Artists of the 99%: An Interview with Sara Powell of Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone
On Saturday, December 3rd, I attended the Mission district neighborhood march for housing rights, where I heard Sara Powell speak at a rally in front of the 24th Street BART station. Powell is a longtime activist and artist who opened the neighborhood community art and education space Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone in 2009. Located near the corner of 24th and Folsom streets in the Mission district, Kaleidoscope sits between the longtime Mission district favorite Philz Coffee and the recently opened, more upscale restaurant Mission Local Eatery. Kaleidoscope hosts a variety of community events — from poetry readings to punk shows to visual arts exhibitions — and contains a hodgepodge of couches and chairs with brightly painted walls and ceiling and a grand piano. Powell’s landlord, who owns multiple properties in the neighborhood, began to threaten her with eviction in July after years of neglecting to do basic repairs on the old building. Most recently, Kaleidoscope, which is also Powell’s living space, was served an Ellis Act eviction.
The Ellis Act has been around since 1986. It is a tricky piece of California legislation that allows landlords to take a property off the rental market for 10 years to either sell the property, move in themselves, or turn the building into a condo. It is consistently used by landlords to evict long-term tenants whose rents are below market rate; it results in the displacement of long-term San Francisco residents and the division of families, and contributes to the increase of property value in an ever-increasingly expensive city — making San Francisco habitable only for those with enough economic resources to withstand this inflation. This is nothing new. The rally and march on December 3rd centered on these unjust housing politics of San Francisco. The Mission march where Powell spoke was one of four neighborhood actions organized through the Occupy San Francisco movement and the Housing Rights Committee, Causa Justa/Just Cause, the San Francisco Tenants Union, and the Eviction Defense Collaborative. The other neighborhood actions took place in the Tenderloin, Bayview, and the Castro. After the neighborhood marches, the four groups convened for a citywide action to raise visibility about tenants’ rights in San Francisco and malicious and illegal evictions supported by Wells Fargo and the Building Owner and Managament Association downtown.
Sara’s story is one illustration of the current and long-standing housing crisis in San Francisco, a crisis that began well before the Occupy movement started and well before the wave of foreclosures swept throughout the country. This ongoing crisis is about the abuse of tenants’ rights and the fight for sustainable housing for the working class, poor, and unhoused. Sara’s story is also an illustration of the role that artists play in urban politics and housing rights. After hearing her speak at the rally, I reached out to Powell for an interview about Kaleidoscope, her eviction, and the Occupy movement.
Adrienne Skye Roberts: Tell me the story of Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone.
Sara Powell: The history of Kaleidoscope is really a story of the 99%. In 1989 I went back to school as a single mother in order to get a good job and take care of my children. I took out massive student loans to attend Georgetown University. I wasn’t able to finish the PhD in Middle East History. It was too hard to juggle school with full-time work and being a mom, and the student loans were ruining my credit. At the time, I was living with my kids in Northern Virginia in a town we hated. I was drawn to San Francisco partly because of its reputation as city for the arts. My daughter also recently moved here for school. Once I arrived in San Francisco, I couldn’t find a place to live or a job, and I ended up being homeless for eight months. Then the stock market crashed, and I lost virtually everything I set aside. My plan was to buy a house once I had a job because I didn’t want to be foreclosed on if I couldn’t make the mortgage. But against my better judgment and on all the advice of everyone I knew who had money, I put my money in the stock market, and I lost almost all of it. With the little money I had left I found this place. The landlord told me I could live here and do whatever I wanted with this space, including holding events and playing music. I was pretty stoked. I put every penny I had into making this art space and making it livable.
Almost immediately I became aware of the issues with the space: leaks in the roof that would pour in water when it rained — mostly leaks from upstairs, not rain — doors that wouldn’t shut, only one hot water heater for six units, a weak floor, and mold. The landlord was pretty unresponsive. He would take his time fixing these things. He only fixed the roof leak, nothing else. An art space is hard enough to get started, but all these issues made it even more difficult.
ASR: At what point did your landlord start threatening you with evictions?
SP: I was served two evictions; one in July and another in early September 2011. I went to Causa Justa/Just Cause for support and then the Eviction Defense Collaborative, who filed the legal response to the eviction. I was then introduced to a lawyer who took my case, but the landlord withdrew the eviction. Then on November 3rd I got the Ellis Act eviction notice.
