Longing for Something Different

By Mattilda Bernstein SycamoreJanuary 22, 2016

Longing for Something Different
IN 2001, I HEARD about a “squat party” on Market Street in San Francisco. A squat on the main thoroughfare downtown? I figured this would last about 10 minutes.

When I arrived, I was stunned to find a cavernous hall covered in freshly painted murals, filled with hundreds of people dancing, eating free food, playing music, making art, making out, and hatching plots for future acts of subterfuge and merriment.

Not only did this squat at 949 Market Street last for more than 10 minutes; it lasted for four months, housing people and art shows and a weekly free breakfast. It was a glimpse of what might be possible as the dot-com boom that had sent gentrification into overdrive and pulverized the city’s creative impulses was heading into free fall.

Erick Lyle was one of the organizers of the 949 Market Street squat, and a decade later (in 2012) he co-curated a five-week art show (along with Kal Spelletich and Chris Johanson) as an “expanded version of the squat in a permitted space.” This time, the show was hosted by the Luggage Store, a nonprofit arts space on Market Street, with events at the gallery, along Market Street, and in the adjacent Tenderloin neighborhood.

Streetopia included over 100 artists, activists, writers, performers, and critical thinkers who came together to imagine alternatives to the homogenization and displacement wrought by a new tech boom centering around the Twitter headquarters, relocated with much fanfare (and millions of dollars in tax breaks) just blocks from the former 949 Market Street squat. The resulting citywide displacement crisis threatened to annihilate any remaining possibilities for a sustainable life in San Francisco for those without six-figure salaries. Streetopia asked how artists might intervene against systemic oppression rather than just offering window dressing.

Now Erick Lyle has put together a Streetopia anthology documenting the festivities of this “grassroots arts biennial” with full-color images, as well as essays, interviews, rants, and ruminations inspired by the show, including pieces by well-known authors like Rebecca Solnit, Sarah Schulman, Chris Kraus, and many others. The anthology illuminates the structural causes of gentrification while examining alternatives past and present, in order to conjure a potential future where displacement can no longer be naturalized under the guise of progress.

I talked to Lyle about the hypocrisy of redevelopment scams, how artists might avoid becoming tools of gentrification, the practicality of utopian ideals, the dangers of nostalgia, and free food as a springboard for community building.


MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: I used to walk by the 509 Cultural Center all the time when I lived in the Tenderloin, and I rarely saw it open. So it was exciting to read about how you made it into a Free Café for the duration of the five-week Streetopia festivities. Local residents shared in both preparing and eating the food, and it sounds like there was a real potential for conversations and community-building across race, class, age, scene, and sensibility. Talk about your choice to make this Free Café a focus of Streetopia.

ERICK LYLE: Streetopia was very much concerned with how to create social spaces where people could come together face to face without having to spend money. Naturally, providing a template for how people at these gatherings could eat was important.

The Free Café was not a kind of Food Not Bombs model, where “the artists” were cooking the food and “the community” was lining up to receive it as a charity. We wanted to try to find ways to dissolve that division — which is often not entirely real anyway, right? I mean, I lived and worked in the Tenderloin for a decade, but I am a writer. So am I “the artist” or “the community”?

The café was a community kitchen where people could bring their own food to cook together. Many Tenderloin residents have food stamps or can easily get free food, but because they are homeless or living in hotels they don’t have kitchens. So many neighbors from SRO hotels were bringing food of their own to contribute. The Free Café was to me the most successful of all of Streetopia’s projects. After the loss of so many community spaces in the Bay Area over the years — and with the concurrent widespread shift of the day-in/day-out interaction we associate with community over to virtual online platforms — the Free Café offered a palpable alternative.

But I also think it’s important to add that while the 509 storefront may only be open for occasional public events, the Tenderloin National Forest, a much-loved project of the gallery that is literally adjacent to the storefront, is open every single day.

The forest is also a really good example of a main theme of Streetopia: direct action makes things happen. The forest was once a typical inner-city alley, full of turds and needles and broken glass, but, operating without any official sanction, gallery co-director Darryl Smith began over a decade ago to slowly turn the alley into a guerilla park. Some grass replaced ripped-up concrete. Redwoods were planted. Eventually the gallery was given permission to lease the alley from the city for one dollar a year and the forest became legit. Now there is a koi pond and the forest hosts all kinds of weekly events.

The Free Café operated in both the 509 Cultural Center and in the forest. Streetopia was about amplifying the existing strengths of the Tenderloin community. The Free Café wouldn’t have worked if the gallery hadn’t already done so much positive work there or if some of us who were planning the show didn’t already have strong ties to the neighborhood.

