Displacement: Beginnings and Arrivals in San Francisco
By Andrew Szeto
The Sunset District is well known for its cold and foggy weather, where sunsets are a rarity, but on that rare occasion, offer stunning glimpses to “the end of the world.” I grew up on the borderlands, between the fog burning east towards Twin Peaks and the encroaching fog west from the Pacific — the inescapable trap of Sunset living. It was also a border between Asian America — the world that I knew — and “other” San Francisco, a place alien to my social and cultural milieu. In all the talk about the gentrifying Mission or soon to be Tenderloin, or the once “renewed” Fillmore and SOMA, I often wonder how my experience growing up in the city fits within this changing landscape.
As a child, I never left my neighborhood, not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t have to. I went to elementary school three blocks from my house, and caught the 28 Muni up to Lincoln for high school, before I got my driver’s license. The Sunset is very suburban in that way, the long expressways of 19th Avenue and Sunset Boulevard taking families out to Parkside and Westlake where the fantasies of consumer society and middle-class aspirations still hold true. It is part of the trope of the immigrant, seeking a better life, the “good life.” I come from a family of settlers, from rural China and colonial Hong Kong, who all migrated to the familiarity of Chinatown, and eventually to the Outside Lands. Their stories mirror the refrains of the American dream, but are distinctly their own.
There’s the trope of the children of immigrant parents, trapped between two worlds, of tradition and assimilation. Growing up Chinese meant I would wander through the busy shops on Irving Street with my mother, or, every once and a while, brave the hectic rush of Chinatown. Dim sum with my grandparents on Clement every weekend was a given, and I saw them very often. All of my immediate family — the over-20 aunts, uncles, and cousins — live in either the Sunset or Richmond, and I still go with them to weekly dinners, which have been going on for over thirty years, since before I was born. Soon, though, these dinners will be in English; our native Cantonese tongue was not passed down to my generation. Still, there’s something about immigrant settling that necessitates the kinds of closeness of deep kinship. It’s the same kind that’s being displaced all across the city.
It is said that San Francisco is a diverse, multicultural city — and it is, in a way. But the city is also deeply racially segregated. I never ventured out to the Mission, or to the Western Addition, or even to Bayview. Part of living in the Sunset also meant cultural mixing was not encouraged. My friends were all Asian, and there was a racist animosity amongst my peers to Black and Latino people. I was never comfortable with the anti-Black racism or the demonization of Latinos that characterizes so much of Asian culture. In a city built upon colonized lands, and where anti-Blackness and white supremacy is built into the city’s geography, racial solidarity was not a given; the lived experience challenges its representation, and so racial tensions were real. But there are glimpses of such solidarity in the struggles over the International Hotel, where hundreds came to defend the site of Filipino cultural heritage. However, the limits of past struggles for racial justice are reflected in today’s “post-racial” society. In many ways, my experiences were enclosed from the rest of the city.
Yet, borders, of my own culture and the city’s, are meant to be transgressed.
I grew up in San Francisco, and could not ignore the multiplicity of its cultures and experiences. I knew a San Francisco that was small, and through the filtered lens of a youth who knew no other life. Leaving the only place you know, as I did for university, you realize certain things about place and what was given: my San Francisco was opening. I arrived back home last June and found myself amidst the hostility of a changing city. A booming tech sector has created increased housing speculation in the already vulnerable Mission District, leaving long-term residents at risk of eviction, and sometimes death. Increased rents are pushing out the city’s working class, and also its culturally necessary businesses. Since returning, I’ve struggled to understand place and rootedness when worlds seem to be vanishing all around me. I grew up in this city, but, with each turn, find myself uncovering what I did not know, and being displaced along the way. Displacement is material, but it is also affective: The city lives in the precarious present.
I’ve been to the Mission now as an adult, and have witnessed the gross excesses of Valencia Street, where the immediacy of gentrification is both frightening and disheartening. Along its bike corridor, parklets—parking spaces converted to pseudo public space—line sidewalks in front of cafes with $4 cups of coffee. A real estate company now markets homes that are a “walkto4barrelcoffee.” A new miniature golf course is opening, with one hole appropriating (again) the symbolism of Dia de los Muertos. The Mission has become a caricature of a reality that is most visibly and materially present just a block down on Mission Street. Those residents, Latino elders and youth, are still there because displacement does not happen without a fight. But with each passing day, the neighborhood becomes less like itself, and more to a new, whiter class’s desires. This is the new San Francisco I arrived to.
