Seen and Heard In San Francisco

We’ve been hearing a lot about San Francisco in the mainstream news, on social media, and anecdotally from friends and colleagues. From Google Buses to the layoffs at Intersection for the Arts, we hear stories about evictions, imperiled arts organizations and a besieged cultural sector, libertarian tech sector oligarchs fueling furious gentrification while undermining the public sector and civic infrastructure through radical free market doctrines. It is the best of times and it is the worst of times; God bless San Francisco’s legacy of anti-establishment, contrarian bohemianism for the raucous discourse (read: shouting match) that we can hear all the way across the country in NYC.

But as many of us know: believe half of what you see, none of what you hear and whatever you do, don’t believe the hype. Given my long and passionate love/hate relationship with San Francisco, when my wife recently spent a week at a residency at Berkeley Rep, I decided to tag along and check out the situation for myself. What I found is a city that is truly at a crossroads; one that is experiencing many of the same upheavals that NYC has undergone in the past twenty years but at a truly astonishing breakneck pace.

The changes wrought by gentrification on the cultural and civic life in NYC have been profound (read my essay on NYC as Global City, video of NYU lecture forthcoming) but the city’s massive geographic footprint and sizable population diffuse the impact. It’s the classic “boiling frog” story and it feels like, by and large, NYC’s artist population has capitulated to the inevitable. As a global hub for capital and culture, it remains to be seen whether anything can or will be done to mitigate the globalization, homogenization and relentless stratification of culture in NYC.

Using numbers from the Cultural Data Project, 74% of foundation funding for the arts in NYC goes to the 9% of arts organization with budgets exceeding $5M. Compared to the national numbers, where 55% of foundation funding for the arts goes to the 2% of arts organizations with budgets over $5M, NYC is marginally better, and the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs is a significant funder, but still it will be a small miracle if Mayor DiBlasio’s progressive populism actually leads to funding solutions that really help individual artists survive in one of the most unequal cities in America, or whether all the funding will continue to go to huge non-profit arts institutions. Oh, and if the mayor can create more transparency and citizen empowerment in civic life across the board, that’d be great too.

By way of contrast, in SF I found a city whose arts advocates and civic leaders seem actively and passionately engaged in trying to find new solutions, who are openly committed to the idea of arts as public good, central to civic life, who are mission-driven, visionary and working tirelessly to figure out how to create real, meaningful change to keep the arts and culture viable in a changing city.

As much as I empathize with the plight of the artists and cultural stalwarts on the front lines in SF (brilliantly articulated in this interview with Rebecca Solnit) I am inspired and hopeful that the social openness, frontier mentality and egalitarianism of the West Coast will yield positive outcomes and, hopefully, new models that can be implemented in other cities. I hope that SF artists, despite their understandable feelings of precarity, will see how much opportunity they actually have to work with allies in their community to influence the public discussion; I hope that they will find ways to think as creatively about their identity as citizens and the role of the arts in civic life as they do about their personal identities and art practices.

Before I left for the Bay Area I emailed some friends of mine to see what was up. It just so happened that Rob Avila was organizing a salon as part of Mugwumpin Theater’s 10th anniversary season, so on the evening of June 16th I got to hang out with Jake Hooker and Sherrine Azab of Detroit’s A Host Of People, Aaron Landsman and Mallory Catlett who were in town to work on City Council Meeting, Peter Max Lawrence (who is moving from SF to Kansas!) and the Mugwumpin crew. We saw performances by A Host of People and Peter followed by a very thoughtful, animated and free-flowing conversation about place and performance, followed by drinking and more conversation. It was really fun and totally worth the hangover. Even more awesome was that Shannon Jackson made the cross-bay journey from Berkeley to attend, and any chance to hang with Ms. Jackson and her big brain is a real treat.

Earlier in the day I had managed to sneak myself onto Deborah Cullinan’s jam-packed calendar for a few minutes. Deborah is the new E.D. of YBCA who I met for the first time when I literally ran into her in the lobby of The Public at Under The Radar in January. I was sitting in the window seat outside the lobby entrance to Joe’s Pub trying to write a quick post when my laptop slipped off my lap and (almost) into hers. What a fortunate coincidence!  She had only been on the job all of two months (or so), had hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped since. We’ve stayed in touch sporadically, but it was great to have even a few minutes in person to chat.

My timing was propitious as Deborah told me about this really exciting project that YBCA is doing with the SF Planning Department and the Knight Foundation: The Market Street Prototyping Festival. It just so happened that they were having an open information session on Tuesday night, so I put that on my calendar and planned to come back the following evening.

Basically the 2015 Market Street Prototyping Festival is the next iteration of the Urban Prototyping Festival, a “pioneering program of citizen engagement in urban design developed in 2012 by San Francisco nonprofits Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and Intersection for the Arts.”

