the Google bus. My piece in the London Review of Books in February 2013 was entitled “Google Invades.”
Boom: What happened then and how did it feel to all of a sudden be in the middle of this?
Solnit: Well, the piece circulated like wildfire. And I think a lot of people had been observing it and feeling nervous. It was the first really widely seen and circulated piece to articulate what was happening and why it was creepy and scary and upsetting, though David Talbot did a really great piece the fall before. So it circulated really widely from the outset and got discussed really widely outside of San Francisco.
The buses gave us this very visible kind of symbol, and as my friend, the poet Aaron Shurin has said, you couldn’t have stumbled onto a better symbol, this big, scary, bland, blank, and intrusive behemoth cruising the city streets with its tinted windows. And these people who are just so not there getting in and out.
There isn’t a meaningful conversation about what’s happening to San Francisco. There are just these attacks on people who don’t think it’s wonderful.
And Tom Perkins referring to it as Kristallnacht is about as articulate—I feel like now I’m defaming middle school students—as junior high. It’s this really lame discourse. And maybe I shouldn’t say lame. That insults the disabled. Let’s choose a better word than “lame.” Let’s just call it “wanker discourse,” if that doesn’t insult penises everywhere.
I’m not seeing people say, “Well, actually, this is why it’s good and productive.” You just get these billionaires calling everyone who doesn’t love them a Nazi, as though you should not only be able to buy everything in sight, but everyone should worship you like the king or something. It really does feel like a dictatorship or a monarchy where they are shocked and upset that the peasants have a right to their own opinion. So the discourse is just really—well, it’s not a discourse. It’s like hostile tweets and libels and slurs. And there’s an irony within: that the new technologies have created these debased discourses within which we have to try to articulate what’s debased about the discourse.
Then there are also these mountains of magic mantras that don’t have anything to do with anything. For example, Silicon Valley is very libertarian. There’s this idea, unfettered housing development would solve the housing problem, except that we need about 100,000 new units. Do we even have room to build 100,000 new units of housing in San Francisco? How long would it take? Would it really solve the housing crisis before anyone was evicted?
In my most recent LRB piece, I quote a Silicon Valley kid who said we should just deregulate development and raise the minimum wage and we’d have no problem. I did the math on that. Housing prices would have to fall to a fifth of what they are now for a $10 an hour minimum wage to make housing affordable at market rate, because market rate housing now, you’d have to make $50 an hour to be able to get in the gate. And I don’t see us raising the minimum wage to $50 an hour. That’s a world I might like to see. But that’s not actually the world you think you’re advocating for, because you haven’t actually done your research, and you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. We’re not getting really insightful counterarguments.
Boom: What would such a conversation look like?
Solnit: It would look like democracy, but you can’t really have a democratic conversation when you have the very opposite of democracy economically—so it’s not the conversation that matters; it’s the economy. Silicon Valley is this dark star that’s come along with an enormous gravitational pull that’s kind of pulling everything out of its orbit. And there’s no accountability. I’ve seen other people use the phrase, too, but I’ve been calling it the “military tech industrial complex,” because it feels like it’s a quasi-governmental body now. And there are a lot of overlaps with government and military; Silicon Valley arose from military contracting and was never the bohemian entity it likes to portray itself as, Think Different Land.
Boom: Do you think this is a product of the libertarian ideology that dominates Silicon Valley, or is it a product of the constraints and tendencies of the media, the 140 characters of a tweet, the toxic culture of commenting online, or is it a toxic stew of those two things?
Solnit: It’s a perfect storm. When Harry met Sally, when libertarian megalomania met semi-anonymous name-calling. It’s a kind of discourse that doesn’t deserve the name of “discourse.”
There has been good research from the SPUR Urbanist and others since I started to write. Somebody at UC Berkeley mounted a major study of the Google bus and its impact and confirmed that it’s actually not green carpooling. It’s displacing a lot of people. A lot of tech people wouldn’t live in San Francisco if they didn’t have free shuttles that count their long commute as work time. A lot of them would actually take existing public transit, et cetera. But you get these memes. New technology is good at creating these things people think are true, because they’ve been floating around, and they haven’t really checked them.
Boom: What did San Francisco mean to you as you were growing up? And what did it come to mean to you as you fell in love with it as a young writer?
Solnit: Well, the funny thing about growing up here is that this is normal. It’s like our weather is normal. You have to go someplace else to understand what’s particular to here. You know, San Francisco has been a wide-open town. It was really a city of refuge. It’s named after St. Francis, the man who was kind to animals and the poor, who was really an inclusive, empathic figure of mutual aid. And I think that there are some real resonances there, despite the brutalities of the Gold Rush. It was an unusually diverse city from the Gold Rush on. We had Chinese and Chileans and European refugees from the collapse of the revolutions of 1848 and free thinkers and people like Henry George the socialist, great union movements. It was a place where women were able to have a public presence, and Jews were able to have a public presence and participation that they weren’t able to have in the East. There was a real sense of freedom for people and inclusion. It was a place where people came for refuge as pacifists during World War II, and for long before as openly gay and lesbian and transgendered and cross-dressing people. And it was a port town, so it had the same wildness other port cities like New Orleans have. And it has been a great city of literature and the arts.
The f/64 photographic movement is often described as though it was really based in Carmel and Monterey. Edward Weston was there. But Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham went back and forth. And it was as much San Francisco as anywhere.
Maybe “San Francisco Renaissance” is a better term for the incredible explosion of poetry here in the forties and fifties that never really ended but may be ending now. There are probably not so many young poets in San Francisco, though there are still a lot of old ones.
