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San Francisco Is Counting Its Artists to Address the Problem of Gentrification

In spite of rapidly rising rent prices, San Francisco is second only to New York among US cities with large concentrations of artists.

A mural in the Mission district of San Francisco (photo by mari.francille/Flickr)

A city reshaped by rising housing prices has begun a new effort to understand its transformation. Last month, San Francisco rolled out an “artist census,” which aims to count a community that has both contributed to and suffered from gentrification.

“Our goal was to advance affordable housing opportunities,” Tom DeCaigny, the city’s Director of Cultural Affairs, told Hyperallergic. San Francisco, like many cities, has experienced such intense demand for housing that many artists have been unable to cope with increasing prices. “What we’re seeing is that the work force is being forced to live farther out from the city center,” DeCaigny said.

The census takes the form of an online survey, and will provide a range of demographic data on the artists and art workers who remain: age, race, gender identity, and preferred language, to name a few. More than 1,200 people have participated so far, about 700 of whom live within the city limits.

DeCaigny said the city needs the information not only to understand how San Francisco has changed, but also to comply with federal law. In order to create policies that specifically help artists, the city needs data to show that artists reflect the diversity of the city. Otherwise the policies could be accused of discrimination.

Erin McElroy, a co-founder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, told Hyperallergic that the census is a step in the right direction. But she also said that the effort may come too late. “The city should have been doing a lot more, for many years,” she said.

In recent years, San Francisco — under late mayor Ed Lee and his predecessors — has faced criticism for tech-friendly policies that have drawn well-paid and disproportionately male workers to the city. Thanks in part to the tech boom, the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment is now around $3,000 per month.

A mural honoring Pico Sanchez, a muralist and resident of the Mission who died in 2012 (photo by torbakhopper/Flickr)

In spite of these changes, San Francisco is second only to New York in its concentration of artists, according to the US census. “We actually still have the largest per-capita number of arts organizations of any city in the United States,” DeCaigny said. The problem is that national figures don’t track changes within the city — and they aren’t broken down by specific demographic groups.

Different kinds of artists have played different roles in gentrification, McElroy said. “In sort of classic gentrification theory, there’s this idea of mostly white artists being the first wave of gentrification,” she said. At the same time, many of the black jazz artists of the Fillmore district, or the Latinx mural painters in the Mission, had no choice but to find new places to live.

Sometimes a single artwork can both criticize and inadvertently fuel gentrification, McElroy said. For example, many of the murals in the Mission reference rising housing costs and the importance of political resistance. “Which becomes ironic,” she said, “when the murals that they’re making are photographed by realtors who are trying to market the city.”

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