April 26, 2009

Public Art and Redevelopment

At the corner of Valencia Street and 18th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District is a construction site as seemingly banal as any other construction site: a chain-link fence designates a hard hat zone, wooden frames and scaffolding are visible, and hammering can be heard. As a resident of the Mission District and someone who prefers walking to public transportation, I pass this site several times a week. The construction is happening faster than I imagined and soon enough 700 Valencia Street will transform into a brand new condominium building.  Despite San Francisco’s plan to keep housing in the Mission affordable, all of the eight units will be available at market or above market prices.


The Mission District is historically a Latino/a neighborhood with a reputation of cultural diversity.  Despite recent and visible gentrification trends, it continues to be relatively less expensive than other neighborhoods in San Francisco. Additionally, the Mission is home to many cultural and art spaces including the Mission Cultural Center, Artist’s Television Access, Precita Eyes, Galeria de la Raza, and Southern Exposure. The Mission is known for its countless murals found on the sides of buildings in streets and alleys including Clarion Alley, Balmy Alley, and the Women’s Building. The Women’s Building, tucked just behind the construction site at 700 Valencia Street, is a non-profit that provides vital community services and resources, as well as hosts events and programs geared towards gender equity.  The building itself has a bold presence on 18th Street.  Its facade is bursting with the MaestraPeace Mural which illustrates the contributions of well-known female activists, authors, and artists.  This colorful and detailed mural stands in stark contrast to the sterile construction less than half a block away.


As a native to the San Francisco Bay Area, I have become increasingly aware of sites like 700 Valencia Street and the transformation of many of the city’s neighborhoods, both subtle and not so subtle.  It is nearly impossible to ignore the current nationwide housing crisis; headlines of foreclosures, threats to rent control and tenants rights, and the decline of SROs.  The relationship between artists and urban space has always been complex.  I am reminded again and again of the paradoxical nature of artists in urban neighborhoods: artists of a certain wherewithal often move to industrial and “less desirable” neighborhoods in search of space and cheap rents and in doing so, pave the way for developers and investors.  As the trends of gentrification goes, artists are then often adversely effected by shifts in urban landscapes that they, in many ways, helped to create.  It is a double edge sword.  So, what is the role is of artists in shifting urban landscapes?  And how does public art function in the context of redevelopment?

I recently reread a portion of Rosalyn Deutsche’s book, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, in which she discusses the ways in which dominant uses of public space are often exclusionary despite their facade of democracy and unity. In her chapter “Uneven Development:  Public Art in New York City” she focuses this discussion specifically on public art projects in Manhattan during the 1990s, highlighting collaborations between artists and development agencies. This chapter reminded me of the meaning and function of public art in cities and the ways in which it is often folded into new development and the rhetoric of beautification–or a way of concealing the processes of gentrification and displacement.

Last year, local artist Kari Orvik faced this issue head-on.  As a part the show Grounded sponsored by Southern Exposure and Intersection for the Arts, Orvik created a participatory photography project entitled “The View From Here.”  This project spoke directly to the proposed construction site at 700 Valencia Street.  During an afternoon in December, Orvik invited participants to the roof of a neighboring building on Valencia Street and photographed them with the background of the Women’s Building’s MaestraPeace Mural.  The mural on the eastern face of the building depicts a larger than life portrait of Guatemalan indigenous rights activist, Rigoberta Menchu.


“The View From Here” aimed to raise awareness about the five story condominium building that would obstruct the view of the MaestraPeace Mural from Valencia Street prior to the series of hearings before the Commissioners on San Francisco’s Board of Appeals.  In Deutsche’s words, Orvik’s project is public art “as new spatial activity.”  Rather than complicit within redevelopment and the designation of public space for the purpose of capital, Orvik politicizes space and critiques the metamorphosis of San Francisco’s Mission District.  Functioning as social practice, Orvik’s piece lends itself nicely to critique and protest.  While one could walk down 18th Street to view the Rigoberta Menchu mural more closely, I think Orvik intended her piece to be a gesture that speaks to larger issues of what we stand to lose as city dwellers to development and increasing housing prices.  The metaphor is obvious: the Women’s Building, a grass-roots community space and its lively mural created collectively in 1994 becomes obstructed by a brand new, five story, eight unit condominium building affordable to very few who currently call the Mission District home.

Protest against redevelopment

Within today’s political and economic climate sites like 700 Valencia Street will continue to be debated in the Mission District. Orvik’s work reminds me of the importance of recording our experiences in our neighborhoods, the histories of places rapidly turning over to developers, as well as the important role of artists as politically engaged citizens who speak against the dominant use of public spaces and attempt to create alternatives.

Comments (3)

  • Thanks for the info! I will be sure to announce this on Open Space in the next couple of days.

  • David Buuck says:

    Kari Orvik will be presenting her work along with Erick Lyle & Nick Pagoulatos at Mission17 Gallery Wed 5/20. more info at http://buuckbarge.wordpress.com

  • It’s hard to know how to respond to colossal acts of displacement. The anti-American Apparel movement seemed so ironic, in the face of something like 700 Valencia or its neighbors (up-scale boutiques and police station). While documenting lived experience is valuable, it also seems like less passive art actions need to take place, but what? Once, someone did a little direct art action with a can of spray paint on the clothing store next door to 700 Valencia. They were arrested, held for three and a half days, and faced 2 felony charges and a misdemeanor. After their release, it felt like maybe they had achieved something. But of course, nobody knows what that something was.
    Sometimes as artists we can feel so little.

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