Seven years ago, on a weekend like this past one, we would be sitting at The Revolution Cafe in the Mission district. All day. Until about 3am. It was highly unproductive and totally productive. Listening to live music, greeting friends who stopped by. It was the place so many of us would migrate to in the middle of our weekend and then get stuck at as a revolving crew of musicians would show up before gigs, after gigs, and take up the microphone and drop some wizardry down.
Conversations would strike up between unlikely folks, all sitting on the wooden benches that local John Kyle built, before the benches themselves were evicted. We were undocumented, we were hungry and totally full. We were vibrating with a certain cultural evolution that only happens when people have time and space and density to rub up against one another. We were teachers, artists, writers, social workers, librarians, janitors, doctors, students, musicians, seekers, dreamers, busboys, hairdressers, flight attendants, travelers, filmmakers, wanderers. We were bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual even. Highly unproductive. And pulsing with possibility
By night, the Rev would be ready to close and the music would take over the sidewalk, the intersection, the street. The bike crew would roll by, bumping tunes on El Arbol, the massive tree-bike sound sculpture, and a spontaneous night ride would emerge. We were mischief makers, risk takers, dreamers with a palpable reality.
When newcomers in SF ask why people get so down on all the changes, I try to paint this picture that doesn’t exist anymore. The dust of it is there, like the dead skin that flakes off a living creature and settles into a shadow in the corner. But the living thing was evicted. As so many vital organs have been these past few years. San Francisco has lost so much that it is hard to hear the heart beat sometimes. But I can still hear it, in the cracks in the sidewalk where the dandelions take over. I try to tell people what was here so that they can imagine a world without $4 toast, without a $6 latte. I know it’s hard to, because it seems so far away. And still it’s not that far away.
I hear my friends respond to my lamenting with “This happened in NYC in the Village. This is happening all over the world. This is just the way things are.” Thanks to capitalism, the rate of change of culture now does not let deep roots settle–anywhere. And this, around the world, is a relatively new phenomenon. That it is ubiquitous and touted as inevitable does not mean it must be that way.
There was a time before “weekends.” Someone had to agitate for it. The people who said “This is just the way things are” to the lack of protection for labor’s rights were the inertia a movement had to work against.
There is a fundamental right to remain that stands in the face of market pressure and the insatiable and unrealistic god of growth that people have felt on this peninsula since the Encounter on this land. It is incredible to me that we have internalized our own oppression instead of our right to remain.
I look now at our artist community, scattered around the Bay with people making plans to move away, farther away, and I grieve the loss of close contact, the place we all inhabited and what the city has become with people spending more time on laptops in places of gathering rather than simply spending time encountering one another other.
I notice my friends who take these changes the hardest tend to be people of color, perhaps because when predominantly minority neighborhoods are upended with the loss of the middle class and the cultural workers, the vulnerable ecosystem that helped keep the micro-culture moving forward in a positive way with the support of an entire community starts to give way to something more detached, disintegrated and less hopeful.
We cannot all simply pick up and move to the same space, or recreate the same intricate network of relationships that generates good art, strong community and good vibes. Instead most of us have been forced to move to the East Bay where our very presence has become a perilous agent of change to longtime Black and Brown and artist residents who are fearing their own loss of place as the cycle of cultural destruction continues.
Rupa Marya is an assistant professor of medicine at UCSF.