San Francisco: Now, more like everyplace else

For nearly three decades, dancers practicing everything from ballet to political theater have pounded the creaky wood boards of Dance Mission studios in the heart of San Francisco's Latino district.

Today is no different, as a half-dozen dancers rehearse in a back, upstairs room.

But each plie and pirouette comes under the stress of a deadline far more pressing than any opening night. By year's end, Dance Mission will be gone, unable to afford a doubling of its rent.

Across the city similar stories abound. Artists, activists, and a plethora of nonprofit organizations, many with a political edge, are folding. And with each demise, a larger picture emerges: The fundamental character of this city by the bay is changing.

Once a beacon of liberal activism and Bohemian charm, this city looks increasingly like the epitome of New Economy capitalism.

A tsunami of high-technology workers and businesses has washed over the city in recent years, creating both unprecedented prosperity and crushing hardship in a city famous for its big heart and open arms.

The conflict is embodied in a pair of dueling growth-control measures before voters on the Nov. 7 ballot. And while the issue has made this year's election white hot for San Franciscans, few see a simple ballot-box solution to the forces now at work.

Much of the phenomenon is familiar. Gentrification and growth have buffeted American cities for decades. But it is the magnitude and speed of what is occurring here, say urban historians, that is so extraordinary.

Fred Siegel of the Progressive Policy Institute likens the scope of change in San Francisco to two other transformations in US history: New York City in the mid-1800s, after the completion of the Erie Canal; and Chicago later that century, after the establishment of a national rail network.

But even that parallel is imperfect. "What's different about San Francisco's concussive growth is that it's occurring in an already mature city. That's very rare," says Mr. Siegel.

The transformation here is rooted in leaping real-estate values, with median home prices hovering near $500,000 and office rents in many parts of the city doubling as leases expire. Residential evictions are running at more than 1,000 per year.

The nonprofit Housing Rights Committee, which provides counseling to residential renters, was itself evicted last month.

The upward pressure on rents has come from thousands of New Economy workers pouring into low-income neighborhoods, spiking demand and prices. In hard-hit areas like the Latino Mission District, tacquerias and open-front produce stores now stand incongruously next to trendy restaurants with valet parking.

Of course, the flip side of this transformation is low unemployment, booming job growth, and a city budget surplus.

But these days, even when San Francisco's pro-growth forces talk about prosperity, they do so in the context of how to solve its attendant problems.

Beyond people being priced out of homes - and enterprises out of office space - the city's changing economics is also altering urban ecology more deeply.

San Francisco has been an incubator of liberal thought for decades. This is, after all, the capital of what is known as the nation's "Left Coast."

People flocked to the city to be part of the Beat Generation, the Hippie movement, and more recently, gay-rights activism.

The city's reputation has fed on itself, making it a magnet for nonconformists of almost every stripe. But aiding all that was relatively low housing costs, at least until recently.

Dave Snyder's story is typical. The Washington transplant came to San Francisco in 1989, lured like thousands of others by the city's reputation for progressive politics and social tolerance.

"I could rent a place for $285 per month and so was able to devote my time to starting up the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition," he says.

That organization has gone on to be a leader in the national movement to make streets friendlier to bicyclists, thanks in part to the fact that Mr. Snyder could afford to support himself in San Francisco with part-time work and full-time devotion to nonprofit social activism.

"No way I could do that today," says Snyder, whose organization is threatened with eviction in six months because of a planned 300 percent hike in rent.

The same phenomenon of low rents, attractive geography, and the city's counterculture mystique has drawn a high number of artists, musicians, and writers - and the nonprofit groups and organizations that support them.

Debra Walker, a painter, a member of the city's Building Inspection Commission, and antigrowth activist, relocