As we debate the struggles of musicians and artists in San Francisco, one question frequently arises: Why does it matter if many of them leave for the East Bay? They'll still be more or less “here,” as opposed to the bigger loss of them departing for L.A. or elsewhere. Is it really such a bad thing if working musicians can't afford to live in S.F. anymore, as long as they stay in the Bay Area? Does the city really lose?
San Francisco is the second-densest metropolis in the U.S., behind New York. There are few comparable places in the West, in this country, in the world: cities where you can conveniently live without a car, where you can walk down almost any street and find lots of pedestrians, where you not only experience, but often can't avoid, a bewildering assortment of people. Density and diversity define this city; the appreciation of these qualities has long attracted people to it.
“The psychological foundation upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected,” wrote German sociologist Georg Simmel, “is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.” Which means, I think, that when you live here, you can't help seeing many different types of people doing many different types of things, and this affects you; it rearranges your brain chemistry in some challenging but ultimately beneficial way. When people explain why they want to live in a city, what they often mean is that they want to experience something new every time they walk down the street.
If artists are a crucial part of the mix that makes a vivacious city, they also have a special reliance on it. Urban energy is the fountain from which many of our great creative works have drawn, from Degas' painting of absinthe drinkers in a Paris cafe to the Ramones' “53rd and Third.” It's not just the performers or painters themselves who benefit from and contribute to city life. We think of art as a product of individual genius, but more often it's a social enterprise. Our music scene depends not just on singers and DJs, but bartenders, lighting techs, sound engineers, door people, record label employees, and talent buyers — many of whom, on their nights off, take a stage somewhere. These people form a community and an economy. Theirs is one of the thousands that make the city vibrant.
The same factors that enliven a city often lead to its calcification. Money follows artists, and wealth radically alters neighborhoods. Places once known for being engines of culture often grow inhospitable to the middle class and working creatives who once made the area interesting. This happened to Venice and, some say, to Paris, both onetime capitals for new art that are now mostly beautiful tourist attractions. A similar change is underway in Manhattan, which even prominent musicians have come to see as a garden of wealth, walled off from all but the most successful.
“New York had entered the pantheon of big cities that people visit and observe and patronize and document, but don't actually add to,” musician Moby wrote earlier this year, explaining his move to L.A. “People go to Paris thinking, 'Wow, I want to get my picture taken with Paris in the background.' That's what New York became, a victim of its own photogenic beauty and success.” The Talking Heads' David Byrne is similarly frustrated with the course of the city he's long called home: “Bit by bit,” he writes, “the resources that keep [New York] vibrant are being eliminated.” When a city becomes a habitat for the rich and a tourist destination for everyone else, it must fight to avoid being a dead zone for new creativity.
Some have suggested that the exodus of musicians and artists from San Francisco is just a temporary, cyclical dip, or a transition from one period to another. We should hope so. The larger worry is that the change represents something bigger. That the musicians and artists leaving the city for the East Bay and elsewhere are a sign of San Francisco becoming a new Venice: a place where everyone goes but where little or nothing new happens in the arts. Yes, our tech industry is remaking the world, albeit largely in the name of profit. And if San Francisco is now a tech company town, that seems at least preferable to it becoming a finance capital like Manhattan. But what makes the city lively is not an excess of one kind of energy; it's the combination of many kinds.
So rather than asking if it's really so bad to have to cross the bay to encounter artists making new culture, those who care about San Francisco should reverse the question. Why surrender our densest, most potentially vibrant places, our prettiest cities, to tourists and the global rich? Knowing that art is a crucial part of the urban experience, and that the energy of a living city uniquely inspires creative projects, why push them elsewhere? It's great that Oakland has its own artistic energy — and it always has — but we should find a way for a similar impulse to survive in San Francisco, too. This place is too great to give up on.
Granted, many believe that nothing, short of an economic cataclysm, could reverse the forces pushing artists to leave. Others point out that artists will never completely abandon the city, no matter how expensive it gets. And given the choice, it is preferable that a San Francisco artist leaves for Oakland rather than for Portland.
But we shouldn't delude ourselves that the departure of artists and musicians from San Francisco costs nothing. The ones who leave take with them a piece of what makes this place so stimulating and unique. There may be little we can ultimately do about the forces carving some of the vibrant character out of our city, short of supporting that character where it exists. (And yes, it does still exist.) But if we don't confront the city's losses now, we certainly will one day — when the tourist buses crawl the streets pointing to residents who are all by definition millionaires, when the local clubs can book only out-of-town artists, and when no one can remember the last time a San Francisco musician rearranged the pop landscape.