Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco
and the Crisis of American Urbanism
By Rebecca Solnit
Photographs by Susan Schwartzenberg
182 pages, $27
This time it wasn't a fire engine that did the job. Last summer,
walking down Valencia Street in San Francisco's Mission District,
I came upon the newspaper-plastered windows of Radio Valencia, a
neighborhood restaurant cum art gallery and performance space. The
empty storefront brought me up short; Radio Valencia was a place
I could not imagine not being there. It was there when I moved to
the city and the neighborhood, still there when I left almost five
years later, and now it seemed that it had just been shuttered,
as if it had existed until the very moment I came down the street--and
Years before, those windows, the entire storefront in fact, had
been rammed through by an errant pumper-truck. No one was hurt,
and a picture of the fire engine lodged three feet deep in the cafˇ's
window seats made the front-page of the papers. After it reopened,
the owners made a toy fire truck shrine above the bar, commemorating
their little urban misadventure. It was that kind of place. This
time, though, the forces of destruction were not so dramatic, but
all the more final for their clean silence. And no wry memorial
remained to mark the restaurant's passing, only an angry spray-painted
scrawl across the glass: "Another future dot com."
Welcome to San Francisco in the Age of the Internet. This is what
a city of networked
souls feels like. Long a "sanctuary for the queer, the eccentric,
the creative, the radical," San Francisco is fast becoming a "hollow
city," writes Rebecca Solnit. The city's distinct urban culture is
eroding, she charges, under an onslaught of new-economy money.
DE LA RAZA AND THE ARTISTS
It's a strange verdict on a place that has been riding the crest
of the latest wave. The last six or seven years ostensibly have
been good ones for San Francisco. The city weathered the economic
doldrums of the early '90s, and after 1994 and the proliferation
of the World Wide Web, it emerged as the capital of the Internet
economy, the hip northern cousin to Silicon Valley, living large
off its square relatives' venture capital trust fund. Rents and
property values are up--way up. Business is booming. The city just
feels richer and busier, with more cars and construction and less
visible urban squalor.
Formerly "marginal" neighborhoods, like the largely Latino Mission,
have become ground zero for new business and residential development.
But the last four or five years have seen a rising tide of gentrification
panic as major office projects for high-tech and biotechnology firms
went forward; builders threw up a rash of designer "live/work" spaces
all around the neighborhood's industrial fringes. Besieged on all
sides, the Mission's working-class, immigrant and bohemian residents
and institutions have been evicted, priced out and spread to the
wind. Gradually, though, these forces are regrouping; they are forming
unlikely, fragile alliances to save these in-between neighborhoods,
places where, as Solnit writes, "the young go to invent themselves
and from which cultural innovation and insurrection arise."
Hollow City is a "report from the front lines," a hastily
assembled collection of essays by Solnit and photos by Susan Schwartzenberg
that documents the threat to San Francisco's grassroots arts and
political cultures, as well as the gathering efforts to preserve
them. Solnit writes: "Whatever the Internet may be bringing the
masses stranded far from civilization, the Internet economy in its
capital is producing a massive cultural die-off, not a flowering.
... What is happening here eats out the heart of the city from the
inside ... a siphoning off of diversity, cultural life, memory,
Institutions that support political and cultural life--galleries,
dance studios, nonprofits, practice spaces, co-operatives, free
schools, collective spaces--are threatened by massive rent hikes.
People, particularly artists, immigrants, politicos and other insufficiently
upwardly mobile sorts, are being evicted or driven out. It's becoming
harder to live a marginal life--by choice or necessity--in the city
that has raised that dubious calling to an art form. For Solnit,
San Francisco and other cities jump-started by high-tech cash are
harbingers of a new urban order. Dot-com pre-fab warehouse redesigns
and boho theme-park districts represent an assault on unpredictable
public space. They require people whose worlds revolve around careers,
virtual spaces and transportable lifestyles, not neighborhoods;
they make cities that work like suburbs. In this new city, Solnit
says, "Wealth has proven able to ravage cities as well as or better
Gentrification is just the latest facet of a decades-long process,
one that originated as a response to "urban crisis" and suburbanization.
In cities like New York or San Francisco, major financial interests--banks,
foundations, insurance companies, hospitals, universities and corporations--have
long tried to preserve their investments and infrastructure by cozying
up to city officials, commandeering zoning procedures or federal
urban renewal initiatives and generally buying up land. Massive
amounts of federal dollars dropped on slum clearance projects and
public housing schemes failed to eradicate poverty and reinforced
racial segregation, while deepening the economic isolation of already
In the '60s, '70s and '80s, while the ghettos burned, welfare rolls
thickened, and the economy surged and fell and surged again, those
interests that wouldn't or couldn't decamp to the suburbs consolidated
San Francisco's Financial District and vast parts of Manhattan's
southern tip and middle reaches into white-collar office precincts.
Vibrant blue-collar cities--that once had only small extremes of
wealth and poverty--became increasingly divided between riches and
Gentrification simply represents the city's rescue on these terms.
