Asking a San Franciscan what they think about the housing affordability crisis is a bit like asking citizens of Ferguson what they think about police brutality or Hong Kong students how their elections should be run: no matter what side you’re on, emotions are going to run high. Last night, halting at an intersection a block away from Code and Canvas, the super hip mixed art space hosting Project Amplifi’s discussion/showcase to address that very issue, I noticed a cleverly placed sticker making the sign read “STOP evictions.” Indeed, this is volatile state of affairs, but Project Amplifi doesn’t shy away from the ugliest issues plaguing the Bay Area, even if they do happen to divide normally level-headed, open-minded inhabitants.
Enter “Concert and Conversation,” an open dialogue between artists, techies, entrepreneurs, writers and others about the precarious state of art and culture in a city with a soaring cost of living. Yet, despite the subject matter, there was no yelling, no raw anger, no “blame the Google buses” chants, no tearful laments decrying the end of art as we know it in the Bay. Instead, there were answers, possible solutions and that divine optimistic spirit that seems to define Californians even in the roughest of economic times. Don’t misunderstand me: it wasn’t a starry-eyed, we-can-do-anything, Disneyland-manufactured optimism. It was an optimism tinged with real world limitations, one hampered by recondite laws and the abstruse technicalities of market-based solutions. But it was optimism nonetheless.
The panel was made of up of Bottom of the Hill owner Lynn Schwarz, TechCrunch writer Kim-Mai Cutler, Cathedrals member Johhny Hwin, Code and Canvas co-founder John Yi and executive director of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission Jocelyn Kane, and they didn’t dodge the tough questions posed by moderator Walter Thompson either. Questions like: who does, after all, deserve to live in a city as unique and fascinating as San Francisco?
“Anyone should be able to,” John Yi answered not without some hesitation to ponder the difficult question. “And if more people like my tech colleagues will invest in mixed art spaces like this one (Code and Canvas) in order to build a more sustainable, affordable city for artists to live in, anyone can.”
“Our most vulnerable citizens have to be protected,” Lynn Schwarz cautioned. “And artists are among the most vulnerable. We need to ensure our city passes laws to protect those who are most vulnerable to rising rents. I’ve never known a person who hasn’t valued art, and it’s essential we keep this city habitable for those who make this place so special.”
Then the panelists started to break down why exactly there is a crisis to begin with, an explanation full of facts and figures that took me back to high school econ class tuning out my teacher’s lecture on the intricacies of supply and demand and carving, “Zeppelin Rules!” into my desk. It all sounded frightening and impenetrable and I felt like I was stranded in a foreign country and didn’t know how to ask for the nearest bathroom. So I just nodded along, took as many anxious notes as possible and confidently confirmed that our entire economic system is a labyrinth of absurd rules, arbitrary regulations and contradictions so viciously comical it would make Voltaire blush.
The summarized point is this: there is no one specific person, group of people or reason to blame the present-day situation on, but rather a number of outdated city policies, conflicting state laws, and countless misunderstandings between various sectors of the community. Kim-Mai Cutler breaks this all down exhaustively in her piece “How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists,” but it’s clear that there is no one easily definable solution to providing affordable housing in such a limited space as the Bay Area. Some of the problem stems from a lack of foresight displayed by the city itself, one that didn’t efficiently plan its transformation into a global city in the 21st century. Some of it comes from an ‘I’ve got mine’ mentality of homeowners impeding growth with their vociferous distaste for further development. And, yes, some of it does come from the influx of tech wealth that benefits those with the most capital, who can most afford to pay the sometimes exorbitant market-rate for certain units.
As Jocelyn Kane added, “Housing units will be built, but what concerns artists are places to perform. When all land designated for development goes towards residential housing, art spaces and music venues get shut out…We need to work on a plan for the future, one that takes into account the needs of artists.”
“Culture is produced by both those who live in a city and those who pass through,” Johhny Hwin chimed in. “How do we preserve culture? We need the tech community to think of art not just as a fun thing to hang up on your wall, but an investment in the future.”
“It’s tough though,” John Yi said. “I did well working at Facebook and surprised my colleagues when I told them about my plan (for Code and Canvas). It was an initiative where I wasn’t going to make any money in the short-term, always a dangerous notion to companies beholden to shareholders and quarterly profits. The creative side of the community, the artists, are stuck with a crappy business model to begin with, and they need spaces like these to support their endeavors. Though I’m not making an immediate profit off this venture, I’m making an investment in the community.”
And what can we, the lovers of local music, do to change things for the better?
“Vote,” Jocelyn curtly advises. “And get a hold of your district supervisor. It’s so fucking easy to reach your district supervisor. Tell them to support affordable housing initiatives.”
Buy local art, go to live shows, connect with the artists afterwards to help foster a strong sense of community. Volunteer at mixed art spaces and charity events. Get involved with non-profits like Project Amplifi! They would adore and treasure your support.
Walter Thompson, tech worker and documentary producer of the film Golden City, urged fans to visit crowd-funding websites their favorite acts might be involved in and contribute that way. Each speaker seemed to adamantly agree to all these points.
It was a bit ironic, then, to see said agreeable panelists leave halfway through Carolyn Malachi’s exquisite set of neo-soul grooves. I could see them exiting the building as her captivating blend of jazz, pop, funk and hip-hop filled the place with seductive rhythms, dynamic musicianship and a voice simultaneously full of joy, hurt, hope, and absolute beauty. Then, as the night wore on and the crowd thinned out some more, Owl Paws took the stage and delivered the kind of strong performance I have since come to expect from the folk-rock trio, a group that sounds equally powerful in coffee shops, art galleries, and 300-plus capacity venues.
Pointing out the flaws in society is a relatively easy exercise. Raising awareness is only half the battle. Now comes the action, and that’s always the hardest part. Now is when we stop talking and start attending those local shows, buying that local art and telling our friends to do the same. We really do have the power to rectify this situation, and the best part is that we’re all in it together.