Left: Steph Curry at the Golden State Warriors victory parade in Oakland in 2018. Right: Pablo Sandoval at the San Francisco Giants World Series victory parade in 2012. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
As the reality set in that the Giants might actually make it to—and then win—the 2010 World Series, a wave of palpable electricity crept across San Francisco and invaded every bar, home and neighborhood. Night after night, as the Giants inched closer to victory, growing numbers of elated fans piled into cars, honked horns, hung out of windows and whooped their way through the streets.
At the beginning of the team’s winning streak, fans tried not to get their hopes up too high. Since the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958, every championship that came within reach slipped away at the last moment. In both 1962 (against the New York Yankees) and 2002 (against the Anaheim Angels), the Giants lost in Game 7. They hadn’t made it to the playoffs since 2003. So by 2010—56 years since the Giants’ last World Series win—there was an acute sense of not wanting to jinx it. (In a perfect expression of this anxiety, the front page of The San Francisco Examiner’s advertising section screamed “Torture is over!” the day after the Giants’ 2010 win.)
Where fans weren’t afraid to be vocal in their enthusiasm was when it came to the motley crew of players. The standouts were either remarkably young (Madison Bumgarner was 21, Buster Posey was 23) or defiantly strange. “San Francisco is a ball club with a level of weirdness that works well in its home city,” Sports Illustrated noted at the time. That was an understatement.
There was Brian Wilson with his mohawk, bushy black beard and willfully bizarre interviews, the greatest of which involved him bringing out an almost naked man in a leather bondage mask during an interview with Fox Sports’ The Cheap Seats. There was Tim “The Freak” Lincecum with his stoner-y expression, long hair and practically inhuman pitching style. (The Sunday Telegraph once referred to him as "quite simply, a marvel of physics.") There was Sergio Romo, the Latino pitcher who showed up to the World Series victory parade wearing a Beatles parody T-shirt that said: “The Beaners.” (For the 2012 parade, he famously showed up in one that read: “I JUST LOOK ILLEGAL.”) Even Aubrey Huff was open about wearing a red, rhinestoned thong under his uniform for luck.
The fact that the oddest team in Giants history was the one to finally lead the city to World Series victory felt quintessentially San Francisco. And it only enhanced fans’ sudden sense of invincibility—something that was reflected in the destruction of property that took place in the Mission and other scattered neighborhoods immediately following the defeat of the Texas Rangers in Game 5.
“The night the Giants won was crazy, but not a surprise,” says Mission resident Michael Scanland, who lived on the corner of 24th and Alabama Streets at the time. “You could feel it coming. It was like New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, but crazier—just on the edge of dangerous. I remember seeing riot cops lined up on the sidewalk, but they weren’t doing anything and I didn’t think they could have if they wanted to—they were totally outnumbered.”
Days later in downtown San Francisco, even larger crowds showed up—more than a million people, in fact—for the team’s victory parade. The reception was so enormous, BART set an all-time single day record for passenger numbers.
Even more inexplicably, the 2010 triumph was just the beginning. Something about that long-overdue victory lit a fuse for Bay Area sports that lasted the entire decade. There were subsequent World Series wins for the Giants in 2012 and 2014; the 49ers made it to the Superbowl in 2013; in 2016, the San Jose Sharks reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time. And in a series of wins that ignited the Bay once more, the Golden State Warriors stepped up and seized the NBA championships in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
It wasn’t just the Warriors’ trio of wins that paralleled the Giants’ success; it was the sheer length of time Warriors fans had waited for it—40 years, to be precise. And just as the Giants had a “freak” in Tim Lincecum, the Warriors had the Splash Brothers: Klay Thompson, with his legendarily flawless jumpshots, and Steph Curry, whose ability to make three-pointers from 30 to 40 feet away shifted team strategy in ways that completely baffled opposing teams. “Getting the ball to Curry is so important," the Wall Street Journal once noted, “that conventional wisdom flies out the window.”
As with the Giants, the Warriors went from underdogs to virtually unbeatable almost overnight. By the time Kevin Durant left rivals Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Warriors in 2016, NBA fans and commentators were complaining that the team was too good. “The way Kevin Durant is flowing with this team, how in God’s name is anybody going to stop them?” Stephen A. Smith exclaimed on ESPN in January 2017. “I’m looking at the Golden State Warriors and thinking, ‘Dammit, that’s just not fair!’”
Though the decade in local sports will be most remembered in the history books for its remarkable successes, at the same time, Bay Area sports couldn’t help but be impacted by the demographic and economic shifts that defined the period. The 49ers’ move to Santa Clara and the Raiders’ imminent exit to Vegas hurt fans. The A’s, after losing all five of their postseason appearances in the decade, continue to plan for a new stadium. But no base has felt the impact harder than longtime East Bay Warriors fans who couldn’t help but feel betrayed by the team’s 2019 move from Oakland Arena to San Francisco’s brand new Chase Center—a shift that was accompanied by ticket price hikes and a wealthier, whiter fan base.
With Bruce Bochy’s recent retirement as Giants manager, as well as Kevin Durant’s exit from the Warriors and Steph Curry’s hiatus due to a hand injury, there is a sense that it’s the end of an era for Bay Area sports teams. Whether or not that turns out to be true, fans will continue to revel in the spectacular wins of this decade for many years to come. The fact that it all started with a group of oddballs, on the back of one of the longest losing streaks in sporting history, just makes it all the more extraordinary.
Johannes Mehserle, the police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant, is sentenced to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. The sentencing is decried as too lenient, and more than 150 protesters are arrested in Oakland.Read more.
The 2010 census shows that Oakland’s black population decreased from 35.5 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2010. In San Francisco, the black population dropped to just 6 percent in the same period.Read more.
The Salesforce Transit Center begins construction, and a report from the Transbay Joint Powers Authority eventually finds that the Millennium Tower next door is sinking and tilting.Read more.
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Protesters hold signs as they demonstrate during Occupy Oakland's general strike on Nov. 2, 2011. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
In October 2011, about 100 people pitched tents in front of Oakland City Hall, mounting signs that condemned the country’s disproportionately wealthy one percent. As thousands more protesters joined them, Oakland became a high-profile outpost of a growing international movement against income inequality and corporate influence: Occupy Wall Street, which began in Zuccotti Park in New York City a month prior.
Protesters held loud dance parties and somber candlelight vigils. Danny Glover and Michael Moore stopped by to visit. Boots Riley led direct actions. At one point, the encampment grew so large that a second one was erected at nearby Snow Park.
Occupy had its problems: there were reports of sexual harassment, drug use and unsanitary conditions. One evening, a 25 year-old named Kayode Ola Foster, who had been residing in the encampment, was shot and killed not too far from the tents. On multiple occasions, “occupiers” clashed with law enforcement. During one of these confrontations, police shot a bean bag round at an Iraq War veteran named Scott Olsen; he was treated for a fractured skull, resulting in a $4.5 million settlement with the city.
At the same time, with its slogan “We Are the 99%,” Occupy painted a very clear picture of the country’s inequality, one backed up by the Congressional Budget Office. It brought conversations about bank reform, student loan debt, speculative trading, corporate tax rates and Citizens United to the public square.
And, importantly, it coincided with the rise of smartphones.
Technology played a huge role in Occupy, which took inspiration from the Arab Spring and its use of social networks to organize. “The streets and the internet made a pact,” explains Shake MC El (formerly Shake Anderson), who was a resident of the Occupy encampment and a member of its media team.
