Art Goes On Around You

Recently I received an email notice that asked me to join in a funeral march from Union Square to City Hall, mourning the passing of San Francisco art, diversity and culture.

The passing of San Francisco’s culture? Just because rents are high and some non-profits that engage in activities that might be considered art are losing their leases and moving, does that mean art as we know it is over in San Francisco?

The notice seemed uneasy existing as an email. It would seem more authentic if they printed it on yellow parchment and hung it with a rusty nail on a telephone pole. “At two o’clock on Saturday we will convene at Union Square and proceed up Market Street bearing a coffin to the Steps of City Hall,” the email read. I half expected to see my fellow citizens marching, torch in hand, past the window.

The email went on: “Maybe you’ve watched this unique city’s culture, built on diversity and a thriving art community, being strangled by blindly managed growth in recent years.” Maybe these folks should March on to Fresno or Stockton and see how much art and culture there is there. In fact, up until this time I thought the city had lyrically been built on rock-n-roll, an art form no doubt. But its been more than a decade since aging Starship members sang that mantra, so I figured I’d better have another look. I went on a quest for new art.

Not far from my door the first signs of what could be art appeared. The silhouette of a black cat had been stenciled on the sidewalk with the words “Maggie The Cat Is Alive.” Reassuring to Tennessee Williams no doubt, but what good is it when culture, diversity and art are all dead?

I thought back to the email notice:

“Those who remain in San Francisco must band together to uphold the integrity of one of the world’s most inspiring cities.” Had there been an evacuation? I wasn’t sure…and integrity probably couldn’t come from sidewalk stencils, so I kept looking.

MuralOn the streetcar riding down Market Street towards the waterfront, I noticed painters were painting a large mural depicting books, musical notes and other items that could be called art. The mural was so new the paint was wet, but I guess it could be dismissed as a tribute to the rich culture and diversity that used to be here.

Union SquareI got off the streetcar at Montgomery Street and headed towards Chinatown. Walking by Union Square I noticed a crowd of people gathered to see square canvases with colorful paint on wooden triangular things. A banner hanging across the entrance said something about the San Francisco Artists Guild. It couldn’t be art though, I thought…they carried the last of it out a week ago in a coffin.

Through the Stockton Street Tunnel, I encountered a number of music schools, as well as banners and alley murals in Chinatown. The sounds of music students practicing Asian drum rhythms could be heard bouncing off the brick walls into the crowded streets. About Jazz Muralan hour later in the Italian neighborhood of North Beach, I found more murals, this time depicting jazz musicians, along with galleries and other stores selling what some might try to call art if the didn’t know there was no such thing in San Francisco anymore.

By the time I reached the waterfront, I had reached my conclusion. This city is dripping with art. It’s riddled with diversity and seething with culture, despite–or perhaps even because of–what the email referred to as “blindly managed growth.”

The rental prices, for offices and living space, are high in San Francisco. But they’re just as high in New York, and if there isn’t art and culture in New York, then it no longer exists anywhere.

Life has never been easy for artists. And many may in fact be moving away because of the cost and availability of space. That’s hardly enough evidence to conclude that fewer non-profits will mean an end to San Francisco culture and diversity. Besides, hard times make for good art. Don’t believe me? See what low-rent, plush carpet, air conditioning and chocolate do to your creativity.

And march all you want. There’s no answer to the dilemma to be found at city hall or by carrying the past out in a coffin. Today, San Francisco is a city set to experience monumental forces of change that bring an ever increasing diversity of people, ideas and agendas together. The mix is sometimes so rich you can feel the mental molecules interacting in the streets.

“Our purpose is not just another protest; it’s a theatrical event we hope will increase public awareness, create solidarity and raise issues of how change can be implemented,” the notice continued. But as long as there are artists still creating, even as the voices of protest fade, history will not need to remember this.

Lyricist Paul Kantner writes on the Jefferson Starship web site that San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded entirely by reality.… That reality is that artists will always be here, no matter how much the rent is, because things are, how shall we say it, well, boring elsewhere. Kantner also notes that the fog gives San Francisco a natural advantage: “God can’t see what you’re doing.”

ArtWhen one San Francisco is over, another one begins. Just as a long-time resident artist becomes frustrated and leaves, ten more come through the revolving urban door and begin life without the memory of the way things used to be. Some people will be artists and will spend their time and energy feeding off the city’s energy and creating, no matter how high the rent.

A new city–one that may not look like the old, low-rise, white, and liberal San Francisco of old–is here to stay. You may say San Francisco is over, but that’s your San Francisco. Mine is a city with Golden Gates open to anyone who wants to come in and try to recreate it their way.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me