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Political Theater 

A strange mix of art, politics, and economic policy stalls renovation of the York Theater and revitalization of the Mission District

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
It's mid-October, and strawberry-blond Ellen Gavin, age 46, is going to a celebrity pool toss dressed as a glittery mermaid. San Francisco's high society is paying big charity bucks to throw ex-debutantes and -debutants, among them city Supervisor Gavin Newsom, into the chlorinated drink at the Phoenix Hotel. Ellen Gavin -- playwright, impresario, and lesbian activist -- says she is going to the pool toss so she can talk, up close, to the rich and famous. She could use $400,000. Quick.

She needs the money for the nonprofit group she leads, Brava! for Women in the Arts, which owns and operates the dilapidated York Theater, located in a downtrodden section of San Francisco's inner Mission District. The sagging theater desperately needs a face lift and major surgery on its ancient guts. Gavin has amassed more than $1 million in public funds for the project, but she could use more. A lot more.

So it's off to the cold pool, where rich people like Charles Schwab are writing checks to see their friends dunked. By the end of the evening, nearly $250,000 has been raised for the nonprofit Tenderloin Housing Development Corp., but Ellen Gavin is disappointed. The day after the pool toss, Gavin complains she was "degraded" by the event. For one thing, she brought only a $2,000 tossing price. Also, the money went to another nonprofit, not Brava. And the master of ceremonies didn't let Gavin pitch the rich for the York Theater remodeling project before she got plunged.

But the intensely green-eyed Gavin is not ready to admit defeat. She is, and probably will continue to be, a ubiquitous presence in the San Francisco scenes where art and politics mingle. She has flair. She has juice. She is close to Mayor Willie Brown, and that association has proven to be lucrative for Brava over the last four years. If not necessarily productive for the public Brava is meant to serve.

In the mid 1990s, San Francisco's Redevelopment Agency was looking for a way to bring economic development to one of the poorer sections of the city, a commercial stretch of 24th Street between Potrero Avenue and Mission Street. The area was indeed in need of a capital injection; at that time, its most profitable businesses may have been the sale of cheap liquor and crack cocaine. The agency's original redevelopment efforts foundered because of neighborhood opposition, based on people's fear of the agency's track record, which included projects in other areas of town that had the effect of evicting low-income residents.

Eventually, however, redevelopment did come to the corner of 24th and York. Or, at least, a proposed redevelopment project, led by Brava, a radical feminist theater group that managed to secure the elephant's share of city money intended for revitalizing the neighborhood. Over four years, a variety of city and state entities have contributed more than $2 million to Brava, which bought and proposed to renovate the vintage York Theater, which was then to become the anchor for reviving the small business economy of the area. Now, more than three years after renovation was to start, Brava owns the theater building, which was built in 1926, and five commercial storefronts linked to it, but the nonprofit group has yet to let a single construction contract for refurbishment, and the group appears to have insufficient funds even to begin the renovation. And Brava, which considers its primary mission to be the production of plays written by lesbians and women of color, has made less than impressive strides in integrating itself into the community it was expected to serve.

If there is a poster child advertising the inadvisability of mixing insider politics, radical art, and inner-city economic policy, it may well be the darkened, Spanish Mission Revival theater at the corner of York and 24th streets.

The Mission District took its name from Mission Dolores, one of the Catholic missions spread along California's original north-south byway, the Camino Real, during the years of Spanish control. Until World War II, however, the York Theater, then called the Roosevelt, showed movies to the Italian and Irish immigrants who dominated the Mission. After the war, the inner Mission gradually re-Latinized, as a new round of immigrants fled poverty and civil wars in Mexico and Central America and created a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, or barrio, that included the 24th Street commercial strip. If some of the new arrivals have by now joined the middle class, others remain poor, and whole families crowd into single rooms of apartmentized Victorians. They work, shop, eat, nightclub, and go to church in Spanish-speaking establishments along the boulevards of La Mission.

Over the last 15 years or so, Anglo students and artists have been moving into what was until recently a low-rent Mission, and have turned the district into a truly multicultural mix of nationalities and economic classes. For a while, intellectual types patronized the York Theater, which mostly showed English-language independent films. But the theater did not draw Spanish-speaking audiences, and it went dark in 1992.

Now La Mission is changing again, as posh live-work lofts, candlelit restaurants serving precious portions of exotic edibles, and upscale theme bars move into the Hispanic neighborhood. Poor families are being displaced by doubling rents and owner-move-in evictions. Once-subdivided Victorians are being bought up for use as single-family residences. The upper middle class is, in many ways, taking over.

There is a certain irony to this spontaneous transformation.

Starting in the 1960s, the Redevelopment Agency espoused a form of urban renewal politics that changed the face of San Francisco forever -- but never seemed to make it into the Mission. Thousands of elderly Filipinos once lived in flats where the Moscone Center and the gaudy Sony Metreon shopping and theater complex now sprawl. The Western Addition used to include the Fillmore District, a center of African-American jazz, culture, and cuisine. Both neighborhoods were leveled after Redevelopment evicted entire populations of the poor, mostly people of color.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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