March Madness

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

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.

"In 1995 this was happening to me and I hit the wall and I said, "I can't. I can't.' I spent the last few years crying about the loss of our community, and said, "Fuck it, I can't take it anymore.' Does that make any sense to you?"

It was right around when Kaplan was deciding she couldn't take it anymore that she learned of a standoff between Dancer's Group Studio and Pomegranate Design & Development, LLC. Marci Reisman, a graduate of Hampshire College and a director of the environmentalist group Urban Ecology, and Alan Sagerman, a Yale alum and architect, first hit on the name Pomegranate when Sagerman heard Reisman mutter the word in her sleep.

Using money from a group of "angel" investors the couple won't name, Reisman and Sagerman had hoped to buy a midsized commercial building, fix it up, turn it into a leftist-New Age warren -- massage studios, dance studios, chai cafes, environmentalist offices, that sort of thing -- and then get more investor money. And do it again.

The buildings would be like a pomegranate: "It's a shell, it's got a lot of things inside it," Sagerman explains.

When they discovered the old Leeds Shoes building for sale at 22nd and Mission streets, it seemed like their stars had aligned. Dance groups already occupied the attic. There was plenty of space on the bottom floor for retail businesses. And office space that the dancers weren't using could be rented to nonprofits.

A million or so dollars would have to be spent bringing the bedraggled building up to snuff. And the dancers were paying only 48 cents per square foot for their space -- about 1/12 of market rate -- but by raising the dancers' rent less than they might for a less worthy tenant, while squeezing them into a smaller space, Reisman and Sagerman thought there would be room for everybody.

The dancers balked. Word spread that a prominent dance studio might lose its home. Rachel Kaplan, who had been dabbling at a series of low-paying jobs during the previous half-decade, found a cause, a reason for existence. She would take up the cause of the dancers -- who, conveniently for Kaplan, weren't much interested in launching, or even participating in, a protest movement of this type.

Kaplan began by sending e-mails to Marci Reisman.

"Creative Thought: Subsidize the Arts," one said. "Who cares if dot.commies are willing to pay more? The invasion represents the worst of corporate globalism, which runs roughshod over everything, leaving nothing in its wake but virtual culture, virtual experience, etc.," said another. During the first of these e-mails, Kaplan would sign off her missives to Reisman with pleasant tags such as "In solidarity" and "Irrepressibly yours."

But things turned nasty very, very quickly. Kaplan's self-styled e-mail mediation wasn't convincing Reisman and her husband to rent for less than the 1/2 market rate they were offering. Arts patronage is nice, but bankruptcy isn't, the couple explained. The Dancer's Group, in a series of much more sober meetings and e-mails, determined it couldn't afford the subsidized rate of around $2.50 per square foot that Pomegranate was offering. Pomegranate offered to increase the rent gradually, and reduce the dancers' office and other less-used space to make the overall price more attractive, among other schemes. But the dancers had been paying 48 cents per square foot for many years, and didn't feel they could make up the difference. They politely offered to vacate, making clear in e-mails that they had no formal connection with Kaplan and her "protest movement."

Following the exchange of some less pleasant e-mails, Kaplan began sending out press releases announcing a new organization formed to protest Reisman and Sagerman's project. She later told reporters that yes, this was an ideologically "gray" issue -- Reisman and Sagerman were, after all, making every effort to accommodate arts and nonprofit groups by renting below market rates. But the couple is evil just the same, Kaplan says.

"They are part of the system. They are part of that which we hate, the system of global capitalism. This is San Francisco's version. We are part of the protesters against the march of that capital. They have bought into that system," Kaplan says.

What Kaplan won't say -- refuses to admit, in fact -- is that she has also bought into that system, and in a reasonably big way: Kaplan pays taxes on a Noe Valley tenancy-in-common unit now worth around $300,000. People acquainted with Kaplan say her dad bought it for her. She denies this, saying only that "I have a nice apartment, yes," and, "My dad sometimes helps me pay my rent, it's true. And my boyfriend sometimes helps me pay the rent."

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