The sidewalk stencil is two years old, but in the atmosphere of San Francisco's continuing housing crunch, it seems as fresh as ever. Four words — in all caps — appear on the back of a wheeled suitcase: “TENANTS HERE FORCED OUT.”
Volunteers with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project began stenciling the image on San Francisco's sidewalks after evictions skyrocketed in the wake of the tech-fueled real-estate boom. Each stencil sits in front of a building where a landlord kicked out renters.
The stencils are art as activism and are found throughout San Francisco, including Nob Hill and the Mission. The images have also appeared on posters and T-shirts.
“The idea was that it could be participatory — and people could do what they wanted with them,” says Erin McElroy, founder and director of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, which made the image. “I see them as a combined strategy to make visible the eviction crisis. When we began doing the stencils around 2013, everyone knew there was an eviction crisis, but I don't think people knew exactly what units were affected, or how prevalent it was.”
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project's newest artwork is a large mural in Clarion Alley — the Mission District art corridor near 17th Street — that profiles some of the 33,000 people who have been displaced since 1997 through owner move-ins, Ellis Act removals, and other “no-fault evictions.” Evictees in the mural spoke at its sidewalk dedication. McElroy, who studied art as an undergrad at Hampshire College (and who also has a master's in social and cultural anthropology from the California Institute of Integral Studies), says public art is an effective way of alerting people to San Francisco's housing retrenchment — though she says it's really a supplement to more forceful activism, like mapping the evictions online and naming the landlords who misuse eviction powers.
“We need to do creative actions,” McElroy says. “The more creative they are, and the more they engage people, the more they can help us think about things differently. When I was at Hampshire College, I was making paintings, but I didn't think they were engaging people in the way that I wanted people to be engaged. And I didn't feel like the paintings I was doing were very participatory. So something like the stencils is a way to engage multiple people in terms of who's actually producing the stencil and who's witnessing them and being incentivized to engage in direct action because of them.”