A Dying City for Artists?
Mass Eviction in Mid-Market Stokes SF’s Identity Crisis
| By Ted Andersen |
Tony Breaux isn’t scared of death.
A Harlem native born on the 4th of July, the 78-year-old African American artist has lived a full life and seen San Francisco through changes. He was there when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated. He was in his prime when the city’s vibrant artist culture reached its zenith. He witnessed the summer of ’69, the ’89 earthquake and beyond. A lifelong sculptor, Tony used wood—the main material of Sub-Saharan art—and pushed the medium during the cultural revolution of American consciousness. He says he has no regrets or fears about checking out when his time comes.
What he is scared of is dying badly.
Tony lives at 1049 Market St, a 100-year-old former furniture store in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood where many of the units lack bathrooms and windows. The seven-story office building was never zoned for residential use even though it became a magnet for artists to live and work. But when it fell under new ownership in 2012, what ensued was one of the largest mass eviction attempts the city has ever known.
Since then, more than half of the building’s 80-plus occupants have vacated, leaving only about 30 holdouts. In March, the remaining tenants received notice from the landlord. As a senior citizen, Tony has a year to move out of the $970 studio where he has lived for two decades. Those who aren’t seniors or disabled have three months.
The mass eviction at 1049 Market St. is emblematic of a modern San Francisco, long-removed from the memory of a town whose international reputation once sprang from a well of artist communities. Times are not so kind for these types anymore and once evicted from a rent-controlled unit, artists without support face two choices: wade through the worst rental market in the country or say goodbye to San Francisco, likely forever.
But for Tony, the stakes are higher. Finishing his life at home, he says, is the most humane way to go out. “The only thing I can say that is positive is that a lot of things could happen in a year,” he said. “I could die in a year.”
Chandra Redack had always lived with roommates in San Francisco. It wasn’t ideal for making art but it was the only way to survive. Then, more than 10 years ago, the singer-songwriter found her loft at 1049 Market St. Now, mountains of VHS tapes line the wall near the doorway. Polished guitars sparkle in the sun next to a lush wall-climbing houseplant. An old-fashioned audio recorder with large spools sits prominently on a desk. Sketches and poetry chapbooks add to the clutter. The apartment is a smorgasbord of medium.
Her loft represents the most prolific artistic period of her life. But this is not by lack of effort. Chandra has a day job. She has worked for Rainbow Grocery on Folsom Street for more than two decades. Having her own place was the first time she could actually isolate and focus on her art.
Outside her apartment, though, she is far from alone. A community of artists has formed around her. They pass each other in the hallway or on the street. They live in different worlds but coexist within the same reality.
She sees the ballet dancer, a handsome man in his 30s, smiling as he passes her in the lobby. He is soft spoken and walks with confidence. His feet appear to move across the floor without effort, but when she looks closely, every muscle and fiber is in measured balance.
Chandra walks down a hallway and sees an open door leading inside another room. There is a rack of clothes with brilliant colors. Curiosity is piqued. A young Latina welcomes her inside. She is a fashion designer who is always working with needle and thread. She begins taking items off the hangers to explain how she made them. As they talk and joke the young woman laughs in a moment of deep, private joy.
After dark Chandra sees another familiar face going out the back alley. A young African American man puts his bass guitar into the trunk of a car. This he does with regularity—coming and going, always busy playing a gig somewhere. But instead of talking himself up, he just radiates an aura of quiet mystery. Where is he going? Who does he play with? He gets in the car, closes the door and disappears into the night.
Chandra receives an invite to a get-together with another neighbor, a middle-aged white man with empathetic eyes. He is a photographer whose pictures of the Mid-Market neighborhood bring to the surface an unseen world. Tonight, he is having Chandra and others over to watch a science fiction flick, munch on snacks and share some laughs.
But a silent and sharp reality of impermanence continues to needle them. These artist friends and this building will no longer be the same in a few months. After three years of legal battles with the new owners over converting the building into the commercial space, every remaining tenant received an eviction from the landlord. And for artists working a day job in San Francisco, this could mean a one-way ticket out of town.
Born and raised in San Francisco’s Richmond District, 47-year-old Ben Cady has been living downtown for 16 years. For many years he had been working as a lab tech at Alcatraz Cruises developing pictures, but now he cobbles together photo gigs to make money. A huge fan of digital photography, Ben will sometimes play games of “Photoshop tennis” with his friends where they doctor images back and forth online until someone finally throws in the towel.
Influenced by his photographer grandfather, Ben picked up the camera and started shooting at the age of nine. The craft seems to be in his blood as he is also a distant relative of legendary Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Sometimes Ben will take a photo of a scene during the day and go back and reshoot it at night in order to create interplay between the two shots in a single image.