But it was also a place that created new institutions. And I think the Sierra Club in 1892 was really paradigmatic. It was a bunch of businessmen and lawyers who thought you could do well while doing good—and John Muir. They really were turning the idea of the private mountaineering club, which had been a very elite entity in Europe and the East, into something more populist and radical and engaged. And I think the global environmental movement, if it starts anywhere, it starts here.
And all these experiments in lifestyle and the expansion of rights for women and people of color and gays and lesbians and farmworkers and disabled people, that comes out of the greater Bay Area. It has been a place that has produced a lot of new ways of living and doing things, with liberatory and egalitarian and inclusive ideas for the whole planet. It has been a kind of a beacon and a laboratory. And that’s what’s at stake. That’s why San Francisco matters.
You think of so many individual people who have been absolutely amazing and done wonderful things. And I don’t see that in the new San Francisco, where it just costs so damn much to live here, you either have to have a trust fund or be working really hard at making money. You can’t be doing what people have been doing in my tenure in San Francisco, which is to do something part time for a living, but do for free with no expectation of return what you’re passionate about, whether it’s human rights or environmentalism or painting or poetry or scholarship. That scope to be poor and idealistic no longer exists, and it was those poor idealistic people that made the great culture of San Francisco. They are portrayed as slackers in the mainstream conversation, and there have always been slackers, but also people working on AIDS issues, on environmental justice, on human rights, on after-school programs for at-risk kids, and not getting rich at it.
One of the great misunderstandings in our society is that wealth is culture. That’s ridiculous. The Fillmore District, a poor African American district, was the Harlem of the West. It was tremendously culturally generative. It was a place that was rich in culture. And the Batman Gallery, which was a great gallery for artists like Bruce Conner and Joan Brown, a kind of avant-garde gallery, had tremendous empathy and connection to the Fillmore. It was at 2222 Fillmore Street. When I started working on my book on it, in the late 1980s, it had become a classical music store. And, okay, a classical music store is just selling culture made elsewhere, but it’s a pretty nice cultural entity. Since the nineties, it’s been a Starbucks. Now I think it’s a Lululemon yoga clothing store. And you can see from an art gallery giving really radical, outspoken, experimental artists a place to show and strengthening a community, to a place selling classical music, to a Starbucks, which is still a café where people can hang out and read and write, to a yoga clothing corporate chain with $90 pants, is a trajectory of gentrification in a nutshell, all at 2222 Fillmore Street. While the space that the Six Gallery was in—where the great “Howl” reading happened in 1955, one of the great landmarks in American literature and the rebirth of poetry as a spoken participatory live thing rather than just something you read—that place became a kind of wonderful Middle Eastern rug store that felt like it kept that spirit alive in some way through the nineties. And now it’s a boring, upscale restaurant, wine bar. So wealth is not where culture comes from.
Megan Wilson, who is one of the Clarion Alley Mural Project artists, got harassed under the sit/lie law that was forced through by people like Gavin Newsom and the more gentrifying supervisors, the law that criminalizes sitting and lying in public. She’s a muralist who has made that alley—which was a kind of drug alley, full of piss and shit—into this beautiful place, full of brilliant, evolving murals. It’s not a static museum of the murals that were there in the 1990s. She was painting a new mural, and the police came and hassled her. Here’s one of the people who has given the most to the community. And the police are serving a version of community that doesn’t tolerate people like that.
René Yañez—who Guillermo Gómez-Peña calls the “capo,” the godfather of the Mission—has been evicted while his wife is being treated for cancer. Who does those things? And who moves into their homes when they’re vacated? The brutality and the indifference to the culture, with so much money sloshing around like a tsunami! Why has nobody bailed out Adobe Books, which was evicted, and is now sort of limping along as a nonprofit? Why has nobody bailed out Modern Times, the great bookstore that was also evicted, and is now deeper in the Mission on Twenty-Fourth Street and possibly going to go under? Why has nobody bailed out Marcus Books, the oldest black bookstore west of the Mississippi that’s also got housing troubles?
That is one of the big questions of Silicon Valley: with that much money, where is our golden age? You think you’re the Medicis. Where is your patronage? We’re not seeing great cultural patronage. Not that I like the word “patronage,” but that’s what the Medicis did. We’re not seeing giveback. We’re not seeing engagement. We’re not seeing people saying, “We’re the great innovators. Here’s how we’re going to solve the housing problem.” They’re just like, “Oh, you just need to deregulate, and things will magically become beautiful and inclusive.” And it’s like, “Yeah. We’ve heard that story before with free trade and corporate globalization and stuff.” It was incoherent then, and it’s incoherent now.
The San Francisco that we all cared about always had bankers and corporations in it. The San Francisco I moved to had Bechtel and Chevron and Bank of America headquartered here. Chevron has moved to the suburbs. Bank of America has moved to Delaware. Bechtel is still here, a great war profiteer in the war on Iraq, deeply involved, like Chevron, in the global oil economy and other kinds of scary developments. So there have always been many faces to San Francisco. It’s always had businesses and corporations and conservatives and massively affluent people and ruthless people and things like that. I don’t know what the future looks like, but the present magnified is a homogenized, de-cultured, denatured San Francisco.
And I also feel very strongly that one of the things that make a place meaningful is cultural memory and continuity. It’s something I’ve learned very deeply from New Orleans, which was the least mobile population in the United States before Katrina—that when you have cultural memory and continuity, you really build community. You can start to build practices and conversations and institutions that require long-term involvement. No matter how lovely people are, if they’re transient, if they all got there last week, there’s no cultural memory. You cannot truly understand change if you don’t even know that things were different.
