None Meaner Than Gina: Ms. Arnold Cozy with Capital
Issue #54, March 2001
For its inhabitants, Paris is either a great marketplace of consumption, a giant stockyard of labor, an arena of ambitions, or simply a rendezvous of pleasures. It is not their home....
— Baron Hausmann, in an 1864 speech
Baron Hausmann once quipped "My titles? I have been named artist-demolitionist". San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown might look upon the havoc created among artists and musicians under his reign and claim credit as master Artist-Displacementist. As the Baron destroyed old working peoples' quarters and communities by cutting wide boulevards through them, Brown destroys communities with wanton dot-com-driven gentrification.
The musicians and artists who live among them, and live or hone their craft in out of the way industrial spaces, are among the first to go. Not only does this process have much capital behind it — fed by the deep-pocket venture capital organizations of Silicon Valley an hour to the south — but it has its epigones in the press, most recently rock journalist Gina Arnold.
"This is the dot-comers' time, and to deny them their due is not only petty but shortsighted." Thus Gina Arnold glides into the closing paragraph of her article "Rock Was Never Meant to Be in the High-Rent District" in the New York Times (November 26, 2000). Dripping with dismissal of the local musicians upon whose backs she built her critical career and other artists displaced by the ongoing San Francisco land grab, it is as if we are reading a sentimental writer at the end of Reconstruction sniffing "This is the Confederate veterans' and Ku Kluxers' time".
The article justifies an inevitable engine of history, regression and cruelty. Its bristling contempt ranks her with French Queen Marie Antoinette commenting on the bread-less, "Let them eat cake". Arnold quaintly pretends to wax melancholic about the closing of Downtown Rehearsal, a warehouse that provided practice space for 500 bands, purchased by a developer turning it into high-tech offices. She shrugs off as quixotic a benefit where Green Day and others played in solidarity with the displaced bands.
Not only do musicians and other artists have to contend with the forces of capital shoving them out of the once-hospitable city, but they have to contend with seeing their case belittled by turncoats like gentrification's sycophant, Gina Arnold.
For contrast with Arnold's callous and wrongheaded piece for an out-of-town audience, let's look at a spunky neighborhood paper. The twenty-year-old New Mission News has become the paper of record for this process, since the archaic San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner generally serve as Chamber of Commerce cheerleaders. The News' "To the Egress" column gives first-person accounts of those displaced. Individual members of the creative community who have been evicted include artist-curator Rene Yañez (co-founder of Galeria de La Raza and Brown Sheep Project) after thirty years in the neighborhood and twenty-two in his building; Anthony McKinney's custom photo lab Exposed; and Ricardo Cartagena, hounded out of El Salvador for his association with the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN). Yet for each of these are many immigrant families, single mothers with teenagers or younger children, and other disturbing stories of eviction. Displacement of seniors from their long-time homes has hastened several deaths as well.
Besides "To the Egress", the News features a tradition of quirky over-the-top columnists. "Silicon Satan", for example, embodies all that is reprehensible in the voice of the impatient self-serving gentrifier; he appears as Bill Gates in a raccoon mask (Billionaire as Beagle Boy burglar). But beyond such features, the News distinguishes itself for coverage of arts groups dissolved or dislocated as a result of the horrendous rent increases, as well as acts of resistance to the displacement that have united various communities — artists, musicians, Latinos, lesbians and gays, renters and small businesses — in this diverse neighborhood. The paper loves to cover a good fight.
Conceptual artists like the (reborn!) Nestor Makhno have published and put up anti-gentrification posters detailing where the sugar goes into the gas tank of SUVs, or other creative acts. Some muralists proved savvy negotiators of five-figure goodbye gifts when the buildings they rented were slated for demolition. All through 2000 there were hearty collective actions in which artists played a part turning up the heat on city government, the there-goes-the-neighborhood private developers, or the more egregious dot-coms.
A town hall meeting on housing called by the North Mission Neighborhood Association in June drew over two hundred people. Housing pressure in urban areas like this one is at the boiling point, since only one housing unit per 3.4 new San Francisco jobs was created in the 1990s. Live-work spaces, originally intended to house artists, are increasingly used as dot-com offices. Conversions of old industrial buildings turn them into office complexes, not residences, by the time the fresh paint dries. These behemoths are not assessed the municipal rates that underwrite transportation, school, affordable housing and child care fees, such as downtown office buildings pay.
If zoned properly, the 580 Howard Street building should have brought to the city treasury some $500,000 in municipal rates; it didn't. Attorney Sue Hestor proved this shell game by calling several dozen of the building's lofts asking for the "head of the household" and each time was told "this is an office" or "this is a business".
On May 4, a routine daytime meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission saw 145 angry protestors trying to stop the Bryant Square development, a complex of dot-coms. The Commission tabled the issue until their June 26 meeting, where it was approved, but before then faced over 500 angry Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) protesters on June 13. The September 7 meeting was ringed with forty cops who aggressively evicted MAC protesters.
On July 27 over a hundred protesters crashed a gathering at the huge and hulking armory, built after World War One in its working-class neighborhood in part to more easily address labor unrest. On that day the armory was hosting a meeting of developers planning conversions to dot-com offices.
