Evicted Utopias

Can art, so often used by developers to mask the violence of displacement, instead be used to resist gentrification?

“WHERE Apple stands orchards once grew,” Rebecca Solnit writes of Silicon Valley, evoking the history of one of the world’s largest fruit-growing regions displaced by a newer, colder industry. San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods, historically fertile ground for writers, artists, and radicals like Solnit, are being similarly uprooted by reputably antisocial 20-somethings who commute to the valley in private buses using public stops. They “seem like bees who belongs to a great hive, but that hive isn’t civil society or a city, it’s a corporation,” she writes, likening them to the 49ers and Dotcommers who arrived with a radically new vision of the region, a vision in which the livelihoods and struggles of Native Californians and farmworkers were irrelevant.

Her essay is an early chapter in Erick Lyle’s Streetopia, something between an exhibition catalog and a Crimethinc tract remembering the May and June 2012 art show of the same name. Centered around the Tenderloin district’s Luggage Store, and organized with the momentum of the Oakland Commune and a series of Bay Area general strikes and port shutdowns, Lyle and his co-curators called together an eclectic group of artists, activists, performers, poets, and street people for an “all volunteer challenge to the dominant culture in the poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods of a rapidly changing city with a budget of only around what Twitter spends each week on employee lunch.”

On any given day during the show’s five week run the space hosted free meals, health clinics, and drop-in times before a nightly lecture, walking tour, or party. In the first week Marshall Weber guided a 22-hour “poetry crawl” around San Francisco where guests were invited to recite the works of local writers. The next day, Act Up! alumnus Sarah Schulman gave a presentation on applying direct action tactics against gentrification. That weekend a homesteading skillshare was held at the Hayes Valley Farm, and urban silviculturist Joey Alone told guests about how to get free trees from the city. A week later, Streetopia hosted a “floating museum” and investigative journalist A.C. Thompson gave out tips on how to get dirt on development corporations in a presentation called “Muckraking for everyone.”

Lyle’s previous book, On the Lower Frequencies (2008), was a collection of essays from his punk zine Scam, an upbeat chronicle of guerrilla punk shows, squatting, train-hopping, and intoxicated mischief in the late 90s and early 00s. In the new decade he’s sobered up, ditched the “Iggy Scam” moniker, and seems less optimistic about the “What are we for, not what are we against” approach he professed in earlier issues. In the seventh issue of Scam, Miami, Lyle writes about his disheartening trip to Art Basel 2009, where he found little connection or sympathy from the art scene to its neighbors’ housing struggles. “I’d found that the city government was using an agenda of arts-related-development to redraw the landscape of Miami’s impoverished inner city,” he writes in Streetopia’s introduction, leading to the show’s conception as an anti-Art Basel, combining lectures, skill shares, a free café, and radical walking tours with exhibitions of photography and radical ephemera in a rejection of the mobilization of art against the poor.

In its lustrous pages dozens of works, performances, and actions are depicted in full color photos, transcribed lectures, historical essays, and reflections on the show and its impact. Chris Kraus, struck by Lyle’s recreation of his 1998 single-room-occupancy, Mark Ellinger’s photos taken from the window of his own SRO, and Barry McGee’s Safe Injection Site—a storefront that could be used to safely shoot-up designed with suggestions from drug users themselves—appreciated the show’s centering of a different urban subject. Vero Manejo hit a similar note in his performance “Remember Los Siete”—the famous case of six Latino organizers accused of killing a police officer—”I want this footage of Mission street to be included in San Francisco history / Like flowers on hippies from Haight Street”.

Along with the perspective shift are essays on different techniques of transforming social relations from the street level. An essay by Jesse Drew reviews an exhibition of the underground publications of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Diggers, Motherfuckers, and Kaliflower—radical mutual aid practitioners of their time that inspired the Streetopians. “While ‘we’ve got to back to the garden’ became a commonly held aspiration for movement activists in the 1960s, it is often forgotten that the point for many was not to abandon the city, but transform it.” Drew writes.

With these groups in mind, the vibe at the Luggage Store featured “A daily free café, medicine making workshops, and folks hanging out in the garden or chopping vegetables and doing dishes,” Ivy Jeane Mclelland writes, “not what one might normally see in an art gallery.”

The theoretical centerpiece of the book is Lyle’s 70 page essay on the competing utopian visions of Bay Area punks and radicals and the Tech giants. Drawing connections between Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, he sees singularity-fetishist Google and Apple’s vision of the future a fascistic dystopia, while utopia for him is “a process or movement towards possibility… the ‘in-between’ place that the Tenderloin National Forest [a squatted guerilla garden and social space in a formerly trash-filled alley] represents, the ‘no place’ found in the literal meanings of the word.” Paying particular attention to day-to-days of homeless people, Lyle sees life on the street as indicative of this potential, and art as a way to transform the public sphere into a site of bottom-up struggle against those who would enclose it with cement domes in front of businesses to prevent sleeping on the sidewalk, evictions of affordable housing, and broken-windows policing. Artistic solutions to these problems reach towards a utopia in which public life is constantly defended and recreated from the streets to the skyscrapers.

Given the history of developers and politicians using art as a ploy to soften rezoning efforts, by curating art that is historical, political, practical, and critical, Lyle hopes Streetopia demonstrates “it is possible to use art as part of a grassroots effort to improve life for all without displacement.” Liberal mayors like Ed Lee and Bill de Blasio claim to share this “development without displacement” approach, which in New York at least seems as Sisyphean a task as controlling the rat population or extinguishing the city’s trademark rainy-day urine smell. Two years into his administration, de Blasio’s plan of anchoring affordable housing construction to luxury developments— an urbanized trickle-down economics scheme that is a boon for developers, many of whom supported his candidacy—is widely expected to fail.

The urbanization of capital is such a gigantic enemy that well-meaning politicians and radical visionaries like Lyle are practically reduced to the same slingshot-wielding rank. Tech and real estate have been given free reign to radically remap society, economy, and territory. Dissidents of gentrification will have to do the same without the venture capital resources, so Lyle finds some comfort in preferring a utopianism consistent with the spontaneous and fleeting historical moments of rebellion like the White Night riots

In 1979, LGBTQ San Franciscans rose up in response to lenient sentencing for the murderer of Harvey Milk with a night of rioting
and the Kronstadt rebellion. The latter was depicted in the 2009 film Maggots and Men, shown and discussed at Streetopia. The insurrectionary sailors were played by a queer and trans cast, partially a criticism of the radicalism of the White Night rioters’ slide into liberal gay politics and middle-class identity.
In 1921, Soviet sailors in the city of Krondstadt, who had been instrumental to the revolution in 1917 and strong Bolshevik supporters, rose up again, demanding freedom of speech and assembly, freedom for all political prisoners, and a devolution of power away from the Party. The Red Army, led by Trotsky, brutally suppressed them
It is not enough, radicals argue, to merely protest the injustices of heteronormative violence, bad court rulings, and shady landlords. We need to reorganize ourselves socially and theoretically, producing art and revolution simultaneously, never content with just one or the other.

Existing at the intersection of the run-down and the hip, defeatist nostalgia and utopian exuberance, leftist pragmatism and adventurist hail-maries, Streetopia could be as inspirational to artists and activists as the moment that got guerilla arborist Joey Alone into reforesting the Bay Area: “I saw a friend plant a redwood and I watched it grow to the size of thirty feet in five years, threatening a neighbor’s retaining wall…”