In my home city of San Francisco, the lives and opinions of citizens are quickly becoming subverted by money.
By Amelia Williams, City College of San Francisco
Something that binds most (sorry commuters) college students together is the homecoming.
Be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break or some long weekend you said you had off because you couldn’t bear more Poli Sci, returning to your childhood bedroom puts you immediately at ease. Everyone is your friend! You have arrived like a well of experience, adventure and education, and everyone wants a piece of you.
You go on long walks through your neighborhood to avoid all the questions, concerns and inquiries. You go to the same cafe you went to everyday after high school; you walk by the same corner store that knows you by name, the same sidewalk. The return is a recharge, an indulgence in your past as you move through the future.
Or maybe it isn’t.
Maybe all those places you held in such esteem have been boarded up, sold and reimagined as weird, inaccessible German restaurants, or coffee bars where all the furniture is tree stumps, or worse—a studio for optometrists that only sell frames from the 1970s. The landscape has been altered and the comfort of familiarity is gone.
This is how San Francisco felt to me this last year. So much has already been said about my city becoming more expensive, whiter, more tech-y and less fun, and I would be quick to dismiss the criticisms if I didn’t see them in action.
What initially turned my eye to the problem was a video from a couple years ago that caught an altercation at a soccer field near my house in the Mission district, a historically working class, Latino family neighborhood. The soccer field had been all but monopolized by Latino youth since I was a child, and since they themselves were children. The video captures some new transplants—tech workers—who want to play soccer and claimed to have paid for a spot. Paid for a time slot on a public field? The tension is warranted.
The video became tinder for a larger conversation about San Francisco spaces and ownership: We were raised on the idea that everyone is entitled to the city, and to see money so easily tear through years of tradition is harrowing.
I could say the same about my dance studio. There are many dance studios in San Francisco, but none embody Bay Area radicalism like Dance Mission. The studio was born of an aggressively feminist dance troupe, The Wallflower Order, and established itself as the Dance Brigade in San Francisco’s Mission district in the late 1990s. In the six years that I danced there full-time, I was indoctrinated in the type of intersectional, global, unashamed feminism that was much harder to find then than it is now.
However, this education came at a price: a very high lease. The studio pays $44,000 more just to keep their space than they did in 2013. That’s more than I’ve paid in college tuition (so far)! Hundreds of girls depend on the space for their dance education (many are on scholarships because other studios are too pricey), but the studio also serves as a community space to bond and learn from other women about art, life and politics.
Situations like these demonstrate how renovation is conflated with improvement. I have seen a pupuseria become German fusion food, empty. I’ve seen a panaderia full of children and chatter become a lifeless art gallery. Knick-knack stores are boarded up and become pop-up shops, which are in turn boarded up and mostballed for the next over-financed idea.
These are “upgrades” that appeal to trends and popular culture, not the people living three doors down.
But when you look at the bigger picture, you can make out how these small changes become a part of a larger shift. The largest group being pushed out of San Francisco are families—families of color especially— because affording a home you can raise a family in has become nearly impossible. It would follow then, that businesses that are built around and largely for kids (pastry shops, family restaurants, dance studios, parks) are suffering. This is not to say all change is bad, but who are these changes are for? Often, it no longer feels like the city has my back.
A month ago, five San Francisco natives stopped eating. They camped outside of the 17th and Valencia Police Station to protest our (now former!) police chief Greg Suhr, who had shielded his officers from the law after multiple racist text message scandals and actual murders of San Francisco civilians.
The five fasted for three weeks to the point of hospitalization in order to demand justice for lives lost to police, namely black and Latino men who were raised by the Bay Area. These are not stories you hear about Dropbox employees or the patrons of Philz Coffee. The difference between a transplant and a native is not privilege, but a dichotomy in perspective: People who care about where they’re from versus people who care about where they are. And because San Francisco is so small, we are confronted by the difference every day.
It makes me sad. It hurts to grow up and realize that nowhere in the world, not even the city you built your life around, is free of prejudice.
However, my city’s current problems are not a death sentence. San Franciscans are powerful and can make changes. Already citizens have seen their hard work pay off in the deposition of the police chief. We have created coalitions for Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez and Oscar Grant, as well as publicized their deaths to discourage the repetition of senseless murder.
We theorize, we march, we demand respect. I don’t believe in inevitability. If you feel like your city is leaving you behind, grab it by the collar and shake some sense back into it.