By Ariana Faye Allensworth, Adrienne Hall, and Erin McElroy
In August 2015, majority Black and working-class tenants from the Midtown Park apartment complex in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood launched the longest rent strike in the city’s history, a fight that continues to this day. Midtown is a city-owned, low rent housing property built in 1968 during the height of San Francisco’s urban renewal project. This process displaced thousands of Black residents and Black businesses from the Western Addition and Fillmore neighborhoods–an area known as the “Harlem of the West.” The razing of these then thriving Black neighborhoods had been racistly enacted in the name of “slum clearance,” following the post-war California Community Redevelopment Act of 1945, and a San Francisco Planning Commission act of 1947 (Hartman 2002; Thompson 2016). In short, over 104 square blocks of homes, small businesses, venues, and churches were destroyed, including over 2,500 historic Victorian houses.
While somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people were displaced during this process, moving largely to the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhoods or out of the city completely, 30 affordable buildings were constructed to offer some amelioration to the recently displaced largely Black tenants. Midtown with its 139 units was one of these projects (Kresich 2016). Residents who moved into Midtown were thus able to remain in San Francisco and maintain a sense of security – that is, until recently. Midtown had been cooperatively managed by a tenant board that kept rents affordable. But the city sold the property in 2013, breaking promises to transfer ownership to the people who had cared for the community for decades. Instead, tenants were left at the hands of Mercy Housing, a non-profit housing corporation that increased rents and instituted rules that were designed to force out long term residents of color. Mercy denied tenants rent control status, raised their rents, and made it impossible for residents to buy their units. Today, the fight to Save Midtown is one that connects the present “housing crisis” to longstanding histories of racism and exploitation that devalue Black lives and the spaces where poor Black people reside. It also constitutes San Francisco’s largest rent strike since 1978.
Since the beginning of the decade, there has been heightened awareness of gentrification throughout the Bay Area, particularly in San Francisco. From rising rents to heightened eviction rates and corresponding houselessness, from the loss of small, working-class oriented businesses to the groundswell of bourgeoise establishments, tech startups, and co-living/working spaces, the urban fabric of the city has been transformed. While the tech industry plays a large part in this process, so does the real estate industry, with the two forces entangling in ways reminiscent of the late 1990s Dot Com Boom (Mirabal 2009). Yet, we would be remiss to offer the current Tech Boom 2.0 and its gentrifying effects a genealogy that only goes back to the 1990s.
On the contrary, the heightened forms of dispossession manifesting today in the Bay Area can be traced back to the first moments of settler colonialism in the Bay Area. This began in 1776 when the Spanish colonized the region, killing Indigenous Ohlone people and mandating forced conversions in its newly constructed Missions. By the end of Spanish rule, Franciscan missionaries baptized 81,586 Native people and buried 62,600 in California (Madley 2016, p. 36). By the time that the United States annexed California in 1848, the Indigenous population had been cut in half, setting the tone for the mid-19th century Gold Rush. Settlers speculated upon mineral wealth and mapped the region as empty of inhabitants, or terra nullius. This decimated many remaining Indigenous communities, land rights, and ecosystems. By 1910, the Bay Area’s Native population was down to 184 (Milliken, Shoup, and Ortiz, 2009, p. 179). Yet to date, Ohlone communities endure, and continue organizing for rights, recognition, and reparations in the Bay Area. In doing so, they link past colonial violence to contemporary gentrification and settler culture. As Julian Brave NoiseCatwrites, “Today’s land rush is nothing new. For more than 200 years, there has been a run on Bay Area real estate — a relentless wave of colonization, then suburbanization and now gentrification that left the Ohlone, the Bay Area’s first people, landless”(NoiseCat 2018).
Several additional events that took place during the 20th century also set the stage for the current moment. These include histories of redlining in the 1920s and 1930s that paved the way for racist divestment (Jenkins 2018; Self 2005); Cold War technopolitics, corresponding suburban white flight, and anti-communist attempts of “urban pacification” and racial surveillance (Roy, Schrader, and Crane 2015); and urban redevelopment and corollary displacement (Dillon 2015), to name a few. These urban processes inform the palimpsest that is the contemporary United States, a nation where incidents of settler colonialism and racial dispossession overlap and intersect with one another, often in the same locales. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project – a project that we are all members of and that we describe in more length below – came together to document these reoccurring and ongoing processes.
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project emerged in 2013 during the dawn of the current tech boom in San Francisco, largely in order to provide data and tools useful to on-the-ground anti-displacement organizing. While initially the volunteer-run collective imagined that it would only provide one or two maps of evictions so that direct action and policy groups could organize with better eviction data, the AEMP has since expanded in scope, method, and geography. For one, it launched an oral history and narrative chapter in 2014, attentive to the fact that eviction markers and choropleths (shaded geographical areas) on cartesian maps, as anti-eviction as they might be, still reduce complex life stories and neighborhood histories to “dots on a map” (Maharawal and McElroy 2018).
We also became aware of the implicit violence produced by only producing maps of loss. We began producing oral histories and video pieces, rendering not only experiences of loss, but also resistance. These grew multiple life forms and iterations, finding their way into mural work, our first zine, light projection work, community storytelling events, presentations, reports, and more. We also soon began working in Alameda County, mostly in Oakland, in collaboration with an array of community partners and accomplices, much as we had already been doing in San Francisco (Graziani and Shi forthcoming). Over the last year, we opened chapters in New York City and Los Angeles, also tethered to other grassroots networks and groups.