Boom: You have written that in addition to being a refuge, San Francisco has been an anomaly. Is it no longer an anomaly?
Solnit: I don’t know. It’s weird, because it’s now becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, and more and more being assimilated into Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is an anomaly. But it’s also not an antithesis to the status quo—despite their sentimental fantasies about themselves. It is creating and enforcing and marketing and profiting from the status quo, which is the new world of digital technology, communications, media, et cetera.
Boom: In that sense maybe it’s the capital of the twenty-first century?
Solnit: Yep. I’ll take that. It’s funny because it feels like the way Europe has the city of culture that rotates, America has the city of crisis that rotates. LA after the riots was the dystopian vision of the future. And then Detroit has had its moments being the vision of a post-industrial, post-capitalist future. New Orleans has had its moment being the poster child of the city of the future with climate change and catastrophe and a city of government failure.
In that sense, I don’t think that every city will be like San Francisco. I think every city may end up getting controlled from San Francisco in a way. Twitter and Wikipedia are here. Facebook, Yahoo!, and Google, which owns YouTube, are down the Peninsula, and that’s five of the six biggest websites in the world.
San Francisco used to be this very left-wing city that is an anomaly within the United States. That seems to be ending, or it seems to becoming another kind of anomaly, the global capital of technology, the fraternity house of the junior members of the new technocracy.
And then the other way it ceases to be an anomaly is that cities all over the world are becoming increasingly divided between the haves and the have-nots as we polarize economies and the middle class gets eliminated. Then you have the masses of poor and precarious and struggling and debt-burdened and desperate people and the new overlords, and that’s happened to London in a very intense way.
Boom: A lot of your work is filled with a love of place. Are you falling out of love with San Francisco?
Solnit: My wonderful friend, Stephanie Syjuco, has been writing as though she’s having flings with places and they’re betraying her. She actually wrote a breakup letter to San Francisco that’s just tremendous. I joke that I’m not leaving San Francisco; San Francisco is leaving me. Rupa Marya—the band leader of the band Rupa and the April Fishes—used to live in the Mission. So did a lot of her band members. So did a lot of the musicians they played with. They got their start at Red Poppy Arthouse on Twenty-Third and Folsom. And she comes here now and says it feels like a ghost town. All the musicians are gone. They’re all in Oakland, which doesn’t have the same kind of density that allows for the same kind of easy mingling. You have to get in your car and drive someplace. There are a lot of wonderful things about Oakland, but I know Oaklanders feel like they’re being invaded.
I love the same things I love. They’re just thinning out and relocating. And I love the physical geography of San Francisco and the Victorian houses and the weather and the farmer’s markets and things, and there are still a lot of wonderful people and institutions here. I had drinks with Paul Yamazaki at City Lights Books last week. City Lights is here for the long haul. The Sierra Club is still on Second Street, and it will be for the foreseeable future, although a lot of environmental groups are also moving to the East Bay.
There have always been things here that I didn’t love, including ruthless greed. And there’s a lot of that now. And I don’t love Silicon Valley’s culture as it’s manifesting. There are programmers in my family. And I don’t think that people who are in technology are inherently evil or anything like it. I know well that there are software people and website managers and things at institutions like the Sierra Club. And somebody is running the website for San Francisco Zen Center. But we have an overwhelming number of newcomers coming from a homogenous culture with fairly weird beliefs, libertarian philosophies, a gaping lack of philanthropy in ways that matter, an apparent wholesale willingness to destroy its host community. And that’s not pretty.
Boom: You once wrote about Walter Benjamin’s angel of history and imagined an angel of alternative history. Could you imagine an alternative history for the possibilities that didn’t play out as we have had this technological revolution and it has gone down this path?
Solnit: The utopian narrative is that we realize that the rise of digital communications is the rise of a new sphere that we declare as a public commons and that will be regulated for the public good by publicly accountable people, for the benefit of the public. Your privacy is protected. We come up with a great pay-per-view model for newspapers and keep newspapers in business, where you pay a penny or something for each article. If I made a penny for everyone who looked at my pieces on TomDispatch, I’d be making thousands on some of those pieces instead of $100 while Arianna Huffington is making a fortune off reposting my content and everyone else’s on the Huffington Post. We’d have models where content providers get paid for investigative journalism and good journalistic sites get support.
Search engines would also have to be a public commons, run for the public good. So how searches are ranked would have to be decided by law, because it’s such a tremendously influential thing. And the fact that it can be determined by money, and you can be made to disappear by a search engine that doesn’t happen to like you, is really totalitarian. They disappeared human beings in Argentina. Now they can just disappear information or ideas. I think we regard it—as we once regarded the airwaves before Reagan—as a global public commons that has to be regulated for the public good. And “regulated” isn’t a very charming word, but governed by democratic means. I think that would make a tremendous difference.
I think we would also have a tremendous conversation about whether we want to spend all our lives being wired. Consciousness is changing. We haven’t made a meaningful decision that, yes, that’s the road we want to go down; yes, that’s what the good life looks like. Iceland had a massive conversation about what its constitution should look like. What if we had a massive conversation about what communication and entertainment should look like and what we want and who controls it? And not even getting into the misogyny of so much online communication and online gaming and things like that. There are so many arenas.
Boom: Is there hope in the dark, to quote one of your book titles?