And at the dawn of the decade, smartphones weren’t the primary tool for on-the-street organizing and reporting. That all changed with Occupy, when “citizen journalism” became a household term, and technology became a dominant tool for protests: livestreams of police clashes in downtown Oakland, immediate information and calls to action on Twitter and in private group chats.
Occupy was just one of many major protests in the 2010s—Ferguson, Standing Rock, Charlottesville. But it was a rare sustained movement where technology aided, and didn’t overtake, on-the-street activism. Just a few years after Occupy, a hashtag could spark a movement (#OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo). And in the closing years of the decade, lengthy, on-the-street marches dwindled in favor of occasional one-off protests and the rise of clickable online activism.
Occupy Oakland started just months after the community gathered to demand justice for Oscar Grant, and protesting police brutality remained a central focus. The people of Occupy unofficially renamed Frank Ogawa Plaza as Oscar Grant Plaza, where occupants set up culinary and sanitary stations, as well as strategic lines of communication. Quickly, the movement’s popular support began to grow.
On Nov. 2, 2011, protesters organized a general strike. Thousands of people marched from downtown and eventually shut down the Port of Oakland—the third largest port on the West Coast. And on Dec. 12 of that year, the port was shut down again.
The protesters’ thinking was simple: “Now that you’ve shut down the port, you can get any political concession you want from Oakland City Council,” recalls photographer Eric Arnold.
But the triumphant feeling didn’t last long. Masked demonstrators set trash cans on fire and broke businesses’ windows, making headlines. “People questioned if these anarchists were agent provocateurs or something,” says Arnold. At that point, “Occupy just kind of devolved.”
The final straw came on Jan. 28, 2012, when protesters attempted to occupy a downtown building. Arnold described the scene as a standoff between police in riot gear and people with homemade shields and cudgels.
In a way, Occupy foreshadowed the income inequality that would affect the Bay Area in the years to come. When looking at the changes in Oakland’s protests over the course of the decade, for example, it’s clear that the displacement of working class Oaklanders, and an influx of higher-income residents, has impacted the city’s protest activity.
“What you fight for is going to be very different than what someone fights for who is making $100K a year since they got here,” says longtime activist Needa Bee, who was involved with Occupy Oakland and currently works as an advocate for unhoused people.
“Gentrification has killed our movement. You can’t really come up with a mass-base, organized protest like you could 20 years ago,” Bee continues. “Some of the most beautiful, brilliant leaders are homeless in Oakland right now.”
After Occupy, in 2014 and ’15, thousands of demonstrators across the Bay Area marched against police brutality, protesting the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The Black Lives Matter movement continued into 2016 following the high-profile police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—and locally, Demouria Hogg, Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, Alan Blueford and others. Rapper Equipto and four other activists staged a hunger strike against the San Francisco Police Department that year, calling themselves the #Frisco5.
Once again, social media played a key role. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, galvanized street marches on Facebook and Twitter.
Black Lives Matter marches died down by late 2016, and some critics on the left—indeed, most of the people interviewed for this piece—argue that protest culture became watered down by the nonprofit sector. Black Lives Matter, many say, became less effective when it incorporated as a nonprofit organization with outside funding, undermining its initial intent.
“People started doing grassroots movements based on what was going to get funded,” Bee says, adding that a lot of nonprofits work to “fight the system” but have no exit strategy for when their work is done.
“There’s been a shift from people going out in large numbers—or from protesting against the system with our bodies—to a way that’s more subversive and focusing on the community and our survival,” says Oakland organizer Ashley Yates, noting that police suppression and plain exhaustion has also played a role in the shift. “You can only protest so much to move the people who don’t care, and then you have to turn around and speak to the people who do care.”
Street marches may have slowed down, but many of the “protests” in the United States are currently happening in law offices and courtrooms around the country, as well as online. And many of Oakland’s activists are focused on providing resources to the city’s unhoused populations, whose tents and possessions are routinely destroyed in city sweeps.
This November, two unsheltered mothers, Dominique Walker and Sameerah Karim, took over a vacant house in West Oakland that a corporation purchased in foreclosure and left vacant for 18 months. Calling their movement Moms 4 Housing, their occupation is a direct rebuke of Bay Area housing policy, and the ongoing action is getting people talking about solutions. (Also in November, activists demanding housing and dignity for homeless people attempted to occupy the lawn in front of Oakland’s City Hall, but over 60 police officers stopped them.)
Like the protest movements before them, Moms 4 Housing run an active Twitter account. But their physical occupation is evidence that in-person protest still serves a purpose.
If anything, the last ten years prove that in order for real change to occur, it takes a combination of social media savvy and showing up.
From left to right: EMPIRE's Eamon Mulligan, Ghazi Shami, Mozzy, Nima Etminan and David Grear. (Zachary Burnett)
By the early 2010s, the Bay Area’s rap scene was coming down from the high of the hyphy movement, which had flourished in the decade prior. Although Warner Brothers had a hit with E-40’s My Ghetto Report Card, and the Lil Jon-produced “Tell Me When To Go” peaked in the Top 40, the dread-shaking, pill-popping subgenre didn’t go mainstream as predicted.
The region had also lost some of its music industry clout from the ’80s and ’90s, when Bill Graham Presents was one of the country’s most powerful promoters; Lookout Records took pop punk from East Bay subculture to platinum-selling genre; and Jive and Virgin were signing local rappers like Too $hort, E-40, Luniz and Richie Rich. Not to mention, the entire industry was figuring out how to turn a profit in the streaming age: Spotify debuted in the United States in 2011, lowering overall payments to artists and devaluing recorded music as a whole.
In this shifting landscape, a San Francisco audio engineer named Ghazi Shami claimed his place in a new niche with a digital-first enterprise. When his label EMPIRE debuted in 2010, its proprietary software for getting music onto platforms and keeping track of royalties became a huge draw for artists. Keeping its focus primarily to rap, EMPIRE helped local artists develop strategies for the digital age when selling CDs out of car trunks no longer sufficed. Over the last decade, it became a crucial link between the Bay Area’s talent and the tech companies driving change, including Apple in Cupertino and Pandora in Oakland.
By 2011, EMPIRE’s influence spread along the West Coast, with the label distributing early projects by Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. By 2012, EMPIRE had over a dozen entries on the Billboard charts—including an EP by Snoop Dogg, and Trinidad James’ hit “All Gold Everything,” which was inescapable at clubs at the time.
Yet even among this roster of rising mainstream artists and established hitmakers, EMPIRE never lost sight of the Bay Area’s rap scene. It released projects by Oakland street rap mainstays J Stalin and Philthy Rich, and helped Fairfield’s Sage the Gemini usher in a new wave of West Coast party music with his 2013 hit “Gas Pedal.”
“His whole life and career, Ghazi watched talented creatives come up in the Bay Area and have to move elsewhere to fulfill their career goals and aspirations,” says EMPIRE Vice President Nima Etminan. “When he has the chance to do something on his own, a big part of his M.O. is to do it here in San Francisco, to provide a home for people in his community, and to hire people from his community so that the next generation of G-Eazys and Kehlanis don’t feel the need to move away from home to have a career.”
As rap began to eclipse rock as America’s most popular genre, EMPIRE’s early releases attested to Shami’s keen ear for new sounds. Migos’ 2013 “Versace,” for instance, popularized a new cadence from Atlanta, the triplet flow, which transformed the sound of rap this decade.
