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Whose Line Is It, Anyway? 

Wednesday, Jul 6 2016

Tabitha Lahr isn't so sure about the latest real estate crypto-acronym for her neighborhood.

"Doesn't 'DivCo' sound like a terrible supermarket?" she asks. "I'm not a huge abbreviator. And nobody wants to call it 'NoPa.'"

She's an artist, baker, freelance book designer, and 13-year resident of the Western Addition, which means she's lived there long enough — albeit in several apartments — to consider the neighborhood's transformation in phases. Fly Bar was the first wave, she says. Nopa (the restaurant) was the second, and Bi-Rite was the third. But if her skepticism over DivCo — a contraction of "Divisadero corridor" — causes you to steel yourself against the possibility of an everything-is-terrible-let's-give-it-all-back-to-the-void rant, think again, because Lahr counts herself among Bi-Rite's shoppers. She's especially a fan of Josey Baker's $4 toast at The Mill.

"I love his bread," she says. "I was excited when that place opened, and everybody was angry — kind of like 'NoPa,' but even more so. 'Cause that $4 toast is talked about out of the country, which is crazy! I feel like the $4 toast is the poster child of gentrification for the neighborhood, and almost San Francisco as a whole. But eat that toast! It lasts in your stomach for about five hours. It's not like going to Eddie's Diner and getting some Wonder Bread."

Her quizzical response to the firestorm over toast that costs roughly the same as a big muffin or other bread product spurred Lahr to create a series of 12 portraits of people from the neighborhood. "Facial Recognition: The Divisadero Corridor," which opens at Mini Bar, includes several of Lahr's works, in gouaches that she favors for the chalky, brushstroke-free sheen they impart to the canvas. Putting a heavy emphasis on the lines between light and shadow — almost like a stained-glass window — she works exclusively from photographs and operates slowly enough that using a live model would introduce discrepancies as human bodies inevitably shift positions. There's a whiff of the old school to Lahr's demeanor, such that she refers to hashtags like "#gouache" that she uses on Instagram as "pound gouache," landline style. At 42, the Queens, N.Y. native — who grew up in a neighborhood that was undergoing dramatic white flight — seems caught between generations, if tranquilly so. She's not interested in drawing attention to gentrification by demonizing anybody, and Lahr wants her contribution to "Facial Recognition" to humanize the Western Addition's newer (or more controversial) residents.

Take Baker, for instance.

"I wound up talking to him — I stalked him one day — and he was the nicest guy," Lahr says. "He uses too many exclamation points in his book — which made me self-conscious about my own exclamation point usage — but he is an exclamation point. He's a super-nice guy, and talked to me for 10 minutes. He just loves talking about that bread. I've tried to talk to other people from businesses here and there, and they're usually really busy and want to get away. That doesn't mean they're bad people, but the fact that he really took the time made an impression on me."

Lahr began thinking of him as a regular person, "instead of this villain everybody thinks of him as."

"So that's the point of injecting his and a couple people's portraits into my show," she adds. "They're regular people, and is it so bad that this person decided to have a business on this street that just happens to be an upscale bread company? Yeah, it's expensive — I can't have breakfast there. A pistachio croissant and coffee is eight, nine dollars. But I buy his bread regularly and I go to pizza night. I love lots of businesses coming in; it makes me feel better somehow. I don't feel as sour about what's happening in the neighborhood as all of my friends."

The tranche of images is hipster-heavy, but not exclusively so. (In the portrait of Baker, his green skin looks slightly like a zombie's, which Lahr admits.) She'd wanted a broader cross-section of Divisadero residents and is toying around with expanding the 12 paintings to 60. But because she works from photos on a "volunteer basis, and is too uncomfortable with pretending to snap a selfie as she surreptitiously captures strangers unaware, many of the subjects are people she knows personally — which largely leaves out a crucial component of the neighborhood's demographics.

"I wish I had more diversity," says Lahr, who is white. "It was a sad realization that I didn't know that many African-Americans. How did my life come to this? I was raised in a black neighborhood. That might be a comment in itself about gentrification."

As she'd worked for the feminist publisher Seal Press — "there's a lot of discussion about who goes on a book cover; you don't want all white people" — it troubled her enough that she sought advice.

"Is it better to force it or not have it?" she asks, paraphrasing her own thought process. "I'm still not sure, but the conclusion with my friend was that it was better not to force it." For the next part of the series, however, she's looking to start with the Eritrean owner of Oasis Cafe.

The other problem Lahr faces is an underrepresentation of women, for which she nonchalantly blames her aesthetic.

"It's been hard to get women, because they're afraid of me drawing them," Lahr says. "I draw every single line, and then I make up lines, because I draw shadows. A line that didn't exist — the vanity of some of the people I knew came out. They just said no, flat-out."

This is not Lahr's first show. She's collaborated with Ezra Croft on his celebrity portrait shows — her work was featured in the Nicolas Cage show, and will appear later this summer in one on Bill Murray — and she's done a few Pancakes & Booze Art Shows. An invitation to contribute to murals on Sycamore Alley as onlookers took pictures forced Lahr to get over her mild stage fright. Overall, she's situated at the intersection of the long-term San Franciscans who might not see themselves as gradually ceding the stage and the newbies who don't always realize how much they're taking up.

But this let's-get-along ethos and love of a dynamic streetscape doesn't mean she's automatically a fan of all change. The plan to put an arcade in the Harding Theater — the empty building next to The Independent that was most recently a church — doesn't sit well with Lahr.

"In the spirit of my show, I won't hate the people, but I'm afraid the street will feel like a circus," she says. "A kind of arcade-fun center bothers me, for sure. I'm picturing packs of really drunk bros all over the place. They're there now, but I mean even more.

"A friend of mine, when she read the news, she was excited about [the arcade]. She likes that hit of energy. That might be a little too much for me, but I'm not going to judge. We'll find out."


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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