Limited Access: Art and Gentrification in the Mission

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Artists’ Television Access (ATA) is an artist-run non-profit in San Francisco’s Mission District. Its ragged punk sign hangs over a few square feet of sidewalk on Valencia Street. A decade or so ago, Valencia Street was the psychogeographic border between the Mission that was in the process of rapid gentrification and the Mission that hadn’t yet been infiltrated. At that time, this incipient process was beginning to be visible but far from complete. New College, an experimental university, still served students in its several buildings on Valencia. (It shuttered in 2008.) There were travel agencies, hardware stores, used bookstores. Now there are boutiques, haute chocolate dispensaries, Michelin stars. Serial parklets—green spots that adjacent businesses claim as spaces for their mostly white, mostly wealthy clientele to lounge—populate the sidewalks.

ATA launched programming in 1984, operating as a television production facility for artists pursuing public access shows. In 1987, ATA moved to its current location on Valencia. It is one of the rare organizations in the Bay Area that does not focus its programming on marketable visual art objects. It is a home for the radically unsellable, the momentary, fugitive, lawless and nomadic efforts of truly experimental practitioners: ATA hosts noise shows, rogue screenings, and political meetings.

Small Press Traffic brings poets and writers like Aisha Sasha John, Dolores Dorantes, Claudia Rankine, and Monica McClure to read in the space, which some of the artists who collectively run ATA still live in. I saw Eileen Myles and C.A. Conrad read there in 2012, to an audience so big that it broke the cliché of a “packed house.” The people who were denied entrance due to the lack of space organized their own reading on the sidewalk. Myles and Conrad gave them an encore at a laundromat a couple of hours later.

ATA also sponsors Right Window, a gallery run by a collective of curators which shows work by emerging and established Bay Area artists. I had to laugh when, in a recent debut show, Matthew Arnone (who has since moved to Brooklyn) installed Calf-Bearer (2015), a larger-than-life cardboard cutout self-portrait. It shows Arnone dressed in a shepherd’s robe with an adorable placid lamb around his shoulders. The image is classical, even Biblical. In the context of Arnone’s work, largely abject portraits of figures groveling, pissing on themselves, falling, and failing, Calf-Bearer was rather perverse in its earnestness. Of course, plenty of passersby ignored it. But Calf-Bearer, peering out of the gallery’s front window, was a taste of the weird San Francisco that my friends and I all desperately miss.

When I moved to the Mission District in 2005 it was already gentrified. My partner and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a converted Victorian house. Our landlord Frank had grown up in the house, and our neighbor, also named Frank, had lived all of his forty years in the house’s other apartment, which he shared with his mom. I didn’t have a clear understanding of myself as a gentrifier. So I was genuinely surprised when, on the very first night we spent in the house, our neighbors rang our bell and asked me how much we were paying for rent, the gleam of schadenfreude flickering softly in their eyes. Quite sensible schadenfreude. Frank, our neighbor, said offhandedly as we lugged boxes of books and ragged furniture up the stairs, “I hope you all aren’t Raiders fans.” We weren’t.

The symptoms of this transformation were many. It wasn’t just that dive bars, panaderias, and other small businesses were sold, gutted, and repackaged as dystopian hubs for vast beer halls and avant-garde sausage joints, though those things did happen. It wasn’t just the wholesale reconfigurations of land and space, the magically appearing condos and the very mundane violence of increasing evictions. Those things happened too. And it wasn’t just the dreaded “Google bus.” It was also the Linked-In Bus, the Yahoo! Shuttle, and the Genentech omnibus. continues