I worked at a restaurant in Oakland for many months, and would often give away extra food from my catering gigs to the many drifters and wanderers at the 16th Street BART plaza on my way back. Between the hectic commuter rush, they sat idling, their presence a challenge to our capitalist temporalities. Almost suddenly, I noticed that the plaza would be completely empty, only to see a police cruiser parked on the corner watching. A new $600 million jail is being proposed to replace the currently seismically unfit ones on Bryant Street; activists are questioning its necessity, but its residents are already being swept up. This ethnic cleansing is to appease the neighborhood’s new residents who don’t feel safe around brown people; it is for the new 10-story luxury-housing complex being proposed for the plaza, additional penthouses for the new Mission. Further up the road, as I bike back to the Sunset, I notice another new development, Linea, which is just up the road from NEMA—soulless buildings have lives of their own.
The vibrant Latino culture that defines the neighborhood is being paved over by a wealthier and paler class of mostly tech workers. They envision a city that can be programmed and coded, prescribing apps to make us all obsolete. Their visions of “open” technology and “civic engagement” privilege a system that has failed and destroyed lives. To live in this era of profound inequality is to feel displacement. They are enclosing the rest of the city.
I was not old enough during the last dot-com boom to understand the material and cultural erasures that were taking place. This time around, though, I am all too aware. I returned to San Francisco and found beauty in all that I did not know. It is as soon as I discover the city anew that I am confronted by its disappearance, of its destruction.
A young Latino man, Alejandro Nieto, was murdered by SFPD on the evening of March 21st on Bernal Hill—a death by gentrification. Alex was student at City College, and worked as a security guard at the El Toro nightclub. That Friday evening, he decided to eat a burrito at Bernal Hill before his shift, looking out over his beautiful city, the place he was born and raised. Alex was a peaceful man, a Buddhist, and a worker, trying to get by in this time of uncertain futures. Then, some suspicious passersby called the police, not to alert a crime, but to report a man allegedly carrying a gun. Alex was not holding a gun, but a licensed taser he carried for his job. The police arrived minutes later and confronted him. Seconds later, Alex was shot to death. His crime: being brown in a changing neighborhood.
In the months after I arrived back home, turmoil over increased rents and displacement were beginning to spark protest and action, especially around the ill-abused Ellis Act, which has been used to evict long-time tenants across the city. Gentrification is a process of displacement, but it is also a globalized process of accumulation by dispossession. In capitalism’s endless search for profit and return, urban centers, once dismantled by the same forces in postwar suburbanization, now see profitable investment in such impoverished places. The first big waves of gentrification hit the Mission around a decade ago during the dot-com boom, and what is being called hyper-gentrification is taking place now. The establishment of this new Mission requires this dispossession: death by gentrification, the murder of Alex Nieto.
Back in July, I attended a demonstration in the Mission demanding “homes for all.” I had just returned to San Francisco, and unknown banners for organizations like the Housing Rights Committee and Causa Justa/Just Cause—now familiar—led the march to various new housing developments around the Mission, highlighting the lack of low-income and affordable housing units being built amongst the sea of premium condos and apartments. The action was in coordination with a national group called the Right to the City, which had filed a lawsuit against the Federal Housing Finance Agency for withholding money from its affordable housing fund. The march stopped at numerous locations including the empty lot of the old Mission Theater, where a new condo development was breaking ground—of the 46 units, only 14 would be “affordable.” The average median rent for market rate apartments in the city now reach something close to $3500 a month; San Francisco has the highest rents in the country, and with growing income inequality, it’s those most marginalized that are feeling the brunt of so-called progress and development. Construction cranes now litter the Mission; they are ticking bombs, ready to go “boom”—the casualties, the Mission’s long-time residents and culture.
Boom is the sound of eviction, as a 2001 film documenting San Francisco’s dot-com invasion noted, and its similarities to today’s moment are eerie. Of the most visible signs of change are the ever-looming Google buses, which in their white bodies and tinted windows roam the streets, funnel tech workers every day to Silicon Valley. They have become figures in media representation of this growing crisis in San Francisco, and activists have coordinated high-profile blockades of these buses. In January, I joined over 100 others in blocking two tech buses in what is being called the “Mid-Market”—new neighborhoods need new names, too. Two previous bus blockades in the months prior had garnered massive media attention on the effects of the tech industry in facilitating displacement in the city, creating, like their buses, a “two-tiered system.” While the continued roll back of vital state funding to education and health continues to hurt the city’s low-income and marginalized, the tech industry has been privileged through tax breaks and other financial incentives, widening the income gap of the city. Yet, while protesters were criticized for blaming “techies,” their message was always clear: displacement isn’t solely an issue of housing policy, and the solution is not to build or develop more. Gentrification and development has historically been uneven, and linking the Google buses demanded a broader and more nuanced understanding of political economy and urban capitalist development—while the growth of tech has remained stable, the lives of those in its excess become precarious.