From their website: “For three days … over a mile of San Francisco’s main thoroughfare will become a testing ground for new ideas to improve our city’s public space. As part of the City’s ongoing efforts to activate the sidewalks of its busiest and most important street by supporting the vision of creative people aiming to make their mark on Market Street, the Festival will encourage a hands-on approach to inspire a shared vision for the street and test a wide range of ideas for more permanent installation.” (It is open to anyone from anywhere, so check out the Open Call here).

I came back to YBCA the following evening for a free and public event for people to learn more about participating in the festival. Market Street has been divided into five districts and the lead partners for each district – Autodesk, the Exploratorium, Studio for Urban Projects, Gehl Studio and California College for the Arts – gave presentations, followed by breakout sessions with Community Cohorts and members of participating Community Benefit Districts.

I was initially dubious as I listened to the presentations, looking out at a huge room filled with what looked like hipsters, graphic designers and start-up people. At first glance it was a pretty homogenous group, probably mostly new arrivals, not the kind of people you see at a City Council meeting, nor the types of artists that used to call SF home and are now being evicted. But then I thought about the fact that the room was PACKED. These young people were not there just because it was cool, they really want to make a difference – they want to be involved in the city, they want to do something good and make things better.

Here was an initiative organized by the SF City Department of Planning with YBCA that was doing it’s best to be open, inclusive and participatory, to make civic planning open to the public and, on some level, community-driven. I thought about the panel I convened as Director of Public Programs at the  Lower Manhattan Cultural Council back in 2012 about the redevelopment of the east river waterfront (audio here). I thought about how hard it was to get even thirty people to show up, about how impenetrable and intentionally labyrinthine the NYC Economic Development Corporation is, about how even the New Museum’s Ideas City project seems so far removed from “life on the ground” of the city. Or how MoMA & VW get involved in The Rockaways or the BMW Guggenheim Lab and how it all feels like some Luxury Brand Sponsored Civic Engagement Experience™. I thought about all the various top-down urban plans I’ve seen organizations waste millions of dollars on (remember the West Side Stadium? Or ask someone about the Illuminate Lower Manhattan project that I’m assuming got derailed by Hurricane Sandy – not that it would have come to fruition under any circumstances – or the various plans commissioned to redesign Greenwich Street South or activate the “T-Zone” at Broad and Wall) and I was inspired by the community spirit of the Market Street Initiative.

Because I have a bad habit of telling the truth, I have from time to time been accused of pulling an Arlene Croce and being pre-emptively negative. In this case, I will be pre-emptively positive. Was the gathering for the Market Street Prototyping Festival as diverse and inclusive as one would hope? No. Was it an auspicious beginning? Yes. Every project has to start somewhere; every ambitious project is also aspirational. Successful projects learn as they develop, incorporate that learning and evolve, always moving towards an ideal. We rarely, if ever, reach the ideal, but it is only in that aspiration that we accomplish great things.

Deborah Cullinan, Bamuthi and the rest of YBCA crew (shout-out to occasional Culturebot contributor Julie Potter! What!?) are the kind of people who have vision and passion a-plenty and if any group of individuals can make this happen, they’re the team.

One of the things we learned through Brooklyn Commune was that as much as we aspired to be inclusive and equitable, were were inherently limited by who we were, where we were located and how we talked about what we wanted to do.  If we had the opportunity to do it again, we would do more events in more neighborhoods, give more people opportunities to engage, meet people where they were (geographically, socioeconomically and psychologically) and provide people with the tools to advocate for shared goals in different cultural contexts and in their own vocabularies.

On that note, I was also inspired by the remarkable Jessica Robinson Love, executive and artistic director of CounterPulse. CounterPulse was displaced by rising rents and through a unique partnership was able to buy a new home in an old porn theater in the Tenderloin. She generously gave me some time on the Monday before I returned to NYC and brought me up to speed on their project.

Of the many things that led me to dub Jessica “SF’s Arts Admin Indie Rock Star” was her commitment to community. During the course of our conversation Jessica articulated a very thoughtful and circumspect position on what “creative placemaking” actually can be when artists work conscientiously with existing communities, when they leverage their privilege to actually help, rather than merely displace.

Long plagued by rampant drug traffic and prostitution, residents of the Tenderloin – many of whom are in rent-protected housing – are glad that CounterPulse can direct the attention of the city to these problems, bring renewed policing efforts and development. At the same time, the organization is trying to be mindful of the social and cultural needs of these residents, trying to strike a balance between the aesthetic and creative concerns of its artist community and the concerns of the existing population. It won’t be easy, or simple, doing the right thing never is, but it is always worth it, just look at JackThe Bushwick Starr, or for that matter BRIC.