Solnit: Absolutely. I don’t know what the future holds, and I don’t think there is a simple, obvious, near-term change coming, but I don’t believe any of those adjectives are impossible to apply. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
One of the things that’s really interesting is the new way that Silicon Valley is being described. Apparently lots of young banker and MBA types are coming here because this is the new money machine. And people are starting to think about Silicon Valley with all the passion and enthusiasm and respect they have for Wall Street and bankers. Occupy Wall Street was a movement against Wall Street. That’s why it was called “Occupy Wall Street.” We may see some form of Occupy Silicon Valley.
When you want to understand how the world works look at what your enemies are frightened of. If they are frightened of you, maybe they know better than you do that you have real power. And those billionaires are really nervous. And I think people around the world know at some level that when you return to the nineteenth century, a world where the great majority is desperate and a few are insanely wealthy robber barons, you return to a world of revolution and revolt and class war and class conflict and resentment and rage. A lot of what the twentieth century was about was creating social democracy in Europe and the New Deal and Great Society in the United States and similar solutions in other countries to quell class war. Because they have no memory, they have forgotten that that’s what their stake was in our having a nice life. I don’t think they have any stake in us having a nice life. But they take away our nice life, and we all go back to the nineteenth century and go back to class war.
The fact that people have gone from having a crush on Silicon Valley to hating and despising it in a year, I think is kind of auspicious. Who knows where that will go?
And I think there are very positive things about the new social media. My major political outlet is TomDispatch.com, which is a little electronic wire service run through The Nation Institute, and that has tremendous power. And I think the fact that we have counter-media is the best part of the new tech landscape. It is creating room for the Glenn Greenwalds and Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings and WikiLeaks and TomDispatches and a host of radical voices that are actually quite powerful. So that’s what’s hopeful for me in this landscape. And I do feel like there’s a global critique of capitalism and neoliberalism, corporate globalization and Wall Street bankers, et cetera, that’s very different than it was before the collapse of 2008. A lot more needs to happen to act on it, but it’s really interesting.
And who knows what’s going to happen? Hope for me has never been optimism, which like pessimism thinks it knows what’s going to happen. It’s been uncertainty, and I think the very volatility of Silicon Valley could implode, backfire, give rise to revolutions and counter-revolutions and backlashes, be used against the overlords, et cetera, et cetera. The fact that the United States through all the new technological abilities to spy on everybody is pissing off everyone right and left, and may weaken American power, which might be a good thing for the world and might be a good thing for getting other countries to say that, actually, we want to close these privacy loopholes. It’s like all these dominoes are falling. And we can’t see into the mist, or, since we’re in San Francisco, the fog, to see what’s going to get knocked over. It’s a period of tremendous upheaval.
Google Streetview models created by Coll.eo. COURTESY OF COLL.EO.
Serigrafia is an exhibition of Chicana/o posters from California that is touring California, and has already been exhibited at the UC Davis Design Museum, Arte Américas in Fresno, and the Pasadena California Museum of Art. I served as one of the cocurators of Serigrafia. Recently, I stepped back from the exhibition and contemplated the significance of this collection of Chicano posters from 1969–2011. In doing so I was reminded of my initial encounter with Chicano social serigraphy (screen printing) through a class I took with Malaquias Montoya, professor emeritus of Chicana/o Studies and Art at UC Davis. Malaquias Montoya was one of the founders of Chicana/o social serigraphy, and his posters are well represented in the exhibition. He developed a Chicana/o community-based art curriculum that included a poster workshop and a mural workshop. Malaquias instituted both of these courses in the newly created Chicano Studies Program at UC Berkeley in 1969. The poster and mural classes are still taught today, where I teach, in Chicana/o Studies at UC Davis, which is a direct result of this curriculum created in 1969. The work on view in Serigrafia charts the work of some of the most prominent printmakers to have emerged from the Chicano Movement and the development of a Chicana/o consciousness. The posters on view are representative of a “space” where Chicana/o identity and consciousness have been explored, expressed, and challenged while simultaneously serving the community through advocacy and engagement. Chicana/o identity has often been framed as an essentialist category for which people are either included or excluded racially. Yet, like the posters on view in Serigrafia, Chicana/o identity has been transforming ever since the initial idea for its framework was written in 1969 in the founding document of Chicana/o Studies, El Plan de Santa Bárbara. The posters, as “spaces,” mirror Chicana scholar, Rosa Linda Fregoso’s framework for Chicana/o identity as she defined it in 1993 stating, “Chicano refers to a space where subjectivity is produced (p.xix).” If the posters on view in Serigrafia are spaces where subjectivity is produced, then Chicana/o consciousness and identity has, since its inception, been overwhelmingly forward-thinking and visionary in representing a more just future for communities that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented.
“Festival de la Raza” mural in Tijuana by Malaquias Montoya, 1986. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.
I initially encountered Malaquias Montoya in the fall of 1996 when he came to give an evening presentation to a group of Chicano students at a theme dorm called Casa Cuauhtemoc on the UC Davis campus, where I was a first-year student and resident. Malaquias Montoya had come to Casa Cuauhtemoc to give an hour-long slide presentation on his work. He presented on a mural that he had conducted and completed in Tijuana in 1986 as part of the Festival de la Raza. His slide talk outlined the entire mural process from conception to completion. The swiftness in which he painted the mural is what I recall being the most striking thing about the presentation. The actual painting of the mural took no more than a few days to complete. He spent as much time engaging with the community before he began the scaled drawing as he did working on the actual painting. His prep work included scanning the environment, meeting with residents in the nearby community, talking with community leaders and activists, and entering into dialogue with community educators and cultural workers. Fundamentally, the slide talk—and I didn’t realize this until later—emphasized that the work of a Chicano artist is rooted in community engagement through culture as a means to empower, educate, and foster transformation. Malaquias engaged the community, a community he was a member of, and yet he also challenged that community to reimagine itself through the imagery in this mural. The mural ultimately was a discussion of the historical legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and the struggles that the Mexican, Mexican American, and Latin American diasporic communities had faced through multiple layers of conquest.