Reading about the Free Café, I thought: why doesn’t the Luggage Store, the gallery that runs 509 Cultural Center, make this happen all the time? What if every social justiceoriented art space in San Francisco offered regular free meals accessible to everyone in the neighborhood? This just seems like an incredibly practical resource that galleries all over the world could provide at least once a week, just by asking for donations from local restaurants, right?

Aha! See, this thought is more or less exactly what Streetopia was trying to provoke with many of its projects. Why doesn’t this happen all the time? It was about seeing something like the wonderful Tenderloin National Forest space that is already there and imagining it taken one step further.

Actually, as Streetopia was drawing to a close, there was discussion about the neighboring Senator Hotel facilitating a weekly Free Café in the Tenderloin National Forest. They have a community kitchen and a strong tenants’ organization and are affiliated with other hotels in the neighborhood. Many of their tenants contributed a great deal to the operation and success of the Free Café so it would be a no-brainer. But Sy Wagon, the main organizer of the Free Café, was evicted from an apartment and had to leave the city soon after the show closed, and the discussion lost momentum. Although if someone came forward and offered to continue the project, I am sure the gallery would be receptive. The idea — like many ideas from the show that are in the book — remains out there, dormant, like a virus waiting to be carried further along by a new host.

The Luggage Store and similar institutions offer space for individual artists like yourself and your fellow curators to do boundary-pushing projects, but also they are part of the speculative art world you critique, and they sometimes serve as gentrification pioneers, even if unintentionally. I wonder if you have any thoughts as to what could break the cycle that makes individual artists and arts institutions tools of gentrification even when they themselves express an anti-gentrification analysis?

In the last few years, as municipalities around the globe have sought to harness the buzz of artists’ energies into so-called “creative class” development, we see this push to instrumentalize artists into agents of displacement. And as rents rise throughout the world, we are all fighting for these crumbs — this scarce housing or space. In this climate, artists who can, in the short-term, benefit from gentrification must make a choice about which side they are on. Do they seek to make solidarity with existing communities to help in the fight against displacement, or do they shrug and accept their cheap rent for a couple years until it rises beyond their means and they are forced to move on? Because unless they are buying their buildings, they will be forced to move on, right? But I believe artists, who often have more cultural capital and privilege than actual material wealth, can combat gentrification by recognizing shared interests with the existing communities in a neighborhood and by trying to work with other residents around realizing shared goals. Streetopia was one effort toward considering what that kind of solidarity might look like.

At the time Streetopia opened, the city was promoting the idea of a Tenderloin Arts District. A real estate gold rush was on as arts groups scrambled to move into the area from other parts of the city. These groups mainly sought cheap rent and often had an oppositional relationship to the current Tenderloin or 6th Street residents. Like they sought to bring their existing constituencies from other parts of the city to downtown and would complain publicly about how the city wasn’t doing enough to promote “public safety” in the Tenderloin.

Rather than get into the question of which parts of the public can expect to be guaranteed safety, let’s just look at some examples of different approaches. Burning Man moved its headquarters across 6th Street from the Luggage Store. I think the contrast between the two groups illustrates my point. Burning Man saw the area as a frontier. The director, when asked if the group was intimidated by the prospects of relocating to “skid row,” told the Chronicle, “We build and tear down cities in the desert every year,” and pledged to help in “revitalizing” the area. But the Luggage Store has always prioritized programming in their day-to-day operations, and projects that are by and for the existing and very vital community in the Tenderloin, rather than for an imagined future group of wealthier displacers. They made this wonderful forest. They ran the In The Street festival every year in which they included artists to make performances and art, in the streets, with neighborhood kids.

So to me there are choices about how to participate in building community. It’s easy to see a project like the Tenderloin National Forest, in different hands, might be a cute pop-up temporary reality for white tech folks. Like a fake green space where there are food trucks or something — kind of a “tactical urbanist” oasis in the TL. But when we were discussing doing the café in the Forest, Darryl asked us, “How will you deal with, say, someone who shows up covered completely in feces who is talking to himself? Because our policy is that we simply leave them be.”

Utopian ideals, it seems to me, can often verge on the totalitarian. But you reject any prescribed plans for a perfect world, and instead invoke utopia as "movement toward possibility," a critique of the present, and an imaginative intervention in the crisis of everyday interactions under oppressive systems.

Yeah, Streetopia wasn’t interested in any kind of science fiction perfect world. It was about this movement toward … something. But what? Streetopia — the show and the book — have taken place in the context of social movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, which I feel share a similar utopian spirit, as I have defined the utopian. In each instance, you have groups of people in the midst of the crisis of capitalism and white supremacy who have come together to make a break or rupture in the continuity of everyday life so that within that space they can work out together a vision of another world. I see this process itself, this ongoing negotiation, to be the true utopia.

