Reimagining the Urban: Alec Stewart

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center co-sponsored the Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space on September 30, 2013. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Alec Stewart, a second year PhD student in Architecture at UC Berkeley.

Keyword: Revitalization (=Gentrification?)
Kicking off the Reimagining the Urban symposium, Margaret Crawford spoke of a real estate development boom in San Francisco that has contributed to an exodus of roughly 10,000 artists from the city. This familiar narrative is one of rising real estate prices forcing the working classes out of neighborhoods such as the Mission while yupsters move in, bringing with them expensive restaurants, high-priced boutiques, and exclusive national chains. A similar process is occurring on a larger scale in the Mid-Market area, where over40 active real estate projects will bring several million square feet of new office, residential and retail space—not to mention new entertainment and dining options—into a previously “seedy” neighborhood. It is hoped that these infrastructure investments will provide the amenities desired by the so-called “creative class,” “revitalizing” the Mid-Market neighborhood while driving San Francisco’s economy forward.
Revitalization is a word frequently used by city officials, business improvement districts and other civic boosters in cities ranging from DC to Portland to describe their efforts to pave the way for young creatives and their lifestyles. I think it is related to, if not synonymous with gentrification. In Mid-Market, it refers to the A.C.T.’s conversion of a boarded up porn theater into an arts school and performance venue and the arrival of numerous arts foundations from pricier parts of town (like the Mission). It means numerous new condo towers and office buildings. And it will be fueled by collaboration between arts institutions and developers in creating comfortable ‘eco-systems’ for tech workers, makers, hackers, and food truck aficionados.
Such partnerships are central to the revitalization strategies being deployed in the Mid-Market area. Forest City’s 4 acre, 1.7 million square foot 5M Project highlights but one example of this phenomenon, where the economic utility of an arts organization is demonstrated through its interactions with a large real estate developer. In exchange for financing and a venue for its activities, Intersection for the Arts lends its curatorial expertise to Forest City, which deploys it for the benefit of its tenants and corporate bottom line. This relationship may be “mutually exploitative,” as Andy Wang and Deborah Cullinan suggest–Wang’s Forest City clearly views it as a solution to an image problem, while Cullinan’s Intersection for the Arts sees it as a means for survival. San Francisco’s sophisticated tech employees are turned off by blatantly formulaic Starbucks and other chains, says Wang, and it is for this reason that Intersection for the Arts is indispensable. As it programs 5M’s public facing spaces with popular events such as Off the Grid and live jazz concerts, it plays a strikingly similar role to that of a business improvement district. Both seek to enliven public spaces with memorable experiences that attract talented workers and middle/upper-class consumers.
In any gentrification narrative there are winners and losers, and surely absent from visions of a revitalized Mid-Market are dilapidated single room occupancy hotels and the homeless. Where are they in this story? And what will become of the artists and arts institutions currently moving to the neighborhood to do the city’s economic development/revitalization work? I’d wager that–as in the Mission–they too will be shown the door as the local real estate market heats up.
San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Lee, recently noted  that, “without that culture of San Francisco and the arts, I don’t think the technology workers would actually want to be here.”[1] In light of this acknowledgement, should the city of San Francisco do more to support the arts given its clear role in economic development? How can the city, developers and arts institutions better incorporate homeless and low-income people into decision-making processes that impact their neighborhoods? How can artists and arts institutions be liberated from their role in cycles of neighborhood revitalization and displacement?
[1] See: John Coté and Marisa Lagos, “Arts Groups Sparked Mid-Market’s Rise, Mayor Says.”