A growing tenants’ rights movement has emerged from this discontent of mass evictions of the city’s most vulnerable and the growing influence of tech’s utopia that has altered the landscape of the city. Around 500 people attended a citywide tenant convention in February and set their sights on key policy reform against the Ellis Act, a state legislation that has allowed landowners to evict tenants without just cause. The movement has attracted a diverse group of people, from working class to tech workers themselves, motivated by the necessity in fighting displacement. The latest march in April drew hundreds in defense of the countless teachers being evicted from the city where they work. Housing policy reform has become the key political talking point, and essential housing reform will help tenants in the city from further displacement. Strong networks of tenants and allies have created new senses of community and belonging that have brought the city together. I returned home, and found a spirit of action coming to life.
Yet despite this, I find myself confronted, again, in my arrival back, haunted by the death of Alex Nieto, the brutality of this changing city. In my desire for the political, I find myself cautious and wary of the movement and my place in it, questioning if the work will make a difference in the end. My own position and relative privilege as an Asian American means I am complicit in this criminalization of black and brown people, and I question the stakes of solidarity, and of race. A slogan of this fight against displacement, borrowed from the AIDS struggle, has declared: “eviction = death.” But I wonder if more acutely it is, rather, gentrification that equals death. Displacement is about housing, but it is also about how the city feels less like home everyday—and it is literally the dispossession of homes, of lives that are taking place, a racialized violence of the everyday. The movement has provided respite from this destruction, if temporarily, but the continued suffering of loss is taking its toll.
The week following Alex Nieto’s death, a march was held in his honor and memory, a somber trek up to the site of his murder on Bernal Hill. Some estimates say around 250 people attended to pay respects to his family and to the community. His death, and the gentrification of the Mission, will be forever linked to the growing criminalization and harassment that follows along as neighborhoods go. On May Day, hundreds gathered at 24th Street Plaza in the Mission to remember workers struggles, past and present. The rally was held almost entirely in Spanish, and so I couldn’t understand the words being said but felt the immediacy of the scene. One speaker, Benjamin Bac Sierra, Alex’s close friend, his brother, led the crowd in a call and response: Amor for Alex, Amor for Alex. It is up to us, those in the struggle in San Francisco, to always remember, now, his death; progress has no time to remember. Marching through Mission Street, we passed the new Vida condos being built over the old Mission Theater, the site where I first arrived to this movement. Vida means life in Spanish, yet as we were marching, it was only loss that was felt. Justicia para Alex, justice for Alex was the chant over the loudspeaker.
Heart of the City
On 8th and Market Street, across the street from where the January Google bus blockades took place, the new Trinity Place apartments are being constructed. These glass fortresses have become normal in the changing landscape of the city, and each new tower is both a symbol of power and destruction; it is no surprise that city government has been in strong support of housing development across the city, with Mayor Ed Lee championing 30,000 housing units over the next six years. These new developments are marketing themselves, as the NEMA development across from Twitter’s headquarters is, as dorms for the new class of techies. Lining the construction barriers of the Trinity Place development are signs that read, THE HEART OF SF. Indeed, this is the new heart of San Francisco.
But the current heart of the city is still beating, struggling to stay alive. San Francisco has lost 40 percent of its black population since 1990, and the closure and eviction of Marcus Books in the Fillmore, the oldest black-owned bookstore in the country, is further emphasis on the racialized dispossession of the city’s black and brown populations. A 10-story condo is being planned for the 16th Street Plaza in the Mission, the largest development ever planned for the neighborhood. Its construction would displace many of the city’s homeless population, many who are not accounted for in eviction data, but have been some of the hardest hit by the city’s neoliberal policies. Resistance to the development has emerged, and a group called Plaza 16 Coalition plans to fight the development. The Coalition has offered its own set of demands for the plaza, including transferring the plaza to the ownership of the community, the ending of criminalization of black and brown people who occupy the plaza, and the implementation of the People’s Plan, a 2006 document created by the Mission Antidisplacement Coalition that offers guidelines for community-based planning and development. Indeed, this heart of the city is still as strong as ever.
And this is the heart I was born into, grew up in, and will fight for. For new hearts, transplants, like that of the encroaching tech industry, never fully assimilate into to their new body, requiring for the rest of its lifetime supplements to prevent the body from attacking itself. In San Francisco, they come in the form of tax breaks and bought out politicians that sell out the city, the militarization of police and increased criminalization of black and brown folks, the dispossession of long-time residents’ homes for the construction of shiny new condos and apartments. But the body knows that its new heart, its new organ, is not theirs; and so, it has an option: it can either accept or reject it.