I think in these movements you see that people are longing for something different that they can’t exactly articulate or even quite yet imagine. But they come together to discuss it and even act it out in real time. I found the utopian in the Black Lives Matter protests last year as different groups of young people moved through the streets of New York, converging and separating and converging again, discussing routes and tactics on the fly. This intuitive understanding, even among people without a lot of activist experience, that first the rupture must be made, that the streets must be shut down, and then the making of a new kind of togetherness among like-minded strangers has to happen — it’s obviously quite a different model than, say, a traditional antiwar march. These protests contained within their form the model for the new world its participants seemed to long for.

Many of the writers in the book evoke radical organizing projects of the past as potential models for the future, the book is surprisingly lacking in nostalgia. Talk about how you managed this.

Oh God — it’s probably just because I am so sick and tired of nostalgia and I wouldn’t allow it! San Francisco can be quite self-satisfied about its long tradition of radical history. And in the past two decades, when San Francisco has undergone such tremendous changes demographically, the ongoing narrative on the Left has become one of loss. It’s true — so much has been lost — but not just in terms of the kinds of people who can afford to live in the city and the kinds of spaces to which they have access. There has been an enormous loss in the radical political imagination, the sense of what is possible. I wanted Streetopia to focus on the present and the future and to consider how much radical possibility still exists. With five weeks of free daily events and over 100 participating artists, Streetopia hoped to present a problem of abundance, to challenge the widespread internalization of scarcity. The past is not there to taunt us with how much better it was, but to show us how others stood up to pressures that seemed unbearable at the time to make meaningful change for the future.

I love the project where Sarah Lewison tracked down the addresses of hundreds of former San Francisco communes and then distributed a document invoking the goals of the Kaliflower newsletter, as if to inspire a new engagement with these ideals. Could you say more about that?

Yes, Sarah’s project was a really wonderful way for audiences today to connect with the widespread mass communal living experiments that took place in both urban and rural areas in Northern California in the ’60s and ’70s. It also presciently anticipated the ways that tech platforms like Uber and Airbnb would attempt to co-opt the true “sharing economy” [that] was once quite widespread in the Bay Area.

In the early ’70s, the Kaliflower commune was producing this beautiful, freaky, queer communal newsletter — in some ways a kind of intercommunal classified ad service. Different communes would announce they had, say, 40 pounds of rice but needed someone to come help paint the barn. That kind of thing. At the height of this era, they hand-delivered the paper each week to over 300 communal households around SF and the Bay Area. We’re talking hundreds of households — many of 20 people or more — participating together in this non-monetary barter economy. This communal network developed what were called “Food Conspiracies” — proto–food coops in which a large number of households would team up to buy and distribute together enormous amounts of food in bulk so as to get the lowest price possible.

For Streetopia, Sarah made packets of utopian literature available today and volunteers met at the gallery to organize bike rides to distribute the packets to the addresses of the former communes. It was a fascinating way to be able to spatially visualize what a real sharing economy might have looked like. In the Haight, for instance, there would have been three or four of these communes in enormous Victorian houses within a block or so of each other. A communard back then would have been able to go into any of them to receive food or drugs or sex or to just visit. Today, many of those huge houses are single-family homes and have gates so you can’t sit on the steps, or are, like, covered in “No Trespassing!” signs.

It’s chilling when you write about the realization, after looking at plans for the redevelopment of Market Street that call for comfortable new seating areas to encourage public interaction, that the only way the city could be making such plans is under the assumption that the area will soon be rid of many of the people who now congregate there.

I lived through decades of watching San Francisco remove all of its public seating from downtown because, officials claimed, benches encouraged drug dealing and homelessness. But now that they are focusing full-time on removing this last low-income area from the city, suddenly, voilà, we see the benches are on the way back.

It’s really interesting — when you look at the proposed plans for a Better Market Street 2018, the new Market Street, more or less, will look just like the famed open-plan office spaces of Silicon Valley. The plans call for “Streetlife Nodes,” places where public gathering will be facilitated by design, with the street “programmed […] to invite for interaction, meetings, information, knowledge sharing, etc.” So here we see the language and ethics of internet space now remaking the actual physical built environment. City streets are now to be “nodes” — the chance meeting of friends on a public right of way will now be programmed to facilitate “knowledge” and “information sharing.” This is a really fascinating, if sinister, turn. But it’s hardly surprising. This is just what public space looks like in a neoliberal era when no one really believes in the very concept of the public anymore.


Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of The End of San Francisco.

LARB Contributor

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of a memoir, The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!