It was because of this presentation that I sought out Malaquias the following year. As a nineteen-year-old second-year student, I was active in several Chicano student programs and would spend quite a bit of time in the Chicana/o Studies department. In the fall quarter of 1997, I introduced myself to Malaquias while he was standing in the hallway of the department after a faculty meeting. I asked him if I could enroll in his upper-division course titled Chicana/o Poster Workshop. This course was quite popular with many of the active Chicana/o students. The class was designed to teach students how to create silkscreen posters by requiring them to represent prescient topics in posters, which would ultimately be distributed within the local community or a community-serving organization. Students were widely aware of the importance of this course, which is why the course would fill its enrollment cap within the first few hours of open registration. When I saw Malaquias in the Chicana/o Studies department hallway and walked up to him to ask his permission to enroll in the poster workshop, I did so because enrollment was restricted with a prerequisite that students needed to have taken Survey of Chicana/o Art. If you had not taken that course, you could enroll but you had to seek permission of the instructor first. I introduced myself to Malaquias and quietly asked for his permission to enroll. When Malaquias asked if I had taken the prerequisite, I responded that I had not. Hoping to convince Malaquias that I was worthy of enrollment, I explained that I was a member of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) and active in several Chicano student-serving programs. Malaquias was not swayed and said that if I was to enroll in the poster workshop I would need to take Survey of Chicana/o Art. I walked away defeated, as I had no intention of taking an introductory course on Chicana/o art. I did not understand how Chicano art related to my interests in community-engagement and activism. Clearly, I was naïve and uneducated regarding the history of the movement’s importance. Malaquias’s denial of my request to enroll in his poster workshop turned out to be a gift, one that would transform my life.
When I approached Malaquias, I did not understand why it was important for me to take Survey of Chicana/o Art before enrolling in the poster workshop. At the time, I was interested only in raising my consciousness, political activism and engagement, and enrolling in classes to help me understand the reasons inequality existed back home. To me, these were found in lectures and seminar courses in Chicana/o studies and in departments such as history, political science, and sociology. I was not aware of any value the arts would have on my educational path at the university. But, to ultimately enroll in the poster workshop, which I was anxious to do, I needed to take Survey of Chicana/o Art. So, in the fall of 1998, a little less than a year after I initially asked for permission, I enrolled in Malaquias’s survey course. The only way I can describe the experience of that course is to say that I left it completely transformed—transformed as a person in every way.
The Survey of Chicana/o Art course led students on a path to understanding the influences and context in which the Chicano Art Movement emerged. Malaquias’s students had to read articles about the importance of representation and resistance to the dominant culture that had structured inequality for marginalized communities, and he shared examples of community-engaged art practices such as colectivas and talleres. The class ultimately left students with an appreciation of why the silkscreen poster and community mural were two unique Chicana/ovisual art forms and why these practices were still taught within a Chicana/o studies department like that of UC Davis. In this course, Chicano identity was never presented as a race-based category. Rather, in the context of this course, being a Chicana or Chicano was to be a person committed to community engagement, social justice, antiracism, and equality. Had I not been required to take the survey course first, I would not have developed a full appreciation of the significance of the Chicana/o Art Movement and the role of the poster within it. A poster would simply have just remained a poster. For me, I know that the poster would not have developed into what it has become, a space where Chicana/o consciousness is recorded and expressed.
“Constitución del 17″ by Elena Huerta, ca. 1935. Relief print. COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME, SNITE MUSEUM OF ART.
My transformation began during the survey course when Malaquias showed the first set of what would be several sets of slides of Chicana/o artists. I most looked forward to the days when Malaquias showed slides of the artists’ works we were discussing in the readings. The slides that Malaquias showed initially were about the influences to the Chicana/o Movement, which included images of the Mexican Mural Movement, Jose Guadalupe Posada’s broadsides, the Taller de Gráfica Popular, and printmakers from revolutionary Cuba. As the quarter went on. Malaquias showed more and more work by Chicanas and Chicanos. I remember Malaquias sharing drawings and prints by Ester Hernandez and Yolanda Lopez. I was incredibly moved by their work and by the respect with which Malaquias presented it. Malaquias was a towering figure to me and many of the Chicana/o students on campus. It was incredibly powerful to see him humble before the work of Ester and his contemporaries. I now understand that this humility was an expression of respect for those who are engaging culture within the framework of the Movement. I remember looking at the images that were projected out of the slide carousel in our darkened classroom, wondering why I had not seen these images before, wondering why they were not part of my upbringing. Today, as a faculty member in Chicana/o studies, what I most often hear from students who are engaged in our curriculum is, “Why didn’t I know this earlier? Why wasn’t I taught this before I arrived on campus?” The common frustration is one that I experienced as a student. Why did I have to come to UC Davis, 400 miles from home, to learn about who I am? The knowledge and history of who I am and where I come from rightfully belongs to me. There is a feeling of frustration and anger that more people haven’t had the opportunity to learn about this heritage and see these images.
“La Retirada” No. 16 from 1973 XX Aniversario portfolio by Rene Mederos, 1973. COURTESY OF THE CHICANA/O STUDIES DEPARTMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS.