EMPIRE’s flexible contracts were another key to its early success. Rather than locking promising artists into six-album deals as a major label would, EMPIRE put out one-off releases and moved nimbly, matching the pace of a genre informed by viral trends.
“If you aren’t able to get the music out to the masses, that music can stall or falter if you’re on a traditional release schedule,” says Gavin Rhodes, the co-founder of the music PR company Audible Treats, whose client Young Dolph rose from Memphis standout to mainstream star thanks to the label. “Ghazi and EMPIRE very much embraced the immediacy of the genre and of the artists.”
Over the years, EMPIRE expanded from primarily a digital distributor to a full-service record label and publishing company, working with artists on merchandise, brand partnerships, radio placements and sync opportunities for commercials and television. “I think now distribution is an afterthought, technology takes care of distribution,” says Etminan. “The key for companies like ours is to add value to what the artist is doing.”
That can mean pairing an emerging talent with the right songwriters and producers; locking in collaborators for music videos; and making sure their songs and videos get the right placements and promotion on streaming platforms. “And down to sitting down and talking to artists about basic things like their vision, their goals, their motivations—what they want to get out of being an artist so we can figure out how to best position them,” Etminan continues.
This individualized approach allowed EMPIRE to play a key role in the rise of Northern California artists like Rexx Life Raj and Mozzy, and to rehabilitate some established stars’ careers. With EMPIRE’s help, Fat Joe and Remy Ma logged their biggest hit in over a decade with 2016’s Grammy-nominated “All the Way Up.” The label helped orchestrate a second act for Tyga; took a chance on unlikely (and highly controversial) Florida star XXXtentacion; and played a key role in the rise of top West Coast talent like Southern California’s Anderson .Paak and Vallejo’s SOB x RBE.
In the past two years, EMPIRE has only gotten bigger. In 2018, the company announced a distribution partnership with Universal Music Group, and earlier this year, EMPIRE opened the doors to a new recording studio in San Francisco.
EMPIRE’s expansions have coincided with other forms of growth in the local music industry. At the beginning of 2019, Bandcamp established a downtown Oakland headquarters and venue with an emphasis on local, independent artists. And San Francisco’s Text Me Records emerged from the city’s historic Different Fur Studios, which was famous for recording jazz greats like Herbie Hancock in the ’70s and has since transformed into an incubator for emerging Bay Area artists such as Tia Nomore and Drew Banga.
EMPIRE’s team is now global, spanning New York, London, Atlanta, Amsterdam and Jakarta (following its success with rapper Rich Brian, EMPIRE has its sights set on Indonesia and the Philippines). Yet the label remains firmly rooted in Shami’s hometown, with its headquarters overlooking San Francisco’s financial district. And for Bay Area artists who wouldn’t otherwise have an in with the traditional record label system, their commitment to creating opportunity in the region has been a lifeline.
“Ghazi could easily go to L.A., and it could grow ten-times faster real quick,” says Rexx Life Raj. “But he’s so adamant about staying home and building something from home cause he loves the Bay so much.”
A federal court in San Francisco strikes down Proposition 8, the statewide ban on gay marriage passed by voters in 2008. Read more.
Facebook buys Instagram, a startup founded in San Francisco in 2010, and introduces advertising to the photo-sharing platform.Read more.
Skyline High School senior Alan Blueford is shot and killed by Oakland police officer Miguel Masso, prompting protests and a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the city. No criminal charges are filed. Read more.
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Steep Prices, Absent SFMOMA Signaled an SF Art Exodus
The new Guerrero Gallery during the opening of Hilary Pecis' 'El Verano' in 2016. (Alan Gonzalez; Courtesy of Guerrero Gallery)
Looking back on the nearly three years the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was closed for construction, what Catharine Clark remembers most is the psychic burden on gallery owners like herself.
“I think there was this sense that there was nothing to come to San Francisco for,” she says, “given that the ‘symbol’ of contemporary art was not open, galleries were closing, and artists were leaving the city. And that was a perception outside of the city, but it was something that we also internalized.”
While the city’s largest art museum shut its doors to add 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, the San Francisco gallery scene went through a period of wild instability, shifting from one reliable Union Square hub to several disparate destinations. It suffered, as Clark points out, an identity crisis of sorts. Between 2013 and 2016, galleries throughout the city abandoned traditional structures, rebranded as project spaces, closed and (only sometimes) reopened.
The past decade has been a markedly volatile one in the Bay Area visual arts scene, with artists leaving in droves for more affordable and roomier cities. Galleries joined the exodus, moving operations into homes, online or, in one case, Bozeman, Montana. Amid skyrocketing commercial rents, an aging collector base and shifting audience priorities in the Instagram age, the three-year absence of SFMOMA gave galleries ample time to reflect on a question they’re still asking: Is it time for a new model?
In 2013, Catharine Clark Gallery occupied a prime location on Minna Street: a street-level space with a roll-up door facing SFMOMA. And while the street wouldn’t be closed during the museum’s expansion project, she knew construction would be disruptive. She also faced an imminent rent hike, so Clark began looking for a new location.
“There were already starting to be murmurs that the art world was about to collapse in San Francisco under this impossibility of renewing leases,” Clark remembers. “In most cases, it wasn’t that leases weren’t being offered, it’s just that they just weren’t being offered at prices galleries could afford.”
Eventually, Clark found a raw Potrero Hill space, the zoning of which saved her from competing with tech companies searching for office space. Now she wonders if another move is on the horizon. “When my lease is up here I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she says. After four locations and 29 years, the gallery has grown, ushering its artists from emerging to mid-career status. If she were starting out today, Clark says, she’d never be able to follow a similar path.
What this ultimately means, she says, is that younger, less established artists aren’t getting as many opportunities to show their work—price points have to be high enough to cover a gallery’s rent.
Commercial galleries of all levels are a crucial part of a healthy arts ecosystem, along with collectors who buy locally and invest in the trajectory of an artist’s career. Galleries willing to take a gamble on emerging artists provide them with the stepping stones between scrappy project spaces and museum shows. These galleries contextualize an artist’s work, provide opportunities for formal presentations and open their doors for viewing hours that extend beyond the length of a casual studio visit. And, most importantly, galleries can make artists money (usually, 50 percent of every sale).
While SFMOMA’s doors were closed, the museum vehemently resisted hibernation. Its permanent collection popped up in shows organized with fellow Bay Area institutions; the museum’s semi-biennial (the SECA Award) took place in four different locations—all of them non-art spaces. SFMOMA even staged a large-scale group show in the sleepy South Bay city of Los Gatos. All of this was part of a coordinated effort called On the Go, which maintained the museum’s momentum and public presence while demonstrating a previously unknown agility.
Amid evictions and extreme rent hikes, it’s not surprising that many San Francisco galleries followed SFMOMA’s lead.
Guerrero Gallery, faced with a new lease in 2013 that would double the rent on its Mission District location, opted instead to stage pop-up exhibitions in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and even owner Andres Guerrero’s home. Running lean and getting lucky, Guerrero says, he was able to accumulate enough capital over those three years to open a new space in 2016.
Rena Bransten Gallery, evicted in 2014 after 27 years in its Geary Street building (the tech company MuleSoft, now owned by Salesforce, wanted to expand its square footage), opened a project space on Market Street, proclaiming a shift to “site-specific installations and explorations of non-traditional exhibition models.”