The other thing that rocked me was Jessica’s long-view strategy for CounterPulse’s capital project. I’m not entirely clear on the exact structure of the deal, but CounterPulse, working with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, came up with some kind of creative financing scenario (not “creative” like debt default swaps – the good kind of creative) that doesn’t destabilize the organization (though they still have some major fundraising to do) and also preserves the function of the building as a community arts space, regardless of future tenants. From what I gathered, it can’t be flipped (see when 92nd St. Y flipped Steinhardt’s Makor) and will be there for the next generation (and the one after that!)

Here’s the thing. By virtue of my interests, I cross disciplines and sectors all the time. By virtue of my personality, I find most people incredibly fascinating and I love to talk to them about their ideas, values and passions. Looking out at the room at YBCA during the Market Street Prototyping Festival info session, and listening to Jessica’s enthusiasm and singular vision nearly a week later, it really hit home how provincial, narrow-minded, judgmental and presumptive so many arts people can be.

There may be loud voices among the technocratic elites of SF that stick to a hardline libertarian position filled with “free market” fantasies – but that is hardly every start-up founder. Surely some of the early Internet company founders – at least – are open to, or adherents of, a more progressive, sophisticated vision of an inclusive, equitable society. From my brief visit to SF it certainly seems that there are plenty of people, especially young people, who are looking for an opportunity to make a difference, if given a chance and invited to do so.

In one of my NYU lectures I discussed the Romantic/Conceptual Artist Ideal – this idea of the artist as “special” and somehow removed, separated from or above the mundane matters of pedestrian life. It is an old-fashioned idea and one that is well-worth abandoning. It is too complex to go into here (video coming soon!) but it is time for artists to be in the world and be less concerned about being recognized for their individual specialness and more concerned about how their (hopefully) prodigious talents can bring the insights derived from their “specialness” to bear upon the world at large.

There hasn’t been very much arts education in the schools since the Reagan Revolution and there is a whole generation of young people who have had almost no exposure to the arts, nor literature, nor philosophy. There has been little to no effort made to explain – much less demonstrate – how arts and culture can improve our quality of life by providing social experiences, by providing the tools to lead an “examined life”, by bringing people together and helping us deeply appreciate the extraordinary gifts of the human imagination. So artists have a lot of work to do. But they also have an enormous opportunity.

Can artists, arts workers and arts advocates move from fear to compassion? Can we change the discussion from “Why don’t you give me money?” to “Here’s how we can make the world better, together.” The value of the arts is self-evident to us, but not everyone else. It will be an uphill battle, but there is a large and receptive audience waiting to be invited in.

Now, NYC is an extraordinary city, a vibrant, frenetic, never-ending hustle and bustle where fortunes and reputations are made and lost. It is an epic city of unparalleled ambition and incomprehensible scale. But if there is any city in the world that embraces the Utopian and celebrates the free, it is San Francisco. The manifestos may be written in NYC, but it is San Francisco where people will try and live it.

I love this part of the Rebecca Solnit interview where she describes her Utopian vision:

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.

Music to my ears. (Anyone want to fund me to build it?)

When I think of San Francisco, I think of the city I first visited in 1987 and returned to off and on until 1995 when I moved to NYC, the place that felt like it held infinite possibility, where strangers really were friends you hadn’t met yet. It was the kind of place where you got off the bus, or out of the train, and ran into somebody who randomly invited you to a party or a concert and a week later you weren’t sure what had happened, but you knew you had a great time.

Even after all this time, upon returning in 2014, I still feel that uncanny sense of openness and possibility, even if it is subdued, almost vestigial. Maybe long time San Francisco residents no longer perceive it; maybe they think it’s gone in much the same way I feel that  NYC is sometimes merely performing a previous version of itself.

I think of those scenes in David Weissman and Bill Weber’s film The Cockettes where former Cockettes talk about their absolute conviction that they were going to change the world, and where John Waters and others describe the alternative economies of the counterculture. The city was dotted with collectives – different houses with different focuses and expertise. People shared and traded and experimented with other systems of exchange and interdependence. Did it work? Maybe not in the long term – hard drugs certainly didn’t help, economic crises, AIDS – the list of hardships goes on and on. But most experiments fail and we only progress when we look at our “failures” and correct our experiment in its next iteration.

So when I think of San Francisco, I can’t help but hope that all the intelligent, creative, future-facing, visionary utopians populating the city, the people who have been there for years and those just arriving, the artists and the technologists, the writers, philosophers, performers, businessmen, programmers, bus drivers, mayors, activists and aristocrats, can find a way to sit at the same table and figure out where they are more alike than different. And from what I saw of the Market Street Prototyping Project, it looks like an auspicious beginning, a prototype in and of itself for large scale community-driven urban design, citizen engagement and democratic discourse.

I hung out with so many cool people while I was out in the Bay Area, from composers to curators, labor organizers to technologists, that I was more convinced than ever that if people would ratchet down the rhetoric and find common ground, change is possible.  We’ll all be waiting and watching.

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