It should be no surprise then that these bifurcated metropolises
of the postwar era--one part ghetto, one part office district with
a shrinking working class and fleeing middle class in-between--are
being transformed into upmarket monocultures. In the late '60s and
'70s, a small portion of the middle classes began returning to the
city to live as well as work--even as the politicians and newsmen
announced the onset of an "urban crisis." Real estate speculation
in residential and commercial property returned to the neighborhoods
of urban America in halting increments over the past 30 years, in
a mounting series of booms felt most acutely in the profits of owners,
the rents of tenants, and the prices all of us pay for everything
from a meal to a lost sense of civic culture.
Gentrification represents the triumph of those forces that learned
to preserve themselves in times of urban poverty. Not surprisingly,
that poverty has not been banished. It's only harder to see and
more isolated as it seeps out into the suburbs, entrenches in the
housing projects that have yet to meet the wrecking ball, or transforms
into the spiritual poverty of a city leveled and made simple as
it gorges on the heady sureties of newfound wealth.
Gentrification scares are endemic to the culture of neighborhoods
like the Mission. Aware bohemians are self-conscious about their
role in changing the barrio, and many Latino residents, while they
welcome the business, are unmistakably wary of white newcomers.
When I arrived in San Francisco--before the Web in a time of scarce
jobs and somewhat affordable rents--a friend was writing the "oral
ourstory" of Studio 4, a residential collective and illegal performance
space at 18th and York. Part of this process was a sort of ritual
self-examination--one that is repeated again and again by successive
waves of white artists and politicos moving into lower-income communities
of color. Studio 4 had been there for almost nine years, but could
never escape the inevitable truth that the neighborhood was changing
because of their presence. My friend and his fellow collective members
understood that they were "pawns in a big real estate game," and
that places like Studio 4 or Radio Valencia (probably a step further
on the gentrification chain) block-bust the neighborhood and make
it safe for the real money.
Studio 4 considered a number of strategies to drive out the yuppie
incursion: graffiti binges, fires in trash cans, vandalizing newcomers'
cars, and leaving trash, old furniture and excrement in the streets.
They even proposed staging fake drive-by shootings and drug deals
on their block. In the end, they realized that street theater and
trashing an already taxed block was no substitute for the actual
work of organizing, for reaching out to their Latino neighbors--and
maybe even the drug dealers and prostitutes--to try to find some
Studio 4 disbanded in the early '90s, and that northeastern corner
of the Mission has been hit hard in the recent dot-com boom. Still,
Studio 4's anti-gentrification efforts have their legacies too.
Solnit and Schwartzenberg document--and criticize--pranksters like
the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project, whose street posters urge
the trashing of SUVs to "drive these cigar bar clowns back to Orinda
and Walnut Creek where they belong." The Mission Anti-Displacement
Coalition, a confederation of artists, housing advocates and Latino
activists, have staged marches, protests and even a brief takeover
of a dot-com office in a Mission Street building that once housed
nonprofits. A ballot initiative to limit or end office growth in
certain hard-hit neighborhoods did not pass in November, but a slate
of progressive city supervisors did. Now that they have a majority,
plans are afoot to legislate growth controls over pro-development
Mayor Willie Brown's veto.
For her part, Solnit is reluctant to "blame" artists for gentrification.
"Gentrification is like air pollution," she writes. "A lot of unlinked
individuals make contributions whose effect is only cumulatively
disastrous. One can blame artists and drivers for those cumulative
effects, but such effects are not their intention." Still, she reveals
that in 1988 a group of San Francisco artists "managed to get a
measure passed that allowed them to build or convert in regions
zoned for industry, to circumvent building codes, and to avoid affordable
housing stipulations and a significant portion of school taxes."
Ignoring the warnings of housing advocates, these artists organized
to opt out of the social contract--and it came back to haunt them.
The flood of overpriced live/work "lawyer lofts" poured through
this very loophole. Of course, this is only one part of the story.
Surely artists and their ilk are not entirely to blame--little is
said here about landlords, for instance. But maybe Solnit soft-pedals
the bohemian factor in gentrification for, in part, deep and abiding
emotional reasons. She believes in San Francisco. For her and other
longtime San Franciscans the place is an ideal. It's fragile and
flawed perhaps, but still a "visionary city."
I'll admit to being somewhat impatient with such self-struck Bay
As much as I feel the city--its streets, vistas and the taste of its
air--in me now, San Francisco can also be more than a little precious.
Less Cotton Mather perhaps (as Kenneth Rexroth once said) but a little
too much Ken Kesey. In one sense it's an ephemeral city, whose daily
inundation of fog seems to come and go in time to the ebb and flow
of fashions, commitments and images. Even places I'm fond of, like
Radio Valencia, can seem little different from the boutiques, bistros
and "cigar bars" that have come to clog Valencia and 16th Streets
No doubt that when the cultural history of the '90s is written
and the indelible ties between the "alt-culture" boom and the dot-com
boom are made plain, San Francisco will provide the setting. Too
often it's a city on display, fascinated with its own indulgence
in the accoutrements of disaffection, or increasingly, placeless
cosmopolitan sophistication. But this is the trick with San Francisco.
