Didnt We All Leave You, San Francisco?
Boom: The Sound of Eviction, Directed by Francine Cavanaugh, A. Mark Liiv, and Adams Wood, produced by Whispered Media, 2002, 96 min.
The vast domed hall of the old Armory in San Francisco’s Mission District, which sat empty, rotting for the last several decades, comes to life with martini-swilling dot-commers and real estate developers dressed in army fatigues partying out. Caterers in camo serve canapés and booze from olive-drab, net-covered tents. The theme of the event suits the occasion—a celebratory re-launch of the Armory’s cavernous insides as swank offices for the booming tech sector. And, perhaps unwittingly, the fete resonates with the deeper meaning of the battle of gentrification that is driving working class residents out of the neighborhood. Suddenly, a young Latina student who snuck past security seizes the microphone and disrupts the self-satisfied proceedings with an urgent announcement about the destruction of the barrio.
This scene and many others from the frontlines are captured in the new documentary Boom: The Sound of Eviction. Whispered Media’s first feature length film traces the typography of the Mission skirmish line and the formidable resistance that residents and activists mustered against the seemingly unstoppable conquest of their neighborhood by newly moneyed elites. Tenaciously following the unfolding events with lots of on-the-scene footage, the filmmakers tell a clear and rich story.
By the summer of 2000, the carnage was piling up: It seemed like everyone was getting evicted, from working class seniors and families to non-profit and arts groups. Mayor Willie Brown’s tacit endorsement of it all—“If you don’t earn over $45,000 a year, move to a different city”—was most clearly demonstrated by his support for the law-breaking triumvirate of the Planning Department, Planning Commission, and maverick developer Joe O’Donoghue’s Residential Builders Association. City planners were not enforcing legal limits on the construction of new offices and the more that were built, the more rich dot-commers moved in, wildly jacking up rents and fueling both residential and commercial evictions. City government facilitated the gentrification wave by overlooking laws that require new developments to contribute to low-income housing, roads, and schools, losing over $20 million in tax revenues as a result. Meanwhile, real estate profiteers were making out like gangbusters.
Enter la gente. As the documentary illustrates, Latino and white lefties along with regular folks of no particular political persuasion were organizing on a number of fronts. The Marenco family, faced with an eviction notice, pulled together friends and neighbors to picket their landlord at his corner store, disrupting business and ultimately triumphing. A united front of local non-profits and activists, known as The Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition—or more evocatively “the MAC”—took city government and developers to task for their depredations, most notably at a meeting where 500 residents confronted Gerald Greene, head of the Planning Department, in a bitter three-hour verbal assault. Artists also staged numerous simultaneous street performances protesting the wholesale eviction of several important neighborhood arts organizations.
Other representations of the recent struggle in San Francisco, notably on NPR and in The New York Times, portrayed artists as the primary victims. Boom does not repeat this mistake. While the documentary acknowledges the plight of artists, it tempers the sometimes self-pitying and self-serving theatrics of white middle-class dancers and would-be curators by focusing on the larger, often overtly racist, and truly massive evisceration of the Mission’s mostly Latino working class.
As Boom points out, of the $20 billion in venture capital invested nationally in the 1990s, a staggering $7.5 billion of it went directly to San Francisco. The ’90s economic expansion was not just a time, it also had a place; this influx of cash has a spatial component. As the 2000 census data confirms, the main beneficiaries were unquestionably those at the top. While incomes rose in city centers, they declined in the peripheries. This directly echoes the geography of gentrification. People earning more dough were moving into working class neighborhoods, displacing lower wage earners who were forced to move farther out (sometimes much farther) for cheaper rents. As the middle class dwindled during the ’90s , the economy became more polarized and real wages lagged behind 1989 levels right up until 1998; only a year and a half before the crash did the boom translate into modestly rising blue-collar paychecks. This means working folks had less money to out-bid options-crazed yuppies on over-priced flats, especially in the Mission where 80 percent of the inhabitants are renters. By the end of the decade only 11 percent of San Francisco could afford market-rate rent.
Whispered Media’s excellent flick also raises the downside of the bubble days in other parts of the Bay Area as it follows a single mother evicted from her house in Oakland and thrown onto the rental market of boom-time ’99. Unable to find an affordable abode, she ends up sleeping on friend’s living room floor with her five children and then eventually leaving the area altogether. Boom’s importance is that it documents a tale that could otherwise disappear—after all, the evicted, forced to move away, take their stories with them. Boom should be requisite viewing for students, activists, and communities facing gentrification, be they in Tokyo, Paris, or the Mission.
Heather Rogers is a Bay Area writer and photographer.