As of a little over a week ago, I’ve been living at my former, beloved home around 16th and Mission streets in San Francisco for a way-overdue break from a year of caretaking, mostly amid the “second-generation” devastation of economic decline in mid-Michigan (my parents’ longtime home). Each day here in SF only underscores the other side of the capitalist coin in these contemporary United States: the devastation caused by the dizzying economic upscaling by/for the new, young generation of rich high-tech workers/owners (there are also poor, exploited high-tech workers, including those imported temporarily from low-wage countries, laboring in neo-sweatshops for nearly no wages). Both regions — the Rusted Belt and glittery city by the sea — seem to me reflections of the experiments and anxiety of an increasingly polarized United States, itself experiencing the anxiety of a precipitous and likely unstoppable decline in geopolitical as well as economic power.
Yesterday, I spent about an hour outside Thrift Town on Mission at 17th Street, as part of a small demonstration related to the fifth eviction in the past few months of tenants from a big, visible, cornerstone of a building that for decades, has reflected the affordability, diversity, and cultures of this neighborhood, and with things like its big thrift shop, offered economical necessities for the many low- and working-class residents. This is not to romanticize poverty; it’s to decry neighborhoods and perhaps soon a city for the rich that needs no gates to protect itself. A new owner bought this building in April and set about all sorts of schemes, legal and via harassment, to force people out, in what seems a strategy of divide (or at least isolate) and conquer. One tenant, for instance, received a 400% rent increase, but was told it would only be 300% if they didn’t tell anyone else. They can’t afford to rent there anymore.
In handing out literature, I ended up chatting with numerous older folks, mostly people of color with various illnesses or disabilities who spoke broken English (to my nonexistent Spanish or Chinese), all of whom were eager to share their stories and have me listen as well as offer them compassion. The stories were eerily similar, such as: “I’ve lived nearby Thrift Town in the Mission for decades. I can’t walk well any longer due to arthritis, but I can go the one block to my favorite grocery for fresh vegetables each day and another block to where I work. My landlord keeps trying to ‘soft’ evict me by offering money for me to leave. Where would I go? Where could I live so close to everything I need? I don’t want to leave.” Or: “My 77-year-old friend who has lived in his apartment for 35 years is being forced out because the landlord’s 2 kids now want to live in the Mission, where it’s cool.” Or: “A development company recently bought my building and sent me a bill, saying I had to pay a few thousands to renovate my own apartment. I’m talking to a free lawyer soon, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t have anywhere else to go and I’ve lived in the Mission for a long time.”
Here’s another story, from the most recent eviction yesterday from the building that houses Thrift Town in SF’s rapidly changing Mission:
The equally hard story for me to discover is the lack of fight, even if it’s a losing battle, on the part of the majority of anarchists and other anticapitalists, most of whom have moved — often by choice, though some by eviction and/or economic pressure — to Oakland, where the logic of restructuring new “creative capitals/cities” is starting to work its displacements too. Foreclosures in Oakland paved the way for spaces for those evicted from San Francisco, who now desire in various ways to replicate a the radical chic bohemia of San Francisco in Oakland neighborhood not quite as excited to see this influx of counter- and hip cultural scenes. This isn’t to blame per se those who’ve moved to Oakland; it’s to point to the ugly, bad choices we all have to make under the crushing systemic shifts that capitalism repetitively dreams up. Still, even if most of San Francisco’s anticapitalists are now Oakland’s anticapitalists, we all share in what’s at stake in defending, again even if for naught, what’s being lost in San Francisco. What happens in the “most livable” of cities under e-capitalism will no doubt spread its tentacles outward with cookie-cutter development patterns elsewhere (say, like Oakland).
Not that everyone involved is an antiauthoritarian, but the small crew with Eviction Free Summer in San Francisco — doing education and direct action via a mutual aid model with those resisting evictions, hard and soft — are some of the lone shining stars of valiant efforts to make the theft of lives, homes, health, and cultures visible. If you’re still around SF, join these modern-day Don Quixotes, or take BART across from the East Bay and lend a rebellious hand. Many people may have to give up this city and especially the Mission to the self-satisfied, a bit-too-happy e-nouveau riche, yet not, I hope, without a tussle.
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photo by Cindy Milstein, some of the last remnants of sidewalk stenciling, SF’s Mission, August 2013)