From another view, Solnit is right, and with a little digging and
time these surfaces reveal depths.
The legacies of the cultural, social and political movements that
have left their mark on San Francisco remain today, and their spheres
of influence have grown evermore intermingled. The city's cultural
foundations are set several generations deep in the shifting sands,
bedrock schist and landfill beneath its narrow peninsula. From City
Lights Books to a number of feminist and lesbian community spaces
to punk collectives to hip-hop activist groups to the Mission's
Latino mural movement, it would be hard to entirely separate out
white middle-class bohemian newcomers from people of color. In the
terms Solnit favors, there is an interconnected "ecosystem" of cultural
life; real-estate speculation is like an invading algae choking
out the diversity and variety with singular fervor.
Solnit is also careful to point out that, for better or worse,
art scene hipsters and IPO babies can easily inhabit one and the
same body. In San Francisco, I was both bike messenger and hypertext
millhand at one time or another; it seems simplistic to single out
particular "types" of people for blame or admiration. Still, preserving
the threatened city will take sacrifice on the part of some artists
and upwardly mobile sorts who might otherwise prosper from the city's
economic success. It will take the kind of political organization
that requires people to recognize differences but forge solidarity.
Solnit and Schwartzenberg's idealism is not the only thing that
makes this political alliance a hopeful possibility. Imaginations
that can evoke place with such integrity must surely have some success
in shaping those places as well. Schwartzenberg's photo collections
do their job here, both as illustrations of Solnit's piece and as
critical reflections on the ambiguous nature of the loss of places
one values--or never knew mattered until they had been transformed.
She also brings in the work of photographers who produced "San Francisco
in Chains"--a project documenting the Starbucks deluge (there are
now about 60 around the city) and the businesses they displaced.
Hollow City was written quickly, and the prose often suffers
in comparison to Savage Dreams, Solnit's crucial and moving
essay on the confluence of politics and landscape in Yosemite and
the Nevada Test Site. Still, Solnit remains one of the foremost
writers on place working today. "Cities," she writes, "are the infrastructure
of shared experience." They thrive because in them people "share
public goods--public parks, libraries, streets, cafes, plazas, schools,
transit--and in the course of sharing them, become part of a community,
become citizens." And in time place can exert a subtle yet forceful
pull in the mind and heart. "For those who spend years in a place,"
Solnit says, "their own autobiography becomes embedded in it so
that the place becomes a text they can read to remember themselves.
... When culture and memory are evicted from a city, its places,
its locations and its products become mute commodities that can
be purchased but not dreamed."
The bloom is off the Web rose now, and some hope a recession, whatever
its larger regrettable effects, might turn the tide. Anecdotal evidence
suggests that commercial starts have fallen off in the last few
months, but evictions and rent hikes continue. High-tech is in San
Francisco to stay; now it's a matter of whether the city can find
a political way to reconcile growth, wealth and equality. Some feel
that growth controls will have ripple effects in the housing market,
further discouraging the construction of low-income housing. Others
respond that these limits will spur small-business job growth and
allow rents to settle.
Either way, in the twilight of the "long boom," a certain ineffable
sadness hovers in the streets of San Francisco. Perhaps these are
merely the weightless cavils of nostalgia and escaping youth, the
refusal to accept and move with change, but that hardly depletes
the force with which Solnit and Schwartzenberg convey the costs
of loss. Whatever the future holds, the legacy of loss will remain.
It is unavoidable, because it is written in stone, steel and glass
in the cityscape.
Last summer, walking through some familiar reaches of South of
Market near downtown, I lost my bearings. These were streets I had
traversed countless times on my bike delivering packages in years
past, but it seemed now as if only a shadow or hint of that place
remained. Empty lots had been filled, buildings I used to go in
and out of daily were gone and replaced with new glass towers. Telling
details remained, but the context, the background, had morphed.
Spaces where I intuitively expected to see sky were filled with
glass and steel; old masonry street fronts were now open, antiseptic
I stopped at a corner before a vacant lot jumbled with demolition
equipment, trying to remember what had been there before. Towering
above the lot was an immense white banner, one of those massive,
austere Apple Macintosh ads commanding us to "Think Different."
It rippled down the entire flank of an old, gutted five- or six-story
building, whose facade had been pulled away to expose the orderly,
crude masonry grid of its floors and rooms to the street below.
Here, then, was the new economy sweeping away the useless infrastructure
of the old, the champions' banner erected already over the ruins
of an outmoded world. But the banner, like so much in this city
taken by Solnit's quiet "siege," had been unable to hold fast in
the storm of progress. One corner had come unmoored from its pins.
Loosed and noisy, it fluttered and flapped remorselessly among the
wrecking cranes in a darkening wind that blew the afternoon fog
off the ocean, over Twin Peaks and across the last of the day's