In mid-August an all-night two-day vigil organized by a coalition called All Against Ruthless Greedy Gentrification (AARGG) was held for Dancers Group Studio Theater, evicted after nearly 20 years in their space following a 500% rent increase. As festive as this neighborhood likes its political actions, there were round-the-clock performances held by the San Francisco Mime Troupe (no, not whiteface mime, but political theater), the Capoeira Brazilian Cultural Center, and the dancing Devilettes to show support and keep spirits high. One worldly woman in attendance compared the trend towards displacement of artists from low-rent spaces to make room for new businesses, to Berlin after the Wall fell in 1989. Rent increases during 2000 forced Dance Mission, 50 Oak Street, Brady Studio and Waking Dream from their spaces. The Film Arts Foundation and ATA felt increasingly jeopardized in their own month-to-month leases in the midst of the city's real estate cauldron.
BigStep.com purchased the Bay View Bank building and evicted two dozen social service agencies (many addressing needs of the Latino community), artists and businesses. Nonetheless, BigStep's website crowed about its mission to help and honor small businesses. Its CEO, former Dartmouth College anti-apartheid activist Andrew Beebe, claims to have offered development skills to the displaced groups. Yet the neighborhood remains skeptical. Some prefer to show their displeasure with paintball guns directed at the building, the neighborhood's sole skyscraper. In another dot-com protest on December 7, 2000, about one hundred Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) members surrounded Zing.com protesting the company's undisputed purchase of a 48-unit live-work building for its offices, barricading doorways.
Only two weeks before the Zing thing, Gina Arnold delivered her Thanksgiving turkey to musicians ousted as a similar building converted to more lucrative tenants. What makes her "Rock Was Never Meant to Be in the High-Rent District" so lamentable is that Arnold has a unique place in Bay Area music criticism. Writing for the East Bay Express and San Jose's Metro, she is a stylistic student of Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs. She passes from the music to the feelings it elicits in her to teenage memories of when she first heard it (evocative in retrospectives of R.E.M., David Byrne, Robyn Hitchcock or Bob Mould). She has championed those effervescent Palo Alto women, the Donnas, as well as political artists like Pansy Division and Billy Bragg. She saw the Sex Pistols before they broke up, and is no Janey-come-lately to rock civilization and its discontents.
But lately Arnold has inspired some of the most vehement opposition. "Gina Arnold Must Die" T-shirts have appeared. One English instructor at Berkeley reports that students generally think she sucks.
One wonders if some of the ire isn't the same sexism that plagued Pauline Kael thirty years ago, especially since Arnold not only writes about rock'n'roll boys on Shakin' Street but gives women musicians an equally fair shake. Like Kael, Arnold can often be counted on for epiphanies of clear analysis, as in "Surprise — the Spice Girls Aren't Worth Hating" when she pointed out a double standard for studio- or manager-manufactured black bands (En Vogue, Destiny's Child) and white ones. In a nuanced appreciation of Liz Phair she concludes "what makes Phair so great is the way she has managed to elevate the American white girl's inherently shallow experience to the subject of great art". Arnold has been attentive to the transformations of Courtney Love and her band Hole, and — using appearances as manifestations of meaning — how by their third album Love was coiffed, made up and "neater, but much less distinctive, and the music on Celebrity Skin...follows suit".
This was not Arnold's first dubious writing on housing. Tenant activists had struggled for years with the San Francisco Housing Authority to delay the 1996 demolition of the nineteen story Geneva Towers until all displaced tenants were housed in regular units. The new housing wasn't provided, and some tenants were soon living in their cars. Arnold wrote of the mammoth building's implosion as a pyrotechnic rock 'n' roll spectacle, and missed the opportunity to call the City of San Francisco to task.
Because of her track record of solid but contested integrity, it is distressing to read Arnold championing the removal of musicians from their urban digs. It is as shameless a reversal as Courtney Love's embrace of couture after Hollywood success. I have worked in the digital technology industry (or taught digital media skills) for seventeen years, and I am distinctly unimpressed with dot-coms and the overheated work ethos they promote to eager acolytes. I feel solidarity with their troops seated diligently at their computers, but only a sucker works for an employer more than the forty-hour week your grandparents fought for and won a half-century or more ago.
If the usually sentient Arnold has not completely sold out to the dot.com owners, then she is at best a star-struck child. When I was in 6th grade, I announced in a ditto-copied classroom publication that I was renouncing rock n' roll to find solace in the music of Beethoven. My piano lessons were going great guns, so I thought this put me in the elite and obviously endeavored to impress my teacher and probably my parents. But I was eleven and very childish. Gina Arnold looks just as immature and foolish trying to please her new moneyed masters.
Mike Mosher left the San Francisco Bay area in 2000 after 22 years there. Long ago he played art rock in the Mission.
The New Mission News costs $24 a year from 3288 21st Street #202, San Francisco, CA 94110. For more information write Victor Miller.
Thanks to John Brady, Joe Lockard, Steven Rubio, and Aaron Shuman for insights and edits.