“Taking photos is kind of like my way of getting around in the world,” he said.
Ben is a devout Buddhist and his room is like an isolation chamber. No sound, no natural light, so he reflects a light from the corner to resemble something akin to daylight. A large screen is attached to his concrete wall and a projector hangs overhead. Neighbors from the building will come over to play music together, watch a movie or just hang out and talk. In time, Chandra has become one of his closest confidants.
“This building has a community in it that has developed quite rapidly in the last couple of years,” he said. “The friendships we have established have deepened. … There are people I know here that I will continue to know, however this may go.”
Ben views the bustle of 1049 Market St. like an anthill, a weird analogy he admits, but one that has stuck with him. So when news of the Ellis Act hit, word traveled fast through the hallways, and Ben and other neighbors began hosting meetings in their units to come up with a strategy to fight it.
“Obviously, it just created a stir,” he said. “People began seeking information, responses. Nobody knew anything.”
Ben is a tech aficionado but also understands the dark side of the industry. He says that the influx of companies like Twitter, Zendesk, Spotify and Zoosk to Mid-Market is indirectly to blame for his eviction because of the tsunami of new workers into the area and rising rents that followed.
“[The tech industry] passes over what San Francisco really has at its potential, art being one of many things,” he said. “It’s far more interesting to see people thriving and producing and integrated in sustaining their community than it is to see pixels get smaller and smaller and prettier and prettier. It’s only going to be fascinating for so long.”
Like Tony, Ben has one year to vacate. And while he accepts change and that nobody can plan for every eventuality, he also admits to being gripped by uncertainty.
“Will I continue to be able to live close to my family or not? Well, I don’t know.”
Brendan Barthel is not your typical professional dancer. The 34-year-old from Big Sur may be classically trained in ballet but he derives his inspiration and original training from the world of martial arts.
At the age of nine, he got into Seibukan Jujitsu—a neo-Japanese open-hand fighting style that incorporates traditional weapons such as the katana. He began dancing in high school and moved up to San Francisco after graduating to attend a dance academy where he received his foundation in ballet.
“I feel that it was because of martial arts that I was open to try dance,” he said.
Brendan now lives in an artist studio in 1049 Market St. where he keeps his floor clear and trains daily. A sleek katana hangs from his wall. He feels that the two disciplines have come together for him in his life. He currently dances for the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Robert Moses’ Kin and Axis Dance out of Oakland and often performs at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This year he has already toured Montreal, New York and Minneapolis.
But as a professional, Brendan is still struggling.
“Just to put it in perspective, I’ve made it as a dancer. Guys are in demand right now and I dance for three very noticeable dance companies in the Bay Area, but I’m still juggling between those and I don’t have enough money to live in San Francisco,” he said. “And I’m living in a really cheap building.”
Brendan make ends meet by working on the weekends and evenings at Carrie Dove Catering out of Emeryville, where he is often busy during the wedding season and holidays. He finds it frustrating as an artist because the dance company might only be on for three months out of the year and the rest of the time he has to find other work, which might conflict with the busy season of catering.
“So I’ll be rehearsing all day long, exhausted, and then I have to go to work at night and on the weekends,” he said. “So you never really have time off. It’s getting a bit hard.”
But like most working artists, if he were to quit his day job, Brendan isn’t sure what would happen. “I’d like to think that I would find a way, but I don’t exactly know what that would look like,” he said. “Living in San Francisco would be even tougher.”
When he received notice of the eviction, Brendan, like his neighbor and friend Ben Cady, also had people over to discuss legal strategy. These informal meetings have helped to galvanize a sense of communal strength in shared situation of hopelessness and lead many to hold on until the end. And while Brendan has stood his ground, there has been a cost.
“I don’t want to say I lost a girlfriend over this but it definitely put stress on our relationship,” he said. “I got really upset that I was being treated unjustly and so I sort of wanted to stay here and see it through and she thought that was bogus.”
Now, it’s just a waiting game. Will he be able to fight the eviction and stay in his unit or be forced out? Will he stay in the city or leave for the East Bay? He says he has become comfortable with not knowing.
“Because [martial arts] has been such a big part of my life, it’s a helpful tool to use because I know I’m going to be ok and when something happens I’ll deal with it. It’s helped me keep my mind away from the stress of uncertainty, whereas I know that’s what got half of the building out in the first place.”
The Long Goodbye
“There was a big scare with all the people I knew. My heart was beating and we were all afraid that we wouldn’t be able to afford to live in San Francisco anymore in the 1990s,” Chandra said. “I felt so lucky that I was one of the people who didn’t have to move. That somehow I made it.”