These images represented my family, my mother, my uncles, cousins, grandparents, and community. The works were not simply mirrors for their likenesses; they were images that transformed their likenesses to represent gods, heroes, leaders, and monuments. Yolanda Lopez’s Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe and Ester Hernandez’s Virgen de las Calles presented as people what I saw represented in their work—my family and community. These artists represented who we are. They revealed to me the extent to which I, and my family, had not been properly represented in the dominant culture and even in the daily encounters of the Mexican American experience. I thought to myself, “Where were these images? Where could I find them? How could I make them my own? How can I share them with others?” To discover the answers, I went to the library and looked for books. In 1998, very few library books had reproduced images of Chicana/o art. I found the CARA catalog, checked it out, and carried it with me wherever I went. I found the 1969 edition of El Grito that had a portfolio of images of the newly formed Mexican American Liberation Art Front. One night when I was at LA Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley I found two copies of Malaquias Montoya’s Adeline Kent Award Catalog for sale for $15 each. I bought both copies. I leafed through these catalogs so much that I wore down the edges of the paper and had started to wear down the quality of the reproductions. Words cannot express how important those images were to me.
“Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe” by Yolanda Lopez, 1978. COURTESY OF YOLANDA LOPEZ AND THE CHICANO STUDIES RESEARCH CENTER AT UCLA.
Malaquias did not present his own artwork in Survey of Chicana/o Art until the end of the quarter. On the second to last day of class, he showed a full slide carousel of artworks that described his trajectory as an artist, from the earliest Yo Soy Chicano posters created in San Jose and Berkeley between 1967 and 1969 to his most recent series of pastel drawings on paper that commemorate the recent passing of Cesar Chavez. On the last day of class, we discussed and debated Eduardo Galeano’s article, “In Defense of the Word.” I recall, quite vividly, the emotion in our classroom as we attempted to comprehend Galeano’s words: “We are what we do, especially what we do to change who we are: our identity resides in action and in struggle. Therefore, the revelation of what we are implies a denunciation of those who stop us from being what we can become (Galeano, p.190).” I left that day knowing that my identity had the opportunity to be defined not by what I am, but rather by what I do. At the time, I did not have the language to describe what I felt inside or what I knew about myself and what I needed to do. Retrospectively, I can say that at that point I knew I wanted to contribute to this movement of cultural workers. I didn’t know how. I simply knew that in some way my life was going to be dedicated to fostering the expansion of the arts to represent the breadth and weight of the Chicano experience so that the broader community would have access to the arts, not as an activity of leisure but rather as an indispensable part of creating equal representation for a community that has been, too often, rendered invisible.
“La Virgen de las Calles” by Ester Hernandez, 2001. COURTESY OF ESTER HERNANDEZ.
This essay began when, as I was walking through Serigrafia experiencing the posters on view, I recalled feeling the same as I did when I attended an exhibition that was recommended in the Survey of Chicana/o Artsyllabus. Malaquias had placed several local and regional Chicana/o art exhibitions in the course syllabus so students could see and experience the artwork being discussed in class. I was able to attend one of the exhibits of Malaquias’s posters at Laney College’s art gallery in Oakland. I drove with a friend to Oakland to view the exhibition. I was not able to attend the exhibition opening, which undoubtedly was a powerful event with historical activists and cultural workers as attendees. Laney was the community college that Malaquias and Manuel Hernandez worked with to support their community art silkscreen centers in East Oakland during the 1970s. I visited Laney during the week on a normal business day. The gallery was empty. My friend and I quietly walked around and experienced the artwork in a very private and quiet manner. On view at Laney were twenty of Malaquias’s most iconic screen prints: his poster addressing Wells Fargo’s support of the dictatorship in Chile in the 1970s, Argentina’s dirty war, and the Bakke decision. All of the posters were framed in simple, natural-colored wood frames with basic mats laid on top to crop out the very outer edges of each poster. The uniform nature of the frames created a consistency among the works that was not present in the diversity of imagery and wide breadth of topics represented in the posters. Malaquias created each of the posters, so he is represented in each poster. But, as a whole, they were diverse as a collection of artwork. The exhibit included posters using oil-based inks and other posters using acrylic inks. Some were created using only an X-Acto knife, creating hard edges throughout the imagery, and some were made using loose drawing techniques and hand-cut lettered stenciling. Posters addressed the inhumane conditions of farmworkers in the Central Valley and valorized the decolonizing efforts of activists in Angola. The works were transnational yet rooted in a Chicano perspective. The posters were largely historical, yet there were contemporary issues confronting the Mexican American community. The work represented Third World solidarity, which spoke to my developing understanding of community.
“Calavera Campesino” by Malaquias Montoya, 1993. Acrylic, pencil, and pastel on paper, 30′′× 22′′. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.
As a student in 1998, I sensed a thread, an expression of consciousness among some Chicano students that was highly exclusionary. There were Chicano students, especially those who were politically active, who had very strict notions of what constituted inclusion in the category “Chicano.” Chicana/o community membership among many of my fellow classmates fell along rigid boundaries defined by politic, dress, and language. Malaquias’s work was liberating because it crossed boundaries and borders. What unified his work was a commitment to speak against injustice and make these images and ideas available and accessible to a broad community constituency. The work on view at Laney College affirmed the idea that to be Chicano, or to be a Chicano artist, was to be someone committed to a life of approaching social justice through community collaboration. From the very beginning, the work was about community self-determination and social justice. Cultural nationalism, while sparsely representative through indigenous iconography, was not a force within the works on view at Laney. Cultural nationalism, a very prominent ideological force at the outset of the Chicano Power Movement, would eventually be widely critiqued for its rigid boundaries and essentialist racial framework. Malaquias’s work was only essentialist in that it was essentially antiracist, preferring resistance to injustice. This was something that I tacitly or internally understood while viewing the show at Laney College, but it was not something I had the language skills to fully articulate until now.