Now located in Minnesota Street Project, the compound of 13 galleries, artist studios and art storage founded in 2016, the gallery has returned to a more traditional model and schedule. Director Trish Bransten says they took from their experience on Market Street a greater appreciation of pushing artists to adapt to a new space and think beyond what Bransten calls “an object-driven format.”
As galleries scrambled for space, the conversations among artists centered around news of recent Ellis Act evictions, impending moves to Los Angeles and whose studio was turning into condos. Somewhat belatedly, the San Francisco Arts Commission issued a survey of Bay Area artists in 2015, finding over 70 percent of the nearly 600 respondents had been or were being displaced from their workplace, home or both. In partial response to this, in January 2019, the city identified four priority areas the newly established Arts Impact Endowment will support—just 10 percent is earmarked for individual artist support, and none for establishing either affordable artist housing or studio space.
When Gregory Lind closed his 20-year-old gallery in August of this year, the decision wasn’t about rent, but about changing demographics and behaviors in the art-viewing public—indicative, perhaps, of larger population shifts in the Bay Area. As Lind explains it, while older collectors withdrew from purchasing art and visiting galleries, younger generations seemed to lean towards impersonal, faster interactions rather than wandering through a carefully staged exhibition.
“I don’t want to generalize, because there are always exceptions,” he prefaces, “but the overall feeling was less interesting conversations, more sales online and, of course, the necessity to do even more art fairs. ... I didn’t feel like I wanted another five-year lease to continue this and be disappointed that people were more interested in Instagram than coming to the gallery.”
For those who believe in primary interactions with artwork, in placement and curation—and face-to-face conversations about all of the above—it remains to be seen how an industry that requires space will continue to adapt in this unaffordable city. Without special protections from local government, or new Minnesota Street Project-style spaces emerging, rent remains an overarching concern. In June 2019, commercial real estate in San Francisco averaged a record high of over $84 per square foot.
“I’ve thought about this over the years as I’ve watched the slow decline of the art scene in the Bay Area,” says Et al. gallery co-director Aaron Harbour, who opened his first space in Chinatown in 2013. “The only monster is the rent, the price of real estate. Everything else is survivable.”
The Kenneth Rainin Foundation helps establish the Community Arts Stabilization Trust with the goal of securing real estate for arts organizations as rents rise in the Bay Area. Read more.
As Google and other tech companies roll out charter buses to transport workers from Oakland and San Francisco to their headquarters in Silicon Valley, protestors demonstrate against rising rents and evictions fueled by the tech boom.Read more.
The $63 million SFJAZZ Center opens in San Francisco, debuting a state-of-the-art concert hall and educational programming for public school students across the Bay Area.Read more.
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As Local Press Dwindled, Who Held the Powerful to Account?
The final edition of the Oakland Tribune is displayed in a newspaper rack in front of the Oakland Tribune offices on April 4, 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The day before the last issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian hit newsstands, executive editor and acting publisher Marke Bieschke found himself on the street surrounded by the contents of his office. He and the entire staff had been fired, and the paper was no more.
“They promised that they would call a car to pick me up and take me home, but they never did, so I sat on the sidewalk for two hours,” he says, laughing. “Yeah, it was a little bit humiliating.”
“They” were the San Francisco Media Company, owners of the Bay Guardian, SF Weekly and the San Francisco Examiner, helmed at the time by publisher Glenn Zuehls. On the morning of Oct. 14, 2014, Zuehls called the paper’s staff into a 10am meeting and, in Bieschke’s words, “axed” them all.
While the Bay Guardian’s dissolution wasn’t the first distressing sign of a rapidly diminishing independent, local press—both in the Bay Area and nationally—it was a shock that continued to echo for years to come as newspapers reorganized, downsized, consolidated or simply ceased to exist. As wealth concentrated in the Bay Area, and local politicians courted that wealth, fewer outlets and journalists were around to hold the powerful and monied accountable.
Today, San Francisco has just one alt-weekly newspaper, the SF Weekly. And the entire editorial staff of San Francisco Magazine, an award-winning monthly known for its rigorous and deeply investigated long-form pieces, collectively quit in 2018 rather than wait to be laid off. The publication is now closer to a replica of the glossy lifestyle magazines published across the U.S. by parent company Modern Luxury.
East Bay publications have suffered too. In 2016, the Bay Area News Group consolidated six daily newspapers serving various East Bay counties into just two, cutting about 20 percent of newsroom staff, and closing down the 142-year-old Oakland Tribune in the process. And the East Bay Express laid off most of its editorial staff in 2019.
“There are so many stories hitting the ground,” laments Joe Eskenazi, managing editor and columnist for the San Francisco news site Mission Local. “Not enough people are covering Oakland.”
As the number of full-time and freelance positions for journalists shrunk, the working conditions for those who remained caused many to leave the industry entirely. Kathleen Richards, who worked at the East Bay Express on two separate occasions, first as an intern who rose through the ranks to co-editor, then as editor in chief, now works as the media and communications coordinator at a nonprofit.
Of her decision to leave journalism, Richards says, “There were a lot of factors, and you can google them. But I think it was mostly I was extremely burned out. And with the way everything ended during my time there, I just felt like I needed a break.”
She’s referring in part to a public scandal involving publisher Stephen Buel, who removed articles from the Express’ website that he reportedly claimed were racist against white people—and, in a meeting discussing why, said the n-word out loud in front of staff. Buel later apologized and stepped down, but returned to his old position after the paper’s last wave of layoffs.
Richards says it’s hard to stay in journalism for long these days. “You can have a career if you can stick it out and it helps, quite frankly, if you have the resources to stick it out,” she says. Often that means a supportive partner, or the financial independence to take unpaid internships or low-paying entry-level jobs. And in the most expensive region in the country, that’s an increasingly inaccesible prospect even for those with the privilege of such support.
When the Bay Guardian came out on Wednesdays, it was an event unto itself, Bieschke remembers. “The paper would centralize diverse voices and arguments within the progressive community, but also in the global community too, and there just isn’t that one centralized place anymore,” he says.
Bieschke and former Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, who worked at the paper for 31 years and was pushed out of his position just a year before the publication closed, founded 48 Hills, an independent news and culture site backed by the nonprofit San Francisco Progressive Media Center, which Redmond also established.
Though 48 Hills has picked up the alt-weekly’s editorial mission in its online coverage, it operates at a completely different scale than the Bay Guardian did in its heyday: Redmond and Bieschke are the only editors for the site, and both maintain additional income sources. Other publications across the Bay Area have also seen staff shrink to what can only be called skeleton crews.
Still, online outlets like Mission Local, Berkeleyside and 48 Hills continue to bring quality, independent and locally reported journalism to Bay Area audiences. To survive in the new media landscape, these sites have moved away from the traditional model, operating as either nonprofits or, in the case of Berkeleyside, a “benefit corporation,” balancing community funding and grants against advertising revenue.
Though out of the game, Richards still finds reason to be optimistic about the future. “I do see in recent years news organizations making more efforts to diversify their staff, as well as their readership and the types of stories they cover,” she says. “We still have a ways to go, of course—there’s always room for improvement. But I think it’s good that news organizations are realizing that in order to be successful they have to more accurately reflect the communities they’re covering.”
Likewise, Bieschke has hope: “I see a labor movement coming forward. I love that newsrooms are getting unionized now more and more across the country.”
And he still sees a demand for the kind of writing the Bay Guardian delivered for nearly 50 years—and not just from the five people a day who still email hoping to advertise in the defunct paper. “I feel that young people are realizing how it can contribute to the discourse that makes the election of people like Chesa Boudin and Dean Preston possible,” he says of San Francisco’s incoming district attorney and supervisor, respectively.
