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Demonstrating may soothe the psyche, but it won't save San Francisco's arts scene

Wednesday, Aug 30 2000
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"My father called last weekend with a pleasant bit of news. He had been at the hospital visiting his old friend Earl Armantraut, a World War II conscientious objector and comrade in arms in protests against the Vietnam War, when he noticed a hospital employee repeatedly glancing his way.

"He eventually came up and said, "You must be Doug Smith,'" Dad recalled, adding that he couldn't for the life of him remember having met the young man. The orderly said: "You went up on Mount Shasta and protested the war in Vietnam, didn't you? I was just a kid when that war was going on, and I was terrified of it. It seemed like it was killing too many people, and it was too close to home. I admired what you did."

My father, like hundreds, then thousands, of Americans had made protesting the war his life's work during the late 1960s and early '70s. He gained a small amount of fame for an anti-war protest vigil atop Mount Shasta during the summer of 1971, and during the 1980s, both my parents were arrested around a dozen times apiece during anti-Central American war and anti-nuclear protest demonstrations. They've gone on to other things now, occasionally wondering whether what they did during those years made any difference. So it was fun to hear the pride in my dad's voice as he described his encounter with the hospital worker.

With this in mind, I found it hard to comprehend the sadness I felt earlier this month as I stood on 22nd Street at Mission watching artists, musicians, actors, and activists rally to protest the Mission District's art-space crisis.

About 500 people were on hand to denounce a landlord who had raised the rent on an outfit called Dancer's Group Studio, which had occupied the attic of the old Leeds Shoes building here. At first glance it seemed like just the sort of occasion that makes San Francisco a special city. There were ballerinas on bicycles acting out love and hate; a passionate priestess invoking the power of nature to protect the protest; and an acrobat who could do handstand pushups atop tenuously stacked tables.

The event was staged as "direct action" against the commercial rent hikes pushing artists, musicians, and nonprofit groups from locales all over the city, in the Mission District particularly. It was a success, too: It eventually received mention on the Associated Press wire, and in Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and our local newspapers.

But as is sometimes the case with "progressive advocacy" in San Francisco, this event seemed in one fell swoop to symbolize everything that's wrong with the gestural, rather than practical, way San Franciscans prefer to approach the city's social problems.

The 22nd-and-Mission event was billed as a progressive call to arms, but it was actually built around a personal spat between two wealthy, East Coast private school girls, each trying to out-liberal the other. As such, it was a public piece of psychotherapy staged as a solution to city problems, an untoward distraction amid San Francisco's dire arts-space crisis. It was the sort of intramural leftist grudge match that often seems to set the terms for political debate in San Francisco.

And it's not just San Francisco progressives who seem to be waylaid by pointless protests. After the pointless protest riots at the Republican and Democratic conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, respectively, the Mission rally seemed to suggest that the American left is wandering toward an uncertain destination.

Following a century graced by the 1920s and '30s labor movements, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, gay liberation, environmentalism, the nuclear freeze, and protests against the Central American wars, the American left finds itself backing street protests that make no clear complaint and have no clear demands.

"It was fun," said Rachel Kaplan, the 22nd Street protest's main organizer, reflecting a few days later. "We had a good time. I think it was a success."


There's no avoiding the reality that San Francisco's arts scene is in trouble. The Mission, one of the world's great urban artists' colonies, is suffering the equivalent of a pogrom. An acute demand for San Francisco office space, fueled by this region's technology-driven economic boom, has pushed up rents so far that dance groups, musicians, painters -- everyone who doesn't get a $6-per-square-foot return on his art -- is being forced to leave. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this is a terrible state of affairs. San Francisco's status as a world mecca for artists is a great spiritual landmark, an ethereal Eiffel Tower that stands to be dismantled within a year. Every week, leases are coming due by the dozen -- a performance theater here, a musician's practice space there, a dance space there. The city government, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to save less important city monuments, is doing nothing. Society-page arts benefactors are doing little. And artists and their supporters themselves seem confused, even paralyzed.

And that's too bad, because the arts really are in trouble, and we need practical solutions now -- publicly and privately funded arts spaces, arts partnerships with amenable landlords, an aggressive campaign to rattle rich philanthropists' cages, artists' real estate cooperatives.

Instead we have a localized version of what appears to be a national malaise among the radical left.


It was this chaotic ferment that somehow drew Kaplan, 37, a marginally employed graduate of Wesleyan College, into the public eye. Thin with plain dark hair and plain comfortable clothes, she describes herself as a performer, teacher, and activist. She says she once wrote for SF Weekly -- she can't remember how long ago -- under a pseudonym. "But that was when SF Weekly was something else," she explains.

Five years ago, Kaplan says, she had her own dance studio, but she was evicted because the owners were turning it into a live-work loft. Onstage at the protest rally, and in later conversation, Kaplan repeatedly explained that she has spent the time since the eviction under an emotional black cloud.

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Matt Smith

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