And to some extent, Chandra did make it. Paying $860 for an artist’s loft in downtown San Francisco is unheard of by today’s standards where similar places go for more than three times that much. But two decades ago when Mid-Market was overrun by crime and shuttered businesses, it was a different game. At that time, when the building was zoned solely for office use, the previous landlord couldn’t get anyone to rent it because Market Street had the highest commercial vacancy rate for any major corridor in the city so he converted the 84 units into residential ones and rented them out for below market rate.
But in 2012, in came a new ownership group—1049 Market Street LLC—led by former professional baseball player John Gall. The Stanford graduate and San Mateo County resident teamed up with the building’s longtime owner—Terry Bogart—to evict the tenants and revert to commercial use despite the fact that Bogart had been collecting rents from the illegal residential units for years.
“For decades this landlord has been profiting off of this illegal use and from these tenants, taking their rent money every month,” said District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents the area. “And suddenly, when the real estate market became hot after the Mid-Market tech exclusion and tech companies started moving into Market Street, the landlord suddenly decided it needed to go back to its legal use.”
In 2012, the city offered Twitter and more than a dozen other tech companies a special payroll tax exemption to entice them into relocating into the largely vacant Mid-Market corridor. Even though the deal has since cost the city about $40 million in potential tax revenue, business in the area began booming.
Gall ordered half of the building’s tenants to leave by Thanksgiving 2013 and ordered the other half to vacate by Christmas weekend. He told tenants and the press that the city was forcing him to evict the residents because of zoning, but San Francisco Planning Commission members, Department of Building Inspection members, Supervisor Kim and Mayor Ed Lee all said that Gall’s statement was false and that they were committed to keeping the tenants in the building.
The tenants refused to leave. They sought assistance at the Tenderloin Legal Clinic and reached out for political help. Supervisor Kim took up the issue and worked with the Mayor’s Office Dept. of Building Inspection to legalize the units in the building by carving out exceptions for them to stay even though the tenants had originally been rented to illegally.
“The landlord fought us every step of the way and lost,” Kim said. “These residents aren’t just my constituents, they are my neighbors. I live in the neighborhood and they live three blocks from me. I want them to stay here.”
That’s when the owners’ legal team pulled out the trump card: the Ellis Act. Passed by the California legislature in 1986, the law was designed as a way for a landlord to exit the rental business but has become a common tool of those looking to empty a building and then sell it for quick profit. If an owner can get low-income tenants out, the value of the building goes up for potential buyers.
But Gall’s attorney Andrew Zacks takes a different view. His client is now suing the City and County of San Francisco for millions of dollars for attempting to take the property and use it for affordable housing against the owner’s will. Zacks points out that Gall and Bogart are not legally allowed to accept rent during the ongoing litigation and that the tenants have been living for free for more than two years.
“So basically you have people who are squatting in this building,” Zacks said. “If the city wants to take this property and wants to use it to house artists then it should buy it. … It shouldn’t take it without paying the owner for it.”
Last year, half of the residents in the building took a buyout and left. Today, those who remain await an unknown fate. And even with the pro bono legal team provided by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic to contest the Ellis Act eviction, the situation remains an uphill battle.
A Tough Road Ahead for Artists
In a way, artist displacement in San Francisco has become a trope. Last September, the San Francisco Arts Commission released the results of a survey of about 600 artists that either live or recently lived in the city. The survey found that more than 70 percent of the artists had been or were being displaced from their workplace or home. As for the other 30 percent, potential displacement in the near future was a concern.
Tony views the city’s economic and philosophical diversity as having given way to a tech monoculture. Rents have gone sky-high. New money is flowing in while starving artists are moving out. The city of bustling freewheeling expression he remembers is now losing itself in a new-fangled factory-like setting.
“Once it gets to that point,” Tony said, “you are dealing with a dead city, creatively.”
Those who pursue the arts without having a high-paying day job or independent wealth are being ejected from San Francisco once a landlord decides to hit reset using a no-fault eviction.
“People are any city’s treasure,” Ben said. “Having so many people roughly displaced shows a certain attitude to overlook the people who live here.”
“Now it is brutal,” Chandra said. “Everything that has to do with the arts is being uprooted and thrown out of the city in the most cruel way.”
Chandra eyes her equipment—guitars, amplifiers, recording devices, mic stands. It’s a lot of stuff. It’s hard for her to think of what she will have to leave behind.
“I really hope I can find something but it’s just really crazy right now,” she said. “I’ve never felt such uncertainty any time before in my entire lifetime.”