“I think coming from a progressive side of things, we’re seeing a lot of positive signs that people want this kind of journalism.”
A 6.0-magnitude earthquake, the Bay Area's largest in 25 years, shakes Napa and surrounding communities. Read more.
Black Lives Matter protests rage in the Bay Area after the high-profile police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner draw attention to police brutality against black and brown communities. Read more.
John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees leaves San Francisco for Los Angeles, a move many consider emblematic of an exodus of longtime local musicians squeezed by the affordability crisis.Read more.
Robin Williams dies in his Tiburon home at age 63. Read more.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.
In April 2016, Equipto, Sellassie Blackwell, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, Edwin Lindo (left to right) and Ike Pinkston (not pictured) waged one of the longest hunger strikes in San Francisco history to protest police brutality. (Bert Johnson)
The police shooting of Alex Nieto in 2014 sent shockwaves through San Francisco, where tensions between communities of color and SFPD had already been brewing for decades. Nieto, born and raised in the city, had been eating chips in a park when a newcomer to his neighborhood found him suspicious and made the 911 call that ended his life. Author Rebecca Solnit called it “death by gentrification.”
Rapper Equipto was one of the activists who sprung into action following Nieto’s death, joining a growing national movement against police brutality that had peroclated since the deaths of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. In addition to police violence, San Francisco’s black and brown communities felt squeezed by evictions and pro-tech policies, and Equipto spent months imagining what he would tell Mayor Ed Lee if he ever got the chance to talk to him.
Then, one evening in October 2015, Equipto ran into Lee at a restaurant.
“You’re a disgrace to Asians,” Equipto, whose real name is Ilyich Sato, called after Lee. “The people that built this city, you’re getting all of them all kicked out of here.”
A 41-second video of the incident went viral, and the confrontation made headlines in local media. Meanwhile, activists pointed fingers at Lee for shielding the police department and its chief, Greg Suhr, from accountability. In 2015, multiple SFPD officers were found to have sent racist text messages that demeaned the people they were in charge of protecting and serving. And the high-profile police killings of Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods and Luis Góngora Pat left many questioning why officers were so quick to resort to lethal force, sometimes within seconds, without making clear attempts at deescalation.
That was when Equipto’s mother, longtime activist Maria Cristina Gutierrez, suggested the idea of a hunger strike. In April 2016, the mother and son enlisted educator and rapper Ike Pinkston; rapper Sellassie Blackwell; and Edwin Lindo, a candidate in the District 9 Supervisor race. Together, they called themselves the Frisco 5.
On April 21, 2016, the activists set up tents in front of the Valencia Street police station in the Mission district, declaring that they’d stay there, sustaining themselves with coconut water and herbal tea, until Lee resigned or Suhr was fired. They ended up waging one of the longest hunger strikes in San Francisco history, forcing city leaders to examine failing policies and make substantive reforms.
Though many necessary changes remain to be made at SFPD, the hunger strike was a heartening example of effective direct action during a decade when protests such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter were repeatedly squelched by local governments and police.
For the Frisco 5, the hunger strike was a last resort. “We had protested, sent emails, gone to commission hearings,” says Lindo. “You name it, we had probably done it as far as some type of organizing, and it didn’t seem to be working.”
After the Frisco 5 set up camp, thousands of people joined them in front of the police station and in marches to City Hall. In addition to Suhr’s removal and Lee’s resignation, the people marching called for independent investigations of officer-involved shootings and criminal charges for the police officers involved in the killings of Nieto, Woods and others. Word spread through social media via the #Frisco5 hashtag—even Erykah Badu tweeted about it—and stories about the hunger strike appeared in major outlets like Mother Jones and the BBC.
As the hunger strike stretched on into its second week, the Frisco 5 began using wheelchairs to conserve strength, and volunteer doctors supervised them as their bodies became depleted. By the 17th day, they reluctantly agreed to go to the hospital. Each person had lost nearly 30 pounds, and doctors told them that they risked irreversible organ damage and even death. Dozens of the Frisco 5’s supporters continued to protest at City Hall in the following days.
“The community all came together, they got their ribs broken,” said Equipto, describing demonstrators’ clashes with baton-wielding police. “They took over [City Hall] while we were in the hospital. I was watching live footage, crying and shit, like ‘Oh my god, look at all my folks in there.’”
Then, on May 19, 2016, officers shot and killed Jessica Nelson Williams, an unarmed black woman. By that point, the mayor and Suhr himself had run out of excuses for SFPD’s use of force. The department had been responsible for three fatal shootings in less than six months. “The community is grieving, and I join them in that grief,” Lee said in a press conference.
At Lee’s request, Suhr resigned later that day.
Though it had been one of their central demands, Suhr’s resignation was bittersweet for the Frisco 5. “I was so conflicted as to why it had to happen like that,” says Equipto. “I was in tears, didn’t really know how to feel. I was happy that the motherfucker was gone, but why did it take Jessica Nelson having to lose her life for this to happen?”
Reforms progressed from there. In October 2016, the Department of Justice published a report with 272 recommendations for SFPD, mostly focusing on transparency and community policing. Today, under Police Chief William Scott and Mayor London Breed, the department has implemented about 10 percent of the DOJ’s recommendations—a pace many activists decry as far too slow.
That includes PolicyLink’s managing director Anand Subramanian, who helped uncover biases in SFPD in the wake of 2015’s racist text messaging scandal. Subramanian says that a crucial next step is dismantling California’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights. “It gives officers unnecessary privileges when it comes to investigations of police misconduct—privileges that no one in other professions in any other contexts really get,” says Subramanian.
Many in San Francisco continue to voice concerns about SFPD’s disproportionate use of force against people of color and its treatment of homeless people. For his part, Equipto spends many of his evenings filming SFPD officers’ encounters with civilians with the group Frisco Copwatch.
Still, San Francisco Police Commission President Robert Hirsch says that in the past several years, there have been significant improvements at SFPD. “The department uses far less force than it used to use. It trains officers in crisis intervention, it developed a review board where every incident involving an officer is reviewed by the department and discussed publicly in a commission meeting,” says Hirsch.
Though there is a long way to go, in the past two years, crucial reforms have also occurred on the state level: California passed new legislation aimed at curbing police misconduct, including unsealing decades of police records, and raising the standard for acceptable use of force. In 2019, there haven’t been any officer-involved shootings in San Francisco, according to the police department’s latest report. (Editor's note: Shortly after the publication of this story, SFPD officers shot and critically injured a man in the Mission district.)
“I’m sure protests helped precipitate it,” says Hirsch. “They put tremendous pressure on the mayor, the city and the department to do something different, because the status quo was not working.”
Iconic East Bay rapper the Jacka is shot and killed in Oakland. He’s remembered for his impact on the Northern California mobb music scene and collaborations with E-40, Husalah and others. Read more.
Two Stanford University graduates found the e-cigarette company Juul in San Francisco. Juul becomes the biggest company in tobacco vaping, and is the defendant of a 2019 California lawsuit.Read more.
The Oakland Police Department ends a two-year streak of no officer-involved shootings with officer Nicole Rhodes shooting and killing Demouria Hogg, who was asleep in his car near Lake Merritt. Read more.
