Fearing further displacement and gentrification as the result of San Francisco’s plans to redevelop and “clean up” certain parts of the city, a group of artists, musicians, and activists came together in May 2012 for Streetopia, a massive art collaboration and fair at which participants visualized and realized alternative ideals for the city and celebrated existing communities and culture.
Writer, independent curator, and counterculture activist Erick Lyle, a longtime Tenderloin resident who now lives in New York, curated a book from the art event and from writings by local authors and poets. The book will be presented at Adobe Books on October 15, alongside a talk on fighting displacement by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.
Mission Local spoke with Lyle about gentrification, displacement, and the city’s future. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Mission Local: What’s your definition of utopia?
Erick Lyle: We use the word “utopia” to talk about the process of becoming rather than the final destination. Rather than a totality of a perfect state or location… It was more about that process of people coming together. And that’s something that I think is really a hallmark of successful social movements of the last couple of years like Occupy, like Black Lives Matter. People coming together instinctively to figure things out in a consensual kind of way rather than in a coercive way.
ML: You mention in the book that violence has dropped statistically but Latino servers in the neighborhood’s new upscale restaurants are still in danger when they head home for the night. What does safety mean if it doesn’t apply to everyone?
EL: That’s a question that has been raised by Streetopia and all groups that are opposing gentrification. What gentrification really does is, it often makes neighborhoods unsafe for the people who have lived there a long time already. The people that have lived in the Mission for years are being corralled and sequestered, in a way, by police policy and the changing nature of public space. It’s being sculpted in a way that will make new gentrifiers more comfortable.
A person of color walking home at night might be at any moment subject to detention or search by the police which, as we know, has a statistically high chance of turning into an incident that leads to a death. For a lot of tech workers in the Mission, that’s something that’s not really on their mind, where a walk to the store could end it.
We’re talking about the creation of a two-tiered society. Our city government no longer believes in a public at all, and is rushing to privatize things that used to be public commons. So we get a breakdown of public transportation, coupled with the rise of private transportation systems like Uber, Google buses, etc. There’s one society for the wealthy and the rest of us are given the crumbs of an increasingly derelict public sector.
ML: Talk a little bit about your characterization of displacement as trauma and the victim-blaming you describe as happening in San Francisco.
EL: Gentrification as trauma is just about communities being broken up by economic force. People being forced to be relocated and dispersed because they can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood. I think that when you break up these communities, it definitely puts people in a traumatic situation because they’ve lost all those ties.
And then the narrative of it is like an abuse narrative. It’s either, “it didn’t happen” – because there’s a disavowal that there’s any kind of systematic intent to make gentrification happen. Or they’re simultaneously told, well, the neighborhood was run down and you weren’t taking care of it right. So, “it’s your fault,” because something else had to come here, of course.
ML: If I’m interpreting your work correctly, the arbiters of gentrification are developers, banks, and city officials. What about the young white wealthy newcomers? Do they play a negative role, and if, so how can they mitigate the damage?
EL: The reality is that we’re all being pitted against each other for society’s crumbs. That’s the conflict that we’re placed in – we’re all looking for a place we can afford. I think that people that are moving into the neighborhoods can make a choice about how they want to participate or not participate in what’s happening there.
I think what we see is that by and large the new folks moving into San Francisco are not interested in participating. I think it’s pretty evident that the tech scene has moved in and is very insular. For as much wealth as is concentrated here, there hasn’t been a lot of spillover to the surrounding city, which is part of why people are so bitter.
But that’s part of the neoliberal metric – the idea that each person is entirely responsible for everything that happens by their consumer choices or how they spend their money or what they do. We have a city government, and the city government is supposed to be furthering the public good and making sure that there’s enough housing and healthcare and all that stuff for people. And if we’re going to have a city government it ought to be doing stuff like that.
Faced with the disavowal of the true consequences of gentrification and displacement, what we really need is ACT UP style tactics to bring the truth to the fore and force the powers that be to really pay attention to the reality of the situation.
Streetopia’s book release event will be at Adobe Books on October 15 at 7 p.m. On October 16, Streetopia will present a night of performances, readings, songs, and food at the Luggage Store gallery on Market Street. That lineup will include, among others, Brontez Purnell, Annie Danger, Christine Shields, Rene Yañez, Rigo 23, Diamond Dave Whitaker, Daphne Gottlieb, and James Tracy.