Knock on a random door at the Redstone Building on a given weekday afternoon, and you’ll enter a San Francisco that, these days, remains largely out of sight.
“You have an artist doing his shit … a weird-ass writer doing his shit, and then there’s weird-ass us doing our shit,” says Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
The 104-year-old building, where Boden’s and other nonprofits have operated for years, is now up for sale. And the tenants who remain are apprehensive.
“It’s scary as fuck,” says Boden as he opens the window to light a cigarette. He sits in his office, surrounded by posters denouncing the ravages of capitalism, and he contemplates owner David Lucchesi’s $25 million sale price. “The kind of money they’re talking —Jesus Christ.”
The building’s 100-odd rooms on three floors, as well as a basement and mezzanine, are only half occupied — and many of the 35 tenants are infrequently present. Some of the tenants here at 16th and Capp Streets spoke of the building’s unsafe conditions, including vermin, poor electrical systems, and improper fire safety infrastructure. City records, additionally, show people have been living in their artist spaces.
But one thing is clear: Many of the tenants who remain see the Redstone Building as something like a home — a haven of sorts in a San Francisco that feels physically claustrophobic and suffocatingly expensive. Most of the tenants are, indeed, nonprofits, such as El/La TransLatina, Wonder Dog Rescue, and the Western Regional Advocacy Project. Others are creatives working on their own endeavors.
Boden first came to the building 20 years ago. He was in homeless advocacy then, too. “Honestly, it hasn’t changed over the last 20 years,” he says. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Organizations have come and gone through the years, but the building’s personality and “vibes” have remained a constant source of comfort and community, he adds.
“It’s still overwhelmingly artists and organizers, and that brings a certain spirit to it,” he says. “All of our shit is in the hallways and out in the front. It’s not like anyone has ever said, ‘Why are you putting artwork up in our hallways?’”
Charles Hamilton, who has been doing security and maintenance in the building for 28 years, remembers the ‘90s and 2000s and the revolving number of people coming in and out the doors. Now, he says, “It’s quiet.”
“All you have are nonprofits,” he says. “They come and go like the wind.”
The Mission Economic Development Agency is trying to buy the building in an effort to preserve it as a “vital asset.” MEDA senior project manager Feliciano Vera said the nonprofit developer could close on the building in the next six months.
Whoever buys it will have to preserve it, because the Redstone Building — or the San Francisco Labor Temple, as it was originally known — was built in 1914 and is designated as historic. Early on, it was primarily occupied by the 130-member San Francisco Labor Council, as well as 22 other labor-union offices. It served as an organizing center for 1934 General Strike.
These days, the temple is somewhat of a maze. Its 55,000 total square feet are cut with staircases, hallways and doors that lead to other staircases and other doors. There are doors in the middle of stairwells, and the contents of those rooms are a mystery.
On the third floor, past a pair of teal double doors, a small anteroom and a hall crowded with junk, you’ll happen upon Miguel Perez and Jorge Garcia doing a radio broadcast for La Radio Flash, a two-year-old Spanish language Internet radio show.
“We do news, politics, interviews with different people in Latin America,” Perez explains during a commercial break. “Now we are doing this in Spanish, but our goal is to do it in English and French, too.”
Perez who has been working in the office for 10 years, sees the building as a neutral space in the geography of gentrification. “For us, it’s like Iceland here, this building,” he says, talking about how high rent has gone up on 24th Street, where he used to have an office. “We’re far away from those places. The reason we can do our services is because it’s affordable.”
But, like other tenants Mission Local spoke to, Perez says the affordability and freedom at the Redstone is a double-edged sword. “This building is in bad condition — bad conditions mean dangerous conditions,” he says, mentioning electricity problems, rats, and cockroaches. “We don’t have sprinklers here,” he says pointing to the ceiling of his office.
Perez thought the city should pay for the building’s repairs, as the building is historic and an important part of the community. He knew about MEDA’s potential acquisition of the building. “At some point, they would remodel it,” he says. “When they remodel the place, somebody must walk away for a while, until the place is finished. Some people are afraid of that.”
Nonetheless, Perez says he loves the building’s history. He points to a photo of Michael Roman, an influential stencil artist who died in 2016. “He was my friend … he was working here in the building,” he says. “You find people who are legends in the neighborhood who are still around here.”
On the second floor, Mike Hardesty was just stepping into his office. Its walls were piled high with junk: clothes, various tools, a box full of tape, and crucified stuffed animals. A Chihuahua named Ebola greeted him as he opened the door. He has been working out of the space for the last 10 years, but not on anything in particular.
“I’m not really focused on one thing,” he says. “I attach myself to other people’s things.” He said he has done some cannabis advocacy, and recently built small homes for the homeless. He was a carpenter in a past life. Today’s task, he said, was picking up his bicycle.
“It would be a shame to lose the building, because it’s been a gem for poor activists,” he says. “This is a place where people can afford to set up shop and achieve whatever dreams of making the world of a better place.”
He held up one of the crucified dolls and put on his “Mandatory Free Obamacare” hat. “We run a cult in here,” he says, joking.
Through a Dutch door at the end of hall painted red, Moriah Nagle loads up Parvovirus vaccinations for a client at Wonder Dog Rescue, a nonprofit dog rescue that has been in the building for four years. Her voice could be heard echoing down an otherwise quiet hall, giving the client instructions.
“It’s just quiet, and there’s not a lot of other people around, and it’s kind of casual,” says Nagle, who has been there two and a half years.
She enjoys its “funkiness” and points to the room’s splotched teal paint job, the red-painted Dutch doors, the little sinks and cabinets in each room. “It’s cool like that – you don’t see that very often,” she says. “There’s only one knob on the sinks.”
In the same breath, however, Nagle mentions having to deal with mice in another room. “But what are you going to do?” she asks.
Essie Garcia was just starting her day around noon at El/La Para TransLatinas behind a nondescript pair of double doors at the end of one of the building’s dark hallways. According to Garcia, that’s the way El/La likes it.
“It’s really nice being on the third floor because of the nature of our work, because we don’t want anyone knowing who are participants are,” she says. “So the fact that we aren’t facing any open windows … it helps us manage who’s coming into our safe space.”
She said volunteers often watch the doors to make sure no unwelcome guests — like ICE or people looking to harass their clients — can get in. “Safety is a huge issue,” she says. “And the building has always worked in our favor.”
Garcia first saw the building when she began volunteering at El/La seven years ago. Even then, she was struck by its labor-oriented nature – on its murals, posters, the resources on the bulletin boards and on shelves. “It’s always seemed like a radical space for working-class people,” she says. “We’ve always felt very comfortable here.”