I sit here in limbo. I’ve been in limbo for six months. The threat of eviction is seriously impacting Kaleidoscope because you have to book shows one month in advance and I can’t do that. I had to write bands and say that I didn’t know the status of the space and that pretty much killed the business. I was bringing in enough to be self-sustaining, and now I am unable to pay the commercial rate electric bill.
ASR: It’s my understanding that the Ellis Act is often used to change the use of the building; the landlord takes the property off the rental market for five years and makes repairs or refurbishes the building somehow, and then re-rents it or sells it at a higher price to tenants or business owners. Do you think this is the intention of your landlord?
SP: Not necessarily. I think the landlord just wants a tenant who is going to be complicit with the disrepair of the building so he doesn’t have to be accountable to the unlivable conditions I am forced to live in.
ASR: What is your relationship like with the businesses along 24th Street? And how have you seen the neighborhood change in your time here?
SP: I’m generally on good terms with the neighbors, but don’t really do much with the other businesses per se. The neighborhood has changed a lot in the three years I’ve been here. Just on this block I’ve seen four businesses go and two others come in. 24th Street is becoming more gentrified with expensive coffee shops and boutiques.
When I first came to San Francisco I wrote for the Mission district newspaper El Tecolote, which gave me an introduction to the neighborhood. At El Tecolote I participated in a photography documentation of lower 24th Street. That was about five years ago, and probably at least a third of the businesses have changed since that time. The street still doesn’t have much of a nighttime presence, though. I’m the only space other than restaurants and bars that’s regularly open in the evening.
In opening Kaleidoscope, one thing was clear to me: I did not want to be a gentrifier. As a white woman coming into this neighborhood and setting up an art space, it’s been important to me that I make this space, and the art within it, accessible to everyone in the neighborhood.
ASR: Yes. This is a really important issue that is often difficult to discuss within the art community. As a queer person, as an artist, as someone with racial privilege, and as someone who has lived in and around San Francisco my whole life, gentrification is an issue that I work on a lot. I am implicated within the gentrification in San Francisco, and yet my politics, how I spend my money in this neighborhood, and the community organizations I work with here, my long ties with the city, are ways that I remain accountable to my position here. It sounds like you are also aware of identity and privilege in a similar way. With the intention of not wanting to change the neighborhood, what sets Kaleidoscope apart from these waves of gentrification?
SP: My policies are what set me apart and the way I built Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone and how I continue to run the space. This is not a business that is pulling in a ton of profit. For example, I didn’t go spend $200,000 on fancy furniture; all the furniture in here, piano included, was free or cheap. I went to Darlene’s Fabrics, which is a longtime Mission district business that recently went under, to reupholster all the chairs. I used local businesses to furnish the place. Kaleidoscope is an accessible space. People come in here asking what I charge to put on a show, and I tell them that it is free. I see it as a symbiotic relationship. Most art galleries take 50%, and I take 20% of any sales. I think taking half of anyone’s art is egregious. It boggles my mind that people can be clear with their conscience and still take that much of an artist’s profit because it’s not just labor, it’s their ideas, it’s their being.
ASR: Yes. I’ve been talking to a lot of artists about this. The art market is an exploitative system, and as artists we have internalized a lot of the ills of capitalism and the idea of “the starving artist.” We work for free, we don’t charge an hourly rate, we accept only 50% of the price of our work, we work without any basic labor laws to protect us. In order for this to change, I think we need to begin to reconceptualize the role of the artist in larger society, and also in our neighborhoods. I’m wondering how you define Kaleidoscope as a community space?
SP: There is a huge range of events that happen here. I keep it as eclectic as possible, partly because I want to introduce people to things outside of their own sphere and because I want to offer something for everybody. The door is open to anybody. This is reflected in the name. Kaleidoscope reflects my view that the world is never black and white. It is non-dual, it is more massive than I can grasp, it is constantly changing. The arts are multidimensional, and this is a space for that.