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Evictions, Ghost Ship Fire Pushed Oakland Artists to Margins
The band UrthDance performs at Sub/Mission Gallery in San Francisco in 2012. (Raphael Villet)
In 2016, plywood partitions in Oakland warehouses toppled. Rehearsal and performance spaces quieted, and screen-printing presses stilled. Landlords toured hastily-vacated galleries with county sheriffs, and artists rushed to decipher municipal zoning rules in attempts to save their workspace and housing. Collaborative trash sculptures belatedly landed at the dump. Realtors posted advertisements to mural-strewn rollup doors, and chain-link fences enclosed the charred frames of more than one improvised home.
These scenes marked eviction, destruction and death at many key nodes of Oakland’s cultural landscape. In January of that year, city officials condemned 1919 Market Street, a West Oakland live-work complex that’d housed underground venues including Liminal, Grandma’s House and the Living Room Project. The residents of Ghost Town Gallery, a former creamery with a recording studio and venue, were evicted in June. Weeks later, the tenants of Lobot, another venue and exhibition space, were displaced after a series of dramatic rent increases.
Jeffrey Cheung, the Unity Queer Skateboarding co-founder and Oakland artist known for his paintings of joyous androgynes, developed his large-scale canvas style and launched the publisher Unity Press while renting workspace at Lobot. His rock group, also called Unity, played Lobot’s farewell show along with Squadda B of rap duo Main Attrakionz. “2016 was definitely a turning point,” Cheung says. “Everyone became more desperate for spaces, and trying to make smaller places work—cafes, bookstores. There were new DIY spaces, but they’ve closed, too.”
Also that year, Bay Area 51, a former bus depot in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, expired as a beacon of the city’s waning underground electronic music scene. The eviction of Telegraph Beach represented the decline of East Bay punk houses amenable to the ambient chaos of living-room gigs and home recording. Adjacent West Oakland live-work warehouses containing the radical publisher AK Press and an experimental music hub sold to a developer known for building tech dorms and evicting seniors following a deadly fire the year before.
Then, on Dec. 2, 2016, another fire ignited on the bottom level of the East Oakland warehouse known as Ghost Ship. Dozens of people upstairs at an electronic music event inhaled dense, caustic smoke; days later, the death toll settled at 36. Many of the victims were arts community pillars, and the tragedy spurred a protracted, wrenching period of grief—tributes, posthumous albums and lyrics like, “I’m a walking mausoleum,” as Hether Fortune of Wax Idols sang. For subcultures aiming to provide safe spaces for self-expression, it was spiritually crushing.
The fire led to unresolved criminal and civil litigation, stirring debate about responsibility for a blaze with no officially determined cause. It also preceded a wave of displacement: Property owners, already beginning to market warehouses to more affluent renters, grew leery of liability. City officials compiled lists of unpermitted residences and venues and instructed owners to “discontinue residential use,” effectively ordering dozens of tenants’ displacement. The chain of unwritten agreements between tenants, landlords and city officials seemed to break overnight.
Ghost Ship’s effects will continue into the next decade. Safer DIY Spaces, a live-work advocacy organization formed after the fire, has assisted tenants of more than 120 residences and art spaces with code-compliance and safety improvements since 2017, according to director David Keenan. Some are currently in delicate permitting processes. At least 20 have been evicted. And despite claims to the contrary, Keenan says city bureaucracy remains generally adversarial.
“Inspectors have told me they’d rather see people outside in tents than in warehouses,” he says.
Tenants of the Church, a West Oakland warehouse targeted by city officials after the fire, were displaced this summer after more than two years of uncertainty. The Church hosted more than 200 installments of the mononymous filmmaker Tooth’s screening series, Black Hole, between 2011 and 2019, all of them free and often featuring experimental work by visiting international artists. The series also led to the film festival Light Field. A shrine to Joey Casio, an artist and former Church resident who died in the fire, sprawled along a wall until the day of the eviction.
Tooth, who now lives in New York, made Black Hole a free event in order to counter art world gatekeeping, and to encourage people to attend even when they didn’t recognize the programming—a range of canonical art-house and non-narrative abstraction. (Also a hit: Saturday morning cartoons and mimosas.) “It wouldn’t have been financially possible at a space where I didn’t also live,” he says. He also incorporated the Church's architecture into his sound art practice: at the Church’s last event, Tooth used a bow to elicit a thrumming drone from the structure itself.
The decline of affordable live-work space, hastened also by cannabis cultivators after California voters legalized recreational use in 2016, has reshaped the volume and variety of artistic production in the Bay Area. The aforementioned places accommodated large-scale works such as murals, sculptures and ostentatiously loud music. They fostered unlikely collaborations through social events that eroded boundaries between artistic disciplines. Importantly, they were also cheap enough to relieve artists of financial pressures, allowing them to pursue ephemeral or immaterial formats rather than making safer, more commercial work.
Similarly flexible, spacious places for artists to live and work have not disappeared completely. But it’s telling that underground dance events are lately occurring outdoors. Cheung, trying to recapture Lobot’s collective spirit through skateboarding, ended up spending more time outside, too.
Punk and experimental shows, not long ago found largely in discrete spaces, now gravitate to established venues. Some clubs can approximate the atmosphere of an underground show, but even the most accommodating ones have bottom lines that seem to buffer against creative risk.
Since 2016, local music scene figures have also gained more awareness of how underground art spaces contribute to gentrification—thereby hastening their own displacement. Politicians, conspicuously Jerry Brown during his 1999–2007 mayoral tenure, promoted the creative reuse of commercial properties on the premise that an arts reputation would attract investor capital to Oakland. The underground venues that figures such as Brown tacitly condoned enticed transplants to depressed neighborhoods, speeding the turnover of longtime residents.
Recognizing the more pernicious elements of this legacy, artists and activists holding space in Oakland today tend to center communities most susceptible to displacement, and also stress the need to insulate real-estate from the uncertainty of the speculative market.The Oakland Community Land Trust, for example, in 2017 acquired an East Oakland building containing affordable apartments and people of color-led nonprofit storefronts. There and in other remaining communal live-work spaces, collectivizing ownership is on the chore wheel.
Brontez Purnell, the musician, writer and dancer, lived in Oakland warehouses for more than a decade until 2014, when he was evicted from Ghost Town Gallery neighbor Sugar Mountain. At Sugar Mountain, where his rent hovered around $460 a month, Purnell wrote his first book and created several records and music videos for his group, The Younger Lovers. He also convened large, experimental dance ensembles, yielding the internationally exhibited 8mm film Free Jazz.
“I was interested in total- or anti-dance,” he says. “So I thought I’d structure my dance company like a punk band—bring dancers and non-dancers to this warehouse and practice.” Purnell, who now lives in a shared home in Oakland, and who in 2018 was called a key contemporary black writer in The New York Times, groans to remember the dozen-plus roommates and lack of privacy at Sugar Mountain, but describes it as a platform for his career’s second act. “Those were pivotal years,” Purnell says. “The space was instrumental to all of my work today.”
Norma Quintana searches through the remains of her home near the Silverado Country Club in Napa. Quintana has started photographing items she finds in the ashes for a series called 'Forage From Fire.' (India Markus/KQED)
Sure, there had been wildfires in California before. But 2017 was the year it got real—the year climate change came to our doorstep.
Starting late at night on Oct. 8, 2017 near Calistoga, and roaring at an unprecedented speed down the hill and into Santa Rosa, the Tubbs Fire and other North Bay fires that night eventually consumed over 8,000 buildings and took 44 lives. The timing meant that most residents were asleep when the fires hit; their speed meant that people had mere minutes to evacuate their homes on roads surrounded by orange and yellow flames, leaving prized possessions and family photos to be incinerated.