The Serigrafia exhibition presents a selection of the most iconic, historic, and significant Chicana/o posters created from the outset of the Chicana/o Movement. The significance of this exhibition is not that a diverse collaborative team of cultural workers curated it or that it is one of the few national, traveling exhibits of Chicano posters to be organized. Nor is its primary significance due to the inclusion of several generations of artists, including those who created this cultural form of engagement and emerging artists in their twenties and early thirties who were mentored or inspired by the pioneers of the movement. Although these are unique and highly significant aspects of this traveling exhibit, I believe the most unique aspect of Serigrafia is that it demonstrates the trajectory of the Chicano Art Movement, specifically Chicano social serigraphy as being informed and defined by a productive quality based on antiracism, decolonization, and community self-determination. The Chicano Art Movement and the self-designated category Chicano were not race-based alignments where inclusion or exclusion was based on narrowly defined qualities outside of people’s control. Chicano art and Chicano identity are not simply politicized markers for Mexican Americans or the culture they create. Rather, as Ian Haney Lopez states in his book Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, Mexican American activists in the 1960s invented the category Chicano. This invention was to represent a “productive quality (Fregoso, p.xix).” Rosa Linda Fregoso, in the introduction to her book The Bronze Screen,states that Chicanos did not “invent” themselves but rather “reinvented (imagined anew) a ‘community’ of Chicanos and Chicanas (p.xix).” For those new to the Chicano Movement and, specifically, the Chicano Art Movement, their first question when encountering this might very well be, Why is it be necessary to create “anew” a group of people who already exist? The answer is readily evident in the posters on view in Serigrafia.
Significant portions of the works represented in Serigrafia were made at the outset of the Chicana/o Movement. The beginning of the Chicana/o Movement in the mid-1960s represents a rupture—the point in history when the Mexican American community began to view inequity and underrepresentation as evidence of a society that had structured inequality along racial lines. The era before this rupture has been described as the “Mexican American Generation.” The Mexican American Generation produced socially oriented organizations such as the GI Forum and LULAC that advocated on behalf of the Mexican American community. Despite this, it was an era that largely sought community self-determination through assimilation into the dominant culture. The assimilationist efforts of the Mexican American Generation were largely built around deficit thinking discourses: the notion that there were shortfalls within Mexican American culture and those shortfalls were the reasons inequity and lack of resources existed.
For Mexican Americans during the post-war period, this framework subsequently necessitated assimilation into the dominant culture as the only path for self-determination. This “deficit thinking” discourse, as Martha Menchaca states in Recovering History/Constructing Race, largely grew out of an effort “to blame Mexican Americans for the social and economic problems generated by Anglo-American racism (p.15).” Menchaca charts how in 1968 Octavio Romano-V, an early anthropologist and Chicano scholar, explained that the dominant culture had “ignored the way in which racism historically had been used by Anglo Americans to obstruct the social, economic, and political mobility of Mexican-origin people,” and he described how “Mexican Americans were studied ahistorically in order to ignore the vestiges of Anglo-American racism—such as segregation, employment discrimination, racist laws, and police violence.” In this case, the term ahistorical describes Mexican Americans as an “immigrant and peasant-like group who had not contributed to the nation’s infrastructure culturally, technologically, or architecturally (Ibid.).” This perspective marked as invisible the Mexican American community’s historical legacy in the Southwest and their contributions to the growth of the nation’s economy and infrastructure.
“Yo Soy Chicano” by Malaquias Montoya, 2013. Screenprint. 30′′× 22′′. Reprint by Jesus Barraza from the 1972 original. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.
Ten years after I initially took Malaquias’s survey course, he retired from UC Davis, and I, a recently hired assistant professor in the department, had the privilege of organizing his retirement celebration. In thinking about the construction of the Mexican American community as ahistorical, I now refer back to a profound statement shared on the day of Malaquias’s celebration. Greg Morozumi (long-time activist, organizer, cultural worker, and former student of Malaquias Montoya at UC Berkeley between 1969 and 1971) was the last of many speakers celebrating Malaquias’s impact as an educator and artist. When Greg came to the podium, he said: “When the Third World Solidarity Movement and Chicano Movement began, we didn’t even know who we were. The significance of the cultural movement was to create a new understanding of who we are.” Greg, in his tribute to Malaquias, talked about the significance of Third World cultural movements in the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Greg’s statement that “we didn’t even know who we were” highlights the degree to which communities that had been historically marginalized had internalized the dominant culture’s ahistorical perspective. The significance of the Chicano Art Movement lies in the productive quality in which a new identity and consciousness was realized and expressed within its activity and cultural production. In this way, each Chicana/o poster historicizes, repairing the damage an ahistorical perspective has wrecked over generations.
Serigrafia presents two types of Chicano posters, both similar but with important distinctions. The first type of poster represented is that which primarily addresses an issue of culture or what I would call an expression of Chicano consciousness. These posters visualize new empowering images of what would represent a new Chicana/o identity. Posters such as Barbara Carrasco’s DOLORES are examples of works that visualize representations of an identity not fixed within a cultural nationalist, racial, or ideological framework. These works are created not necessarily for a specific event, rally, or organization. Rather, they serve as artistic representations of some ethos or cultural figuration that enhances our understanding of how the community is being “imagined anew (Fregoso, p.xxiii).”