Free Speech Zone also references the idea that expression should be free. In the early 2000s I was working for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and organizing in support of Palestinian issues with A.N.S.W.E.R. and various other groups — I learned a lot about organizing from them — and this was the time that that the government started designating free speech zones to prevent people from protesting just anywhere. This is nonsense! I mean, do you recall the First Amendment rights? I believe that speech in whatever form, including the arts, should be free.
ASR: How do we bridge organizing, politics, and the arts? Do you believe that the arts function as a different way of approaching politics?
SP: Yes, arts are an alternative way to approach politics for me. Not that I don’t think that art for art’s sake isn’t perfect and great, but at the same time, everything can be educational, every experience has its impact on you and shapes who you are. Part of my thinking is that if you can open your mind to diverse forms of art, then you should be able to make that transition to open your mind to diverse forms of living. After working on Palestine issues — which is not a popular topic in this country — and seeing so much violence in the Middle East, it started to get to me. Part of the reason for opening an arts space was to approach politics and world issues through the arts and get people to open their minds this way.
ASR: And art gives us access to and an education about something we might not otherwise consider.
SP: You see this a lot with literature, but there is no reason why visual or performance art can’t also function this way. I grew up in a very politicized world within the diplomatic community in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Laos. The teachers at my high school in Iran tended to be more open and politically radical; as a result my art was political at a young age. My parents encouraged me to read 1984 and Ayn Rand, and all kinds of literature. I was a little too young for the 1960s, but the music of that time was highly political and influential for me. I listened to Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones. There has never really been that much of a division between art and politics for me.
ASR: Let’s talk about the Occupy movement. What is the relationship between Kaleidoscope and the movement?
SP: I would love to be physically present at Occupy, but I nevertheless very much feel like part of the movement. I’ve been working on the issues of inequality and injustice that Occupy is addressing for a very long time. I had no idea when it started that it was going to turn into what it was, and I feel inspired to return to politics and political journalism. I am working on a website that is going to be an Occupy news website called Occupy the Free Speech Zone that will connect movements all over the world. Kaleidoscope is hosting a Soapbox Salon, open mic and political discussion about the movement, every Thursday evening from 8 to 11 p.m.
ASR: What are your feelings of the Occupy movement as an artist and activist?
SP: This is the first time ever that I’ve experienced the beginning of th movement that I’ve wanted. I do have my doubts about using the word occupy, because it is a military, colonialist word, but I think it may be foolish to rename the movement since it is so widespread. We will just have to occupy the word occupy and take it back.
A lot is different about this movement. The 1960s was a young movement, it was a cultural movement. The Occupy movement is not a youth movement, it is not a cultural movement, it is not a student movement. This is a true worldwide, populist movement for the first time ever in recorded history. This is amazing! And it’s due to technology that allows us to communicate with each other. I am stunned that this is happening. I didn’t think that I would live to see something like this. I am very grateful that I have. I don’t think there is any turning back from this. It might take another 50 years, but there is no turning back. You cannot un-experience this.
ASR: This reminds me of the Cesar Chavez quote in which he says something to the effect of, “You cannot reverse social change … you cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read, you cannot oppress people who are not afraid anymore.” I love this quote because it makes it personal; once you have begun the process of unlearning all the ways that, for example, capitalism and racism have divided us, there is no going back, ever. And the fact that this movement is giving people an opportunity to do that self-transformation is powerful.
SP: It’s earth-changing!
ASR: What do you see as the role of artists in a movement like this?
SP: To interpret the messages for people who can’t be got to any other way. The artist’s role is always interpretation. When you go talk to someone about the movement and you talk only about legislation and laws, unless people are really into that, it is hard to understand without context or background. If you show that person a picture or a photograph that demonstrates the context and background, like a cop pepper-spraying a bunch of nonviolent protesters, that is interpretation. Art has the power to raise awareness of unpalatable issues in palatable ways. Visual communication is key. Hell, not everyone can read or have access to technology!
ASR: What ways are you seeking support from the art community to fight your eviction?
SP: I am inviting people to come hang out and occupy Kaleidoscope with me. Of course, donations and sales help, but more than anything, just come down to Kaleidoscope and be in the space. Participating in the housing rights rally on December 3rd made me feel like I was at home again because this is not only my home, it’s my livelihood. Kaleidoscope is a space for all artists and occupiers to use and participate in as they wish.