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The Art of Displacement in San Francisco

Steven T. Jones photo
Steven T. JonesMission District, san francisco
The Art of Displacement in San Francisco
The struggle to save InnerMission is teaching old artists new political tricks -- and testing whether this rapidly growing city can keep its soul

Displacement remains the top political issue in San Francisco, even if I’m covering it with less journalistic diligence than I did before my newspaper, the Bay Guardian, was displaced and dismembered back in October. But you don’t need to be reporter on the beat to see how displacement — and the fear or greed it alternatively triggers — is effecting everything in this city, particularly in my Mission District neighborhood. You just need to have open eyes and ears. 

Over the weekend, I spent some time in InnerMission, the art and community space formerly known as CELLspace, which the real estate speculator who bought the block a couple years ago wants to demolition, proposing to build hundreds of market rate housing units in its place. Just what this working class neighborhood needs, more apartments that its residents can’t afford.  

Last month, I reported out the displacement of InnerMission for a well-received article in (, and I was a little surprised at the naivety of both the developer and the owners of InnerMission. Both assumed that property rights and proper zoning meant this was a done deal. But this is San Francisco, where people power still matters, at least a little bit.  

InnerMission owners Eric Reid and Mike Gaines told me they were ready to just leave when they were told to, believing they didn’t have much of a foundation to fight from, even though housing rights activists in San Francisco have been successfully fending off individual evictions of tenants that were on even shakier ground, using both direct action and legal tactics.  

Reid and Gaines believed what they were being told by their new landlord, Nick Podell, who I discovered had an even more tenuous understanding of the city’s current political dynamics and populist zeitgeist than the people he was trying to evict. This is a city undergoing a massive, money-driven transformation that was hollowing out its most authentic and interesting bits — and people are pissed and willing to fight back.  

Podell was proposing to build 276 apartments, just 44 of them deemed affordable, the bare minimum required by city law. In the process, he would displace InnerMission, a vibrant arts space, and important light industrial spaces, including the props workshop and warehouse for American Conservatory theater, which responded by laying off those employees and contracting out for props because it can’t find another affordable space in the city. 

Even after the Planning Department told Podell that the Mission Area Plan that gave him his housing entitlements also has policies protecting art, community and light industrial spaces and that he may need to abide those policies, he dismissed those planners and priorities.  

“I told them, look, I disagree with you,” Podell told me he said to the planners, later adding, “This site was rezoned to allow for 100 percent housing.” That’s not exactly true. The reality is that developing property to its maximum profit potential is a privilege and not a right, and Podell had done little to engage with this community or its representatives. 

When I talked to the district’s Supervisor David Campos, he told me that he wasn’t aware of what Podell was doing and that if he was willing to displace InnerMission without giving anything back to this community, then this project was a “non-starter.” It was around that time when Reid, Gaines and the rest of their large, colorful, artsy community really began to wake up and fight back.  

That’s what drew me back to InnerMission last weekend, when there were three days worth of meetings and events designed to organize opposition to the project and other displacement that was happening around it: “What’s Our Mission? — A Cultural Preservation Action.” Many of these artists-turning-activists are fairly new to politics and not quite sure how it all works or what to do.  

Gaines called me up during the meeting to get some basic information on the process for approving this project and where to aim their activist fire, and I filled him in that it’s going to be headed to the Planning Commission sometime in the next month or so, after the developer completes his environmental study, and that it’s hardly the done-deal he was led to believe.  

“We’re not ready to leave,” he told me, and over the weekend, he found there lots of people who support him and want to help. And they started by doing what they love, making art and engaging their community in creative ways. They created a beautiful mandala on the sidewalk, created quirky signs; they dressed in crazy costumes and wielded their musical instruments, and they made a New Orleans-style funeral process throughout Mission District, just to make their presence known, without any overt political messaging or pleas for support.  

InnerMission looked better than ever, ironically so given its fate, thanks to Vau de Vire Society’s fantastic recent run of the immersive dinner theater, The Soiled Dove. It looks like a movie set for a bawdy musical about San Francisco’s Barbary Coast days. And then on Sunday, the space hosted a Pinebox Derby Extravaganza staged by CELLspace co-founder Dave X, and it was just as weirdly unique as most of the shit this space has hosted over the years, the sort of quirky authenticity that is fast disappearing from the city of St. Francis.  

Alas, but these kids ain’t going down without a fight. Alicia Soliz, a friend who helped organize the weekend seminars, told me the activists are now putting together an action plan for next steps, and by Monday she was circulating online avenues for continuing the work of cultural preservation in the face of greed-driven displacement. 

Will it work? I don’t know, but it’s good to see them try. Maybe they won’t keep InnerMission standing, but perhaps they’ll get Podell to pay for what he’s displacing, in some way. At the very least, it’s a struggle that has great artistic potential — and that’s better than just giving up without a fight.


#displacement, #evictions, #art, #community, #Mission, #San Francisco


John Fisher

5 years ago

You misunderstand the true cause of displacement in San Francisco. The reason why housing is so expensive is because there is not enough of it, consequently the cost of housing rises, Podell is doing the city of San Francisco a favor that you could never replace with any amount of circus stripers.