Being a broke young creative in San Francisco

Following the news that a San Francisco tech bro wants to rid the city of ‘riff-raff’, we asked some young creatives what it’s really like trying to make it in the city

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Clarion Alley
The Portable Artists Studio in Clarion Alley, which is the epicentre of San Francisco's gentrificationAlex Nichols/James Mushi

San Francisco; Bushwick; Shoreditch. All places that were once the centre of thriving artistic communities, lured there by ramshackle studio spaces and cheap rents. Now they’re the sort of places where two-bed ‘penthouses’ are marketed by natty estate agents in too-shiny suits to wealthy types wanting to absorb the fading lucre of a once-dynamic area.

Much has been written about how extreme gentrification destroys urban creative scenes, spreading like a sarcoma throughout a city until only the wealthy and privileged remain. San Francisco has been a particularly stark example of this process. Looking at the city now, the contrast between the affluent Silicon Valley types and those in San Francisco’s historically rich arts scene shows up as clearly as a malignant tumour on a black and white X-ray.

Christopher Statton and Megan Wilson are artists and long-time community activists with San Francisco’s Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), an all-volunteer, artist-run public art space. I ask Statton whether he feels the city has been taking over by tech types. Tech types” wouldn’t be the words I would use to describe the new demographic to the city. “Young, privileged, and neo-liberal” I feel is a clearer picture of the new San Francisco.”

Statton points to economic policies to explain why San Francisco’s art scene is struggling. “The city did a disservice to its residents when they gave tech companies special tax breaks. It reinforced the entitled culture of “you are the special exception” and “we will change everything to meet your wishes”. Now we see that behaviour replicated throughout the city with the residents who are replacing the long-term San Franciscans. We are seeing the replacement of community values. The replacement of public thinking. There are fewer and fewer places where one can go for free and just be.”

Housing in particular remains a huge challenge for ordinary San Francisco citizens. “The overall impact of what feels like an all-out war on the Bay Area’s low and middle-income residents over the past six years is strongly felt”, Wilson says. “My heart deeply aches for so many folks who are struggling and feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been almost unbelievable to watch this city that I’ve invested my heart and soul into over the past 20 years being erased and changing from a city that used to feel welcoming, supportive, creative, and radical to one I don’t recognize and feel like a tourist in my own home.”

To find out more, Dazed reached out to three young creatives who’ve tried to make it in the San Francisco arts scene. These are their stories.

ALEX NICHOLS, ARTIST AND WRITER

For me, being a creative in San Francisco always felt like being part of a thriving community. But this is the thing. Change can slip up on you without you really knowing it. One musician friend moved to the East Coast. Two friends moved to Oakland, then three, then four. Slowly, artists and writers in my community are moving out, but one by one, so it creeps up on you.

My studio used to be in the Mission district of San Francisco. There were 70 artists working in the building with me. We were a community of filmmakers, painters, performance artists and writers on the top floor of an old brick building. It was dynamic. 

I wasn’t watching the situation as carefully as I should have been. When the Google buses started picking people up outside a small café near my studio I didn’t understand what was happening. Did I have any idea how a bus system could shift an entire city?

The tech buses arrived on that corner and soon after the building my studio was in got sold. We fought to stop the sale for over a year before we were moved out and a tech company moved in. That’s when I understood how drastically San Francisco was changing.

I spent months looking for a new studio space with other artists. We’d meet in cafes and ask each other if anyone had found anything. The answer was always no. Finding space in a city where rent had skyrocketed was impossible. I kept asking myself, “what can an artist studio space be?” and “what brings a community of artists together?”

Eventually I collaborated with James Mushi to create the Portable Studio Project. Now we can take our studio everywhere. We wanted to make a commentary on the changes that are happening in the city.  I wanted to say—“we are here, we can make art anywhere, you cannot erase us.”

The key to keeping creative work alive is community and collaboration but it also requires risk taking. So an artist must be able to change—the capacity for change is really the necessary skin of an artist.”

CINDY SHIH, ARTIST

It’s an interesting time. Being an artist in San Francisco is very, very difficult because of money. Most people who have made it here have figured out a way to make it work: whether it's through a spouse with a stable income, rent control, below market rents, or just plain old fashioned scrappiness. 

I have a baseline dollar figure I need to make in order to make ends meet, and I am constantly finding ways to utilise my own strengths and resources to make it work. I currently am juggling about eight different gigs (not all at once, thankfully). Initially, all my gigs weren't all related to art (I wrote copy for websites, did some online marketing for other artists, etc) but they have gradually become more and more relevant to my work-- at least tangentially related.

I often think about leaving San Francisco. I think everyone has an escape hatch we hope to never have to activate. Mine is Denver, because my partner's family lives there. It's not much cheaper, but they have a growing art scene that seems promising. Neither of us wants to leave San Francisco though, there is something incredible about this city. Perhaps because we know our days here might be numbered, we feel so grateful to be able to live here. 

There are benefits. I’ve found the art community here is tight-knit and seem to be more generous and supportive of one another than in other places. Maybe it’s because we all experience the same struggles. Organisations such as the Asian American Women's Artists Association and other groups help to empower minority and female artists. If I hadn’t found mentors in these groups, I would never have had the courage to be an artist.

My studio was shut down and bought by Chinese developers. Every day, I walk through my neighbourhood feeling dowdy while being surrounded by well-heeled, well-dressed young people who complain about MUNI (our transit system) or talk loudly about their eye-roll inducing start-up ideas in cafes. But I don’t think it’s just tech that is the problem. Maybe tech people are young and more obnoxious, but the real issue is class warfare. The city is being taken over by money, plan and simple.

BROCK BRAKE, PHOTOGRAPHER AND CURATOR

Coming from a small farm town in Ohio, living in San Francisco was always the dream. Now more and more people are moving to Oakland. I just moved myself, back in October.

Looking back, it was so much harder to get by than I realised at the time. I never realised how much I was doing for so little pay. I had my doubts, but I was so grateful to be working with international artists at the gallery that it seemed worth all the struggle and uncertainty.

I never thought I’d leave, though. I love San Francisco for its beauty and creative charm, but I just wasn’t happy any more. I stopped going outside as much in order to work more hours and make the X amount of money I needed to get by for the month. When I lived in San Francisco my partner and I were living with three other people, we’d just gotten engaged and I didn’t want to start a family like that.

There was a time when San Francisco’s cultural and creative scene used to outweigh the downsides, but it doesn’t anymore. A lot of creative culture is slowly bleeding out. Right now it's survival of the fittest in San Francisco. The freelance lifestyle is very competitive, and galleries struggle to pay their artists on time while keeping the rent paid and the lights on.

One gallery in particular, FFDG, which was a huge source of inspiration for me in my career, is now shutting its doors in a week because they can’t find an affordable lease. With their doors closing it’s really hard to remain optimistic about the future of the San Francisco creative community. Especially as galleries now have to show works that are guaranteed to sell, as opposed to experimenting and taking risks with emerging creatives. In today’s San Francisco, you can’t take many risks.

There is palpable tension between the creative community and tech workers. The stench of entitlement is strong when we are constantly hearing about tech workers trying to kick local kids out of their park that they and their families have been playing at for years because of a new app that allows you to buy public space. Too bad these native Mexican kids don't have this new app.

It’s not just the tech types though. Maybe tech started it, but now it's bigger than that. It’s about greed, and the desire for more. 'The American Dream.'

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