We realized, however, that there was still more to tell beyond our current work. In particular, we became aware of the temporal myopia we were accidentally participating in by dehistoricizing the current moment of dispossession. We found this to be particularly true when thinking through the roles of race and coloniality in dispossession. For this reason, over the last couple of years, the Bay Area AEMP chapter has been underway in producing new work that contextualizes the history undergirding the present moment. Although we recognize the importance of maintaining a critique of the Tech Boom 2.0 and the dispossession it incites, it is important for us not to deracinate displacement from its historic roots (McElroy and Werth 2019; Ramírez 2019).
We don’t want to simply map the raciality of current dispossession and resistance without attending to its longer durée. Neither do we want to chalk up the present moment, in which, for instance, the Black population is steadily declining in both San Francisco and Oakland (AEMP 2016; EDC and AEMP 2016), only to the Tech Boom and its various technologies of governance, geopolitics, and real estate, racist as they are. Put otherwise, we began to realize that it was time to better map history and its ghosts. How else to understand struggles such as that of Midtown, which, while connected to the revaluation of contemporary urban space in the wake of the Tech Boom, is also an update of redevelopment histories?
In 2015 and 2016, we launched into the creation of two new narrative/textual works. The latter of these has transformed into an atlas, entitled Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area of Displacement and Resistance, which will come out with PM Press in 2020. With multiple AEMP editors and nearly 100 new visual pieces, maps, and narratives, the atlas is divided into seven interlinked chapters. The titles of these alone speak to how we have begun to theorize the thematics and temporalities of our mapping work: Evictions and Root Shock, Indigenous Geographies, Environmental Racism and Health, Gentrification and State Violence, Transportation and Infrastructure, Migration and Relocation, and Speculation and Speculative Futures. Yet a year before convening the editorial team of Counterpoints, several AEMP project members began a different text piece, (Dis)location/Black Exodus, which we describe in more length below.
Our (Dis)location series is one of several projects which formed in response to the emergent desire to expand AEMP’s storytelling strategies, and to better contextualize the history upon which the contemporary moment rests in San Francisco. Launched in 2015 (the same year that the Midtown Rent Strike began), with support from Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure grant, the project asks, what role can arts and culture play in our collective memory? The project takes the form of a print/online zine and public workshop series that uses arts-based methods to amplify the narratives and resistance of Bay Area communities facing displacement. Much like the origin story of our oral history project, (Dis)location was born out of an interest in humanizing data made visible by our quantitative maps. Committed to challenging traditional notions of where knowledge resides, the project collectivizes the archival process by foregrounding the voices of those often left out of the “official” historical record.
Activated by the unpresented out migration of San Francisco’s Black population, the inaugural chapter of (Dis)location, titled Black Exodus, aims to assert a multimedia topography of Black history in San Francisco with an emphasis on Black cultural production, housing, and resistance. The zine is centered around over thirty oral histories by long term residents, educators, community activists, community-based organizations, and artists that we gathered between 2017 and 2019. Together these stories span more than a century’s worth of memory on events, people, places, and movements that are particular to Black life and experience in San Francisco. Phyllis Bowie’s oral history, for example, begins with her family’s move from Louisiana to San Francisco during the Great Migration of the 1930s, to what it was like for her growing up in the Western Addition and the Fillmore in the 1960s, and her current organizing efforts as one of the leading activists from the struggle to Save Midtown.
The zine begins with a question posed to the reader about relationships between (anti)Blackness and place, that we hope will shape readers’ engagement with topics of segregation, redevelopment and erasure, Black childhood, places of Black enjoyment and culture, and contestations over education, public housing, health, and environmental justice as they played out in the now ‘historically’ Black neighborhoods of San Francisco. Throughout the zine we use a thread motif to symbolize the interwoven nature of the individual stories and our work to thread them together and amplify the themes that emerged with historical research, photos, visual artwork, physical maps and creative cartographies. Much of the visual artwork in the zine was done by the (Dis)location project members and in partnership with artists from the 3.9 collective, a Black artist collective based in San Francisco. The zine closes with the aim of envisioning more just futures, and presents demand statements and resources from anti-displacement and housing justice organizations in San Francisco.
Ariana Faye Allensworth is a cultural producer, photographer, and educator with roots in New York City and San Francisco. She currently manages teen and neighborhood programs at the International Center of Photography and co-founded the New York City chapter of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. She is passionate about bridging connections between cultural production and radical social change.
Erin McElroy earned their doctoral degree in Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a focus on the politics of space, race, and technology in Romania and Silicon Valley. Erin cofounded the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in 2013, and more recently, co-launched the Radical Housing Journal. Erin has also been involved in direct action organizing in both the Bay Area and Romania. This fall, Erin will begin a postdoctoral position at NYU in order to investigate the artificial intelligence behind property technology and tech campus gentrification.
Adrienne R. Hall is a research-activist whose work focuses on issues of racism, space, health, and housing justice. She earned her Master’s degree in Public Health at San Francisco State University, where she was first introduced to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP). Adrienne is a co-editor of AEMP’s forthcoming Atlas and is a co-organizer and content creator for the (Dis)locations Project. In the fall, Adrienne will join the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill as a PhD student in geography where she hopes to think deeply about racial capitalism, dis/location, and the collective health of Black communities.
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