1. Governance
January 29, 2018

Gentrification can kill a community. But sometimes, they'll fight back in bizarre ways

By Charlie Lawrence

In cities across the world, a familiar story is being told. There’s a working class neighbourhood with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’; maybe it’s the good transport links, maybe its the sexy old town houses. Whatever it is, the artists are the first to flock towards it, eager to take advantage of the cheap rent and aforementioned perks. Trendy coffee bars follow closely behind them, and pretty soon the waft of the Venti Soy Quadruple Shot Lattes lures in the yuppies like hungry wolves. Before long, the locals are drinking craft ales from kiln jars while standing on their one remaining leg – the one they haven’t sold to pay their newly tripled rent.

It is the omnipresent saga of gentrification. Ways in which the existing communities actually deal with it is a more complex story. Two very differing responses from the residents of a particularly beleaguered community on the US’s west coast show the difficulty and, at times, futility of trying to resist the tide of gentrification. 

By the late 1990s, computer-fever was sweeping across California (like, erm, a virus) and all the dotcom boomers, weighed down by all their disposable income, needed somewhere to live. Their spectacled eyes fell upon San Francisco’s Mission District.

Getting its name from a still standing Catholic mission, the pre-yuppie neighbourhood was home to immigrants and refugees, mainly from Central America. One thing that immigrants and refugees are rarely famed for is their wealth, and as such Mission was generally a low income community. Unfortunately for the immigrants and refugees, their hardship provided the urban edginess that Silicon Valley’s hipsters were after, and so the great forces of gentrification got to work.

When money moves in, everything gets dearer; and these hikes in the cost of living are always felt most by those with the lowest incomes. In 1998, rents in Mission went up an average of 30 per cent, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the numbers of evictions also peaked in same year. Between 1990 and 1999, a whopping 925 households, many of them families and Latinos, were turfed out of their homes in the district, all making way for a new type of resident – white, educated and wealthy.

Faced with the collapse of their community, Mission’s embattled long-term residents took the fight against the gentrification into their own hands. Some went down the peaceful route; campaigning through legal means. The Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) was a major grassroots campaign during this time, fighting for existing tenants’ rights. Others went rogue; calling for something a little more violent, and a lot less legal.

The Mission Yuppie Eradication Project (MYEP) is what it says on the tin. During the summer of 1998, as displacement rose, posters began popping up across the area as those who’d lost their homes tried to invoke direct action against the new demographics. They particularly called for vandals to wreck the cars of these “cigar-bar clowns”, singling out Lexuses, Porsches and Jaguars as those which should get a trashing. The logic went that if their cars aren’t safe then they’ll “go away and they won’t come back”.

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A later poster, also from MYEP, took a slightly darker tone. It called for the destruction of certain businesses. Starbucks, a sushi restaurant and a few bars made the hit list, all of which the author described as “trendoid” – a hippie era word I sincerely hope sees resurgence. The posters called for such establishments to be reduced to “picturesque ruins” during the “next major urban riots”. Darker still, is that the posters went on to reveal the home address of a particular developer, presumably with the aim of inciting vengeance against them.

The perpetrator was caught glue-handed as he tried to put up more of his sinister posters. He was unveiled as Kevin Keating, a 38-year-old office temp and struggling writer-turned-activist who had adopted the name Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist who terrorised and murdered landlords before the Russian Revolution. Luckily, San Francisco’s Makhano was far less radical than his Ukrainian namesake, and his campaign of terror only amassed to a few keyed cars (most of which were probably his own doing).

There is little evidence to suggest the car vandalising campaign caught on, and although the invasive businesses did report sporadic graffiti attacks, it wasn’t enough to put the brakes on the seemingly unstoppable gentrification of the Mission.

MAC’s above board campaigning had more success. Their lobbying led the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to call a moratorium on live/work conversions, which were seen as the vanguard of change, for two years. They also created a ‘Peoples’ Plan’, consisting of the community’s hopes for the area, which was used in further development.

Despite MAC’s best efforts and Keating’s slightly bizarre anti-yuppie plot, the gentrification of the Mission District continues to this day. Ironically, it is now left to the 1990’s intake of gentrifiers to fight it. This time around, they’re hoping to stop the spread of corporations into the neighbourhood, but are presumably steering well clear of the tried and tested car-vandalising tactics. Partly because the odd keyed paint job won’t achieve the same results as an organised community, but also because nobody wants to be accused of terrorism whilst covered in glue.

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