This is what we now call fire season in California. A year later in 2018, the Camp Fire started near the small village of Pulga and laid waste in the small town of Paradise and its surrounding areas, eventually becoming the most destructive fire in California history. In 2019, the Kincade Fire started in the hills of Sonoma County, destroyed 374 buildings and left an even larger footprint than the Tubbs fire. (Southern California hasn't fared much better, with Ventura, San Bernardino and West Los Angeles also experiencing large fires in recent years.)
All three of Northern California's major fires this decade have been traced back to failing PG&E equipment. But increasing the fires’ likelihood, and playing a factor in their quick spread, are higher temperatures, plus forests and brush land left dry from years of drought. In other words: climate change.
“When we compare the records of forest fire areas in California against all the variables out there, the strongest correlation by far is the aridity of the atmosphere, and that’s driven by temperature,” said Park Williams, the lead author on a 2018 study linking climate change and California's wildfires.
The dominant driver in rising temperatures, as Williams told KQED in 2018, is “very likely human-caused climate change.”
This is no easy problem to solve. (Certainly not as easy as “raking” the forest floor, as the president suggested on a visit to California after the 2018 fires.) Nor does it come without its many ripple effects on housing and the economy. We may never know exactly how many people were forced to leave Santa Rosa in 2017, but we do know that available housing, which already hovered at a two-percent vacancy rate before the fire, virtually disappeared overnight. One month later, a study showed that rents across Sonoma County had jumped by 36 percent as landlords took advantage of the demand.
The fire itself was not discriminating. It consumed the wealthy ridge development of Fountaingrove, home to many of the city's movers and shakers, as well as the trailer park Journey's End, across the street from Fountaingrove's entrance. It also meant smoke for all: everyone, regardless of income level, was affected by poor air quality, including in the urban core of San Francisco and Oakland.
Yet as recovery spread across the North Bay, the story was the same: those with wealth were able to stay, while many low-income residents and renters, including teachers and servers and housekeepers and artists, had to move away.
Understanding the migratory effects of climate change usually involves studying animal habitats. But humans are animals too. We'd already chosen cities with temperate climates as desirable places to live. If the fires continue, and if displacement is an annual event, there may not be much of a choice in where to live anymore.
We’ll certainly lose more and more cultural history. In 2017, Santa Rosa engineer Allen Sudduth lost not just vintage musical equipment, but master tapes of local bands. The final home of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz burned down, destroying personal effects and memorabilia. Sixty years of archives from the electronic music pioneer and field recording engineer Bernie Krause burned to the ground. These are only three examples of many. “I only had time to make sure my wife could make it to the car,” Krause told KQED in 2017. “The road was completely on fire. We drove through a wall of flames and were lucky enough to get out.”
As fires become an annual event, we're getting pretty good at reporting for duty.
In 2017, we at KQED were heartened to see people like Brian Fies, a cartoonist who turned the loss of his home and all his belongings into an Emmy-winning story, providing understanding and catharsis. Or people like Mark and Terri Stark, who lost a restaurant in the fire but kept their other restaurants open to feed evacuees. People like Clementine Lee, who arranged face-painting for evacuated children after her own house burned down, or the Loveland Violin Shop, which loaned instruments to students whose violins burned in the fire after the owners' own house burned down. Organizations like Sonoma Family Meal, which stepped up to provide free meals to evacuated and displaced residents. Artists like Mikayla Butchart, who designed the defining logo of recovery and raised over $20,000 for fire relief with it.
These stories go on and on. If there's any good to come of the fires, it's that we're better prepared now. In 2019, when the Kincade Fire broke out, everyone knew their role. And though 174 houses burned, no one died.
In 2018, the Bay Area was on theater screens almost every month of the year.
Ryan Coogler’s Marvel blockbuster Black Panther kicked things off in February. With an opening scene set in West Oakland, the filmtouched on themes of black oppression and freedom while centering ideological divergences within the African diaspora—all unprecedented topics for a movie with its budget and global reach.
Later that year, in July, Sorry To Bother You landed in theaters. Boots Riley’s surrealist tale of labor and love tripped through Oakland—east, west and downtown. Riley imbued his experiences as an activist and artist in the film’s characters, who argued about money versus morals, while the film’s chimerical twists refused a comfortable pace to its audience. An Oakland story to its core, Sorry To Bother You struck a chord with viewers across the country, engendering conversations about an increasingly unprotected American workforce.
Indeed, Black Panther and Sorry to Bother You, along with other recent Bay Area films such as Blindspotting, Jinn and 2019’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, seemed to share a palpable sense of duty to comment on social issues playing out in the region and nationwide. Faced with a rare opportunity to explore these ideas through the Hollywood studio system, local filmmakers told personal stories with urgency and purpose—but with mixed results.
Tempting as it may be to encapsulate 2018 as a defining year for Bay Area cinema, Riley, who is already working on his next feature film, views it as an introduction. “These are like the opening statements,” says the director of 2018’s local film blitz. “Then people start pushing the walls here and there.”
In these films, a pursuit of universality complicated the challenge of telling personal and local stories for a wide audience. In Black Panther, for instance, the allyship between Wakanda and a CIA agent was jarring to some viewers considering the role of U.S. intelligence agencies in violently dismantling global and local efforts of black survival, including the real-life Black Panther Party from Coogler’s birthplace of Oakland.
Oakland-set Blindspotting, which came out in July 2018, stars Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, childhood friends in real life whose characters grapple with identity and police violence on screen. Leaning into Casal and Diggs’ background as spoken-word artists and musicians, the film employs rap, at times in a didactic manner, to tackle the Bay Area’s ongoing problems with gentrification and racist policing.
In November of that year came Jinn from Oakland writer-director Nijla Mu’Min. Though it received less fanfare than the aforementioned titles, Mu’Min’s coming-of-age story of a young, black Muslim girl is a rare onscreen portrayal, holding the subjects of faith, family and sexuality with care and warmth.
And this June, building on the conversation these 2018 films started, Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ The Last Black Man in San Francisco offered a parable of belonging. With Fails playing the eponymous protagonist, the film is set in a towering Victorian against the backdrop of a city that seems eager to get rid of him and its remaining black population. As if stifled by the burden of its own aspirations to make a statement on race and class, The Last Black Man ends up taking the easy, stereotypical route in some scenes and abandoning the course completely in others. Still, Talbot won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and like the rest of its Bay Area contemporaries, his film was mostly positively reviewed.
A forebear to this decade in Bay Area cinema is Barry Jenkins’ 2009 Medicine for Melancholy. Set and shot in San Francisco, the film’s quiet, evocative story followed two young, black folks betting on a new romance and livability in a city whose black population has steadily declined for decades. Jenkins, who lived in the Bay Area at the time, foreshadowed the localized subject matter that Bay Area filmmakers veered towards in the years to come.
Fruitvale Station, Coogler’s feature-length debut from 2013, was equally foundational to 2018’s banner year for Bay Area film. Through an intimate portrait of Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, the film centers on the last few hours of Grant’s life before he was killed by a BART police officer on New Year’s Day in 2009. Fruitvale Station struck a nerve nationally. In a very American circumstance, it was released a day before George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin. (Though Grant’s killer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, he was released from prison two years before the film came out.)