The second type of poster represented is more issue driven (politically, socially, economically, etc.). This second type of poster is primarily represented in Serigrafia. These posters address issues affecting a dynamic, ever-expanding, and changing transnational community. Therefore, through posters for a community clinic, boycott, rally, fundraising drive, or political action, the ever-changing and growing understanding of Chicana/o consciousness is revealed. These posters bridge the development of new representations of consciousness with tangible applications. Posters are often categorized as design, propaganda, and/or didactics. They are very rarely categorized as art. Within the Chicana/o Art Movement, there is no distinction between a fine print and a poster. There is no high or low culture: there is simply the invention and subsequent creation of a space where subjectivity is produced, all in the service of community self-determination.
“I Am Somebody: Together We Are Strong,” artist unknown, ca. 1967. COURTESY OF WALTER P. REUTHER LIBRARY, ARCHIVES OF LABOR AND URBAN AFFAIRS, WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY, AND THE CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF POLITICAL GRAPHICS.
Therefore, the poster can be a tool for social purposes and an ever-changing and developing space for the expression of consciousness. In this respect, the poster itself serves as a metaphor for the category Chicana/o. The category Chicana/o has, since the outset of the Chicana/o civil rights movement, vexed individuals who have tried to define the parameters of its definition. Chicana/o ultimately is a category or identity that is fundamentally self-designated. Chicano has most often and regularly been stated to be another racial classification for Mexican Americans. This is understandable because the term “Chicano” emerged through the Mexican American civil rights movement of the late 1960s. Despite this specificity, the term Chicano from the outset was developed to represent a category of cultural politics that challenged racial constructions. As stated in El Plan de Santa Bárbara, “Chicano, in the past a pejorative and class-bound adjective, has now become the rootidea of a new cultural identity for our people [emphasis added].” This document, drafted by students and community activists in 1969, outlines “community self-determination” as the essence of Chicano commitment. In this respect, Chicano is an idea that is informed by a commitment to community. The idea,then, is manifested through various methods. Rosa Linda Fregoso addresses the issue of what constitutes Chicano cultural production by stating: “The quandary in the self-designation Chicano undergirds the cultural category, Chicano cinema, because what to call the people of Mexican origin (“Chicano,” “Latino,” or “Hispanic”), or whom to consider for membership into the Chicano nation, depends on one’s politics and the context of the term’s usage (p.xviii).” I would swap the word “art” for “cinema” within the context of Fregoso’s essay. I would even go so far as to say the words “politics,” “identity,” and “culture” could be swapped for the word “cinema.” Fregoso states that she handles the problem of self-designation or classification of Chicano cinema (culture, art, politics, identity, etc.) by “de-emphasizing the biological claims to authenticity, yet accentuating its productive quality. In this respect, Chicano refers to a space[emphasis added] where subjectivity is produced (xix).” The poster serves as the subjective space described by Fregoso. Within the designated image area of the paper or substrate, you have representations of transnationalism, gender equality, international solidarity, and decolonizing practices where antiracism and social justice serve as the common denominator. Within this space, this subjective space that is the poster, we can see an opening up of access and expanding conceptions of social justice and equality that begin at the onset of the movement and become more prevalent as we move closer to our contemporary context.
In 1999, viewing the exhibition at Laney College was the equivalent to someone telling me where I’ve come from, who I am, and where my community is headed. The great absence of Chicano history, culture, and art from the K–12 educational curriculum and its absence from representation within the dominant culture has, for generations, created alienation. The experience of standing in the empty gallery at Laney was profound. As Gloria Anzaldua states, before something new can be created to truly foster a new way of relating to each other “our mothers, sisters, brothers, the guys who hang out on street corners, the children in the playgrounds, each of us must know our Indian lineage, or afro-mestizaje, our history of resistance (p.86).” The posters at Laney and the posters in Serigrafia demonstrate the internal process Chicano artists have gone through to understand the root ideathat forms Chicano identity. Anzaldua explains this by stating that the “struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads (p.87).” Malaquias, Ester Hernandez, Yolanda Lopez, Juan Fuentes, Barbara Carrasco, Rupert Garcia, Ricardo Favela, Jesus Barraza, Melanie Cervantes, Favianna Rodriguez, and Ernesto Yerena are a few of the artists represented in Serigrafia who have taken on that important work of imagining anewour collective experience and its relationship to the tangible issues of the day, be it forty years ago or yesterday. The expression of Chicana/o consciousness and the aspirations of this movement have been imagined and vocalized through the process of printmaking.
Since 2000, we have been traveling along the United States–Mexico border, collecting memories and stories of the places and people we have met, and documenting a series of scenarios, real and imagined, along the border wall.
Together they tell a very different story of what has been the largest construction project in twenty-first-century America—a story that is different from what you see in the news. Almost exactly the distance of the Grand Tour, the tourism route for upper-class Europeans that went from London to Rome, this journey stretches for 1,931 miles along the border with the United States. This Grand Borderlands Tour traces the consequences of a security infrastructure that stands both conceptually and physically perpendicular to human mobility. The artifacts that Grand Tourists would return home with—art, books, pictures, sculpture—became symbols of wealth and freedom. Our border wall has become a barrier to movement that would create art, books, pictures, sculpture, wealth, freedom.
On this journey, our collected experiences are represented in the form of snow globes: souvenirs, or recuerdos—a Spanish term that defines both the trinkets one might purchase at tourist shops and memories. The recuerdos gathered along our border are tragic, sublime, and absurd, occasionally hyperbolized, but in all cases based on our own experiences and actual events in the liminal space that defines the boundary between the United States and Mexico.