March Madness

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

"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.

"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."

For the sake of charity, we'll assume no renters were displaced -- as is often the case in tenancy-in-common move-ins -- when Kaplan and her co-owners took possession in 1992 of their red and white, neo-Edwardian building. Still, it is clear that Kaplan owns a "nice" $300K apartment as she fights against otherpeople's capitalism.

Kaplan spread the word among Mission artists and got permits to shut off a block of 22nd Street next to the old Leeds store. She and her supporters built a stage.

Kaplan seemed timid when she first took the microphone. But she warmed quickly.

"I’ve spent the past five years crying, and this is much better than depression. This is doing something," she exclaimed to the throng. "This is therapy! This is therapy!"

Following the Aug. 19 protest rally Kaplan and several of her companions (none of them formally associated with the Dancer's Group) "occupied" the Leeds building for a couple of days. They sent out press releases. After a while, Reisman and Sagerman called the police, who arrested the squatters.

I took a walk around the Leeds building two days after it was vacated. The squatters had covered the walls with graffiti slogans such as "Corporate greed = spiritual cowardice! Wake up." One wall was hung with felt-pen-scrawled butcher paper, a leftover from an impromptu nonviolent-resistance workshop that had been frozen in time, Pompeii-like, by the police raid.

I watched Sagerman attach a bicycle lock to one of the windows, lest the squatters try to return. Sagerman explained he was able to attract "angel" financiers to his project through connections he had forged while working as an architect.

"It's all about connections," he said. The unnamed investors are people "who do all the math; they look at the way we work, and they know that we are sincere in what we say. So we make this project a big fat success and go on to the next one."

The Pomegranate folks are in negotiations with a shoe store to occupy the bottom floor of the building. On the second floor is Reisman's belly-dance teacher.

It was hard not to see the demonstrators' point, if only fleetingly.

Preening preciousness aside, Sagerman and Reisman are among the gentlest members of a tribe of speculators drooling over Mission District commercial space. Unless something is done soon, every last arts group located there will be priced out of its home.

Troubled by this juxtaposition — a dire social crisis and a misguided response — I called my friend Bob Cary, who lives half a block from the Leeds building. Bob knows as well as anyone about taking an active stand in a social struggle. He was put in a labor camp during WWII because he was a conscientious objector. Later, during the late 1970s, Bob became recognized as a pioneer in the struggle for gay rights.

"There's terrific unrest in the Mission right now, but it becomes self-defeating," said Cary, a spry octogenarian. "We need to improve things in the Mission, but protest can become a way of life. Some people join protests for the fun, and to some it becomes a profession in itself. When we were protesting something, it had a basis on lifestyle and changing people's way of thinking. In the Mission, I think it's gotten to the point where the public is disgusted and doesn't know what to do."

Next I spoke with my friend Becky Bond, an editor at News for Change, a leftist news service funded by the Working Assets progressive-cause telephone company. She had phoned me intermittently from the street protests in Philadelphia and Los Angeles to say things like, "Hey Matt, guess what? I'm in a riot! Gotta go."

She went to both conventions hoping to find the germ of a new social movement. What she found was a bizarre protest/riot/rave/party.

"It was people who want to turn their recreation into something meaningful. There are kids who think there's something wrong with the way corporations have taken away culture. But it was also a lot of dreadlocked white kids who aren't that bright," Bond said. "It was very hard to talk to a lot of them. You know, they say, ‘Fuck this, fuck that.' It becomes extremely specialized. It's not like a groundswell will develop because of this. It's the professional protesters now. They're very young, and very white. It's not a gathering that could radicalize people."

And naturally, I called my mother, whose protest résumé includes a dozen or so peace-demonstration arrests, near death from fasting against nuclear proliferation 18 years ago, and leadership positions with a half-dozen or so Northern California Peace Movement organizations during the 1980s.

I told her about Rachel Kaplan's Big Adventure. She said protest movements, by their very nature, tend to attract unstable people.

"That people do that because they have emotional needs is across the board. It happens all the time," Mom reminisced. "There are going to be people with ego needs coming out of the woodwork any time there's a public stage. With the civil rights movement, it was different, of course. Then, if you stuck your neck out, you got killed. You don't get quite as many crazies willing to get killed."

There's a line of logic that says no matter how petty, pointless, hypocritical, or mean the 22nd-and-Mission demonstration may have been, by calling attention to the cause of arts displacement in the Mission, good may have been done. But this idea — good ends from bad means — troubled me, and about a week after Dad called to tell me about the hospital orderly, I called to ask him to talk some more about the old days.

There was plenty of meanness and pettiness and pointlessness in the peace movement, too, he recalled. And those forces tended to hamper the cause in the long run.

"If a leader doesn't have some sort of humanitarian core value — and it has to be real, where they're not doing it for their own mental health, or because of a grudge, or a case where they want to compete with their sister organizer — unless they have a core that's genuine, people need to not touch it," Dad said. "If you say yes to things that are a denial of where you should be coming from, it has a way of collapsing and breaking down. It's like the '60s. We've been trying to overcome the '60s for all these years. There was so much that didn't come out of a solid core, it just raised havoc with people's lives. I think Gandhi had it right: When his efforts would gather energy from where he wasn't coming from, he would just quit for a while."

In this light, keeping artists in the Mission and in San Francisco is about building a citywide consensus that our arts community is a monument worth saving, then aligning with people who are acting on this idea. Already notions have been floated about pooling money to buy arts-space buildings, or persuading dot-com companies to spend money on the arts. The revolution may someday come, but right now we have a crisis to deal with.

In this Gandhian light — the American tradition of progressive direct action is, after all, a spawn of Gandhi's independence movement — saving the arts isn't about hating yuppies, or hating dot-commies, or hating people who participate in the capitalist system. It's not even about taking away Marci Reisman's Pomegranate New Age-haven building.

Or stripping Rachel Kaplan of her third-of-a-million-dollar condo.

It's about coming together as an entire city to save a treasured monument. It's about taking such bold, focused, and generous-spirited action that, when we're going about our lives 30 or so years from now, strangers stop us to say, "I admired what you did."

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