Two less mainstream projects by East Bay directors, Jonathan Singer-Vine’s 2013 Licks and Justin Tipping’s 2016 Kicks, formed part of the same lineage. In their own distinct tones, the two independent films tell stories about the choices two young men make in the face of systemic poverty in Oakland and Richmond.
Oakland film writer Ashley De La Torre, who contributes to REELYDOPE, a local film review website, points to the changing landscape of film production and distribution as a reason for this increasing momentum in Bay Area cinema. “What’s impacting us is what’s impacting the industry as a whole, as far as up and coming filmmakers: it’s access,” she says. “You can make your small film and shop it.” Fruitvale Station, Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting all found success at Sundance Film Festival, acquiring distributors after they premiered there.
De La Torre is also quick to mention Hayward-raised actor Mahershala Ali for his impactful performances in Kicks and in Jenkins’ Moonlight, for which he won an Oscar. There’s also behind-the-scenes talent like San Francisco native James Laxton, who’s been the cinematographer in each of Jenkins’ feature films. “As far as the Bay, we’ve always been integrated in the industry,” De La Torre says. “I think we’re just now starting to get more recognition for our impact.”
On a local level, the San Francisco International Film Festival stands tall as a source of institutional support through funding, mentorship and resources for Bay Area filmmakers. “By being able to create these hubs and build those connections, that sense of community really helps those especially who want to stay in the Bay Area,” says Lauren Kushner, the interim director of artist development at SFFILM. In fact, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, Jinn and Last Black Man all received funding through the organization.
Now that several Bay Area films centering black characters have succeeded in the box office, it’s fitting to consider what stories might follow their lead. If, like Riley said, 2018 was a year of opening statements, it will be exciting if the next stage of this conversation carries more perspectives from women and LGBTQ filmmakers, and a confidence that national audiences can appreciate nuanced stories—hopefully, stories that can just exist without being weighed down by the need to explain their significance.
For his part, Riley is stepping into his next projects with renewed assurance. “We're told an idea of how the world is and what the world believes,” he says. “Actually, people are way more radical than what we've been told.”
Comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayanan is one of the many California artists and entertainers figuring out how to adapt to AB5, a piece of legislation that will upend the last decade's gig-economy labor practices. (Kearny Street Workshop)
Like many artists, comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayanan juggles multiple roles to make a living. “We've always sort of pieced together a tour, submitted a script, did a web series or a paid gig for Intel,” says Lakshminarayanan, who lives in San Francisco and performs all over the country. “And then we go and do a ten-dollar-tip-jar show.”
Since Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) into law in September, many California contractors—particularly those who work regular shifts for a single company—have shown up at rallies in support of the legislation. The new law, which will reclassify many former freelancers as employees when it takes effect on Jan. 1 next year, will grant more benefits such as paid sick leave, overtime and expense reimbursement to workers across the state.
Yet it’s stillunclear how the law will affect artists and entertainers like Lakshminarayanan, who do all kinds of gigs for all kinds of clients, and whose practices don’t always align with the legal requirements of an employer-employee relationship.
AB5 came from an effort to prevent employers from skimping on employee benefits, as the gig economy redefined Americans’ relationship to the workplace in the last decade. While targeted at ride share companies such as Uber and Lyft, this overhaul of California labor law comes with unintended consequences for other types of industries that, let's face it, also thrive on cheap or even free labor to function, including arts organizations. Many arts institutions and freelance artists alike now find themselves in a state of confusion about how they will continue to do business come next year.
Even though she doesn’t see much upside to the legislation for her own situation, Lakshminarayanan supports AB5 in principle. She says it will provide more stability for the many artists she knows who work side jobs for extra money.
“For comedians who use Uber and Lyft as their ‘day job’ while they're trying to make it, I think AB5 is really beneficial, because you're looking for some stability and benefits,” she says. “You can't have two jobs where you're struggling with both of them.”
Other cultural workers in the Bay Area are expressing anxiety around the incoming bill. Musical theater composer and lyricist Ron Lytle says he feels like he’s in the dark about how to conduct his business going forward. “I'm concerned about my future as a small independent who needs to produce demo recordings and albums to promote my work,” says Lytle. “I engage orchestrators, singers, musicians and studio engineers, which are necessary to produce a show or record an album. Without these tools, I can't license my shows.”
There’s also the issue of how AB5 will affect creative workers’ control over their intellectual property. “When you are an employee, your employer has the right to your intellectual property,” says Julie Baker, executive director of the statewide arts and culture advocacy group Californians for the Arts. “So that's a very important aspect of why many artists and creatives want to remain independent contractors.”
Under AB5, in order to legally work with artists as freelancers, employers have to prove that they don’t control or direct the freelancer’s work, the freelancer is an established contractor in their field and that the freelancer performs work that lies outside an employer’s main line of business. The first two requirements are often easier to satisfy than the third. If the freelancer performs work similar to the employer’s main line of business, they may be covered by one of the law’s 50-plus exemptions—as long as they meet another specific set of criteria, including maintaining a separate business location, having a business license and negotiating their own rates for the services performed.
The complicated legislation is confusing even for labor experts. Lakshminarayan says if she is asked to become an employee to continue working for any of her clients, she plans to form her own limited liability company (LLC) to continue operating as a freelancer. “Create an LLC, and then you can be your own entity that collaborates with other artists,” she says. “Lots of comedians have done that.”
The new legislation isn’t just causing concern for individual artists. Baker says AB5 is a burden for the state’s cultural sector as a whole, which accounts for 7 percent of the state’s economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
“Our industry is mostly run by nonprofit organizations with small budgets,” says Baker. “They mostly operate on a seasonal, performance, exhibit or classroom model. They do not generally fit into standard employment models.”
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s managing director Susie Medak says she cannot see any advantages of AB5 to California’s creative industries. “We have to figure out how to apply standard work rules to people who don't spend all their time working for us, whose work is not clearly defined and whose collective bargaining agreements allow them to work in less structured ways,” says Medak. “It's terribly complicated.”
But some arts organizations have a more favorable view of AB5, and have even already taken steps to comply with the incoming legislation. The Oakland Museum of Californiais increasingly looking to temporary staffing agencies to fill jobs that might have previously gone to contractors.
“It actually opened the door for more people to think about museums as a career opportunity,” says the museum’s human resources director, Ayanna Reed. “So it created a more diverse workforce for us.” But Reed also says complying with AB5 is likely to be costly and time-consuming for her organization, and could make many former freelancers feel like they’re making less money. “We're paying for worker's comp, we're paying unemployment—all of those things that AB5 set out to protect individuals with, and that's wonderful,” Reed says. “But that means we're also not paying that higher hourly rate that they would have received as an independent contractor.”
There are other gray areas with how AB5 is going to work. The legislation’s long list of exemptions includes “fine artists.” However, there’s fuzziness around what that category actually means. The bill’s author, California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, isn’t clear on who fits into the category.
“Obviously, a muralist is a fine artist,” she says. “A musician is a fine artist.”
In fact, there’s currently no AB5 exemption specifically for musicians. Music industry advocates are among the strongest voices lobbying state lawmakers to tweak the new legislation to better suit their needs. Lobbyists say the definitions may end up being worked out in court.
Gonzalez says she is continuing to clarify how the law applies to musical artists and discussions with the unions and the industry are ongoing.
The legislative session starts in January, so no further changes to the law can be made before the end of 2019.
She says she is open to adapting the law in the future.
“I think as our world changes, the definition of a fine artist changes,” she says. “This is going to be an ongoing discussion.”