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Make Room for Art 

How to protect arts spaces during an economic boom (protests won't do it)

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
Last week's protest against the eviction of Dancers' Group Footwork from its studio on 22nd Street looked like a Grateful Dead concert. A harlequin held a sign against "e-victions," and colorfully dressed women from the dance troupe struck poses in the street. From a stage set up under the massive Leed's sign at 22nd, with a backdrop of the Bay View office building across Mission Street, a sizable crowd heard speeches against rising rents and the "dot-com nation." People waved signs reading, "Capitalism kills life/art/soul."

"I think that's a little naive, don't you?" said Nikolas Weinstein, an artist who runs a Mission glass studio and recently built a massive sculpture for Frank Gehry's new building in Berlin. Weinstein turned up at the protest because he's as worried as anyone about art and culture getting priced out of San Francisco, but the tone of the crowd annoyed him. "To me it's about the government not doing their job," he said. "It's not about the technology industry."

But the dot-com nation strikes most people in the arts community as some kind of menacing Darth Vader. Everyone -- just everyone -- knows how the swarm of tech workers to San Francisco is responsible for inflating rents. Landlords looking to raise those rents are the reason no fewer than 12 San Francisco dance studios have closed in the past year. The protest on behalf of Dancers' Group was orga- nized by a body called AARGG!, or All Against Ruthless Greedy Gentrification!, and one of its demands is "a moratorium on dot-com developments citywide." Earlier this month, another group called Art Strikes Back staged a nighttime walk down Valencia Street; it involved a handful of half-naked people screaming into cell phones and pressing rolls of flesh against the windows of upscale sushi restaurants. The idea was to make fun of Mission yuppies, and suggest that the tech-boom emperor has no clothes.

But the problem, as coverage in this paper has tried to show, is more involved than a simple flood of tech-industry workers. The city's combination of stringent rent control and limits on development does its share to send the real estate market into the stratosphere. And the city can't reserve the Mission for bohemians, any more than it could reserve it for Latinos, Irish families, or Finns. Neighborhoods change. The simple and unavoidable social pattern, from Greenwich Village to SOMA, is that whenever artists revive dead or sleepy neighborhoods and make them fashionable, yuppies follow and raise the rent. "It's called social Darwinism!" one of the half-naked cell-phone carriers yelled sarcastically on Valencia. "It's a simple concept!"

It's also exploitable. During the current plague of dance-studio shutdowns, two theaters -- Thick House and Brava! -- have opened, both with city help. Seed money for Thick House came from the Mayor's Office of Housing; funding for Brava! came from the same office as well as the city's Redevelopment Agency. Willie Brown seems willing to put up money for new theaters as long as they're pitched as urban-renewal projects. Doug Holsclaw, artistic director at Theater Rhino, puts it snidely: "The city will help the arts if you wanna be in a really, really bad neighborhood." But reviving run-down neighborhoods is exactly what artists are for, to a politician like Brown, and as policy it's not unwise. It just needs expanding.

Right now, performance groups are getting squeezed out of a city where real estate is not only at a premium, but also -- absurdly -- available, just about everywhere you look. A short walk through my neighborhood around Polk Street will uncover no fewer than three big dead cinemas and half a dozen empty stores. That's a lot of space lying fallow in the heart of a booming city. The reasons range from homeless people on Polk to disability and seismic codes to landlords waiting to lock in exorbitant rent. But this is just where the city could help. San Francisco has a fat budget surplus -- thanks in part to the tech revolution -- and some of that money can and should be used to fit performance groups into sometimes-impractical spaces (like old cinemas), and offer subsidies for rent.

"The arts can't compete with the corporate big guys," said Weinstein, the glass sculptor, explaining why he showed up at the protest. "And it's the government's job to prevent clearcutting."

Local theater hasn't been hurt as hard as the dance scene -- yet -- by rising rents, but the disappearance of 12 spaces for any kind of performance is dire. "Suddenly you have all these groups trying to compete for the same places," says Shotgun Players Artistic Director Patrick Dooley, who's finding some San Francisco stages booked through 2001. "I have no idea where we're gonna do our first two shows next year."

Two propositions on the November ballot, K and L, will try to alleviate the problem. Mayor Brown's measure, Prop. K, would set a moratorium on dot-com development in certain areas; Prop. L is an activist measure that would set a wider moratorium, but also redefine dot-com companies as office space -- reasonably enough -- and give landlords a subsidy for renting to nonprofits. They're competitive measures; only one can win.

These and other solutions have been discussed in detail elsewhere. But Richard Livingston, the Exit Theater's managing director, says the bottom line is that arts organizations need to look outside the speculative real estate market for places to live. The Exit itself has a long-term lease in a building zoned for low-cost housing. The Magic Theater has a deal with the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. The old furniture store where Intersection for the Arts is housed happens to belong to the man who built it, Dominic Mancuso, who's been less of a landlord to Intersection than a steward.

"Everyone's focusing on one model -- renting from for-profit landlords," says Livingston. "And that doesn't work."

Maybe the most intriguing model to come out of this whole debate is the idea of a "community and art land trust," being explored by Jonathan Youtt, one of Cell Space collective's co-founding members. He wants to pool money from the heads of nonprofits and from other donors in the Mission to buy four or five buildings -- like the Cell Space it-self, and the Redstone, which houses Theater Rhino and some other nonprofits -- to hold in a public-private partnership. It would be a direct, grass-roots form of community planning for nonprofits of every kind, and might preserve some 100,000 square feet of office and performance space in the Mission. Donors and city planners shouldn't ig-nore a scheme as wide- ranging as this. Friends of Youtt's from the tech industry have even offered to help.

"I call it "cultural preservation,'" he says. "And culture for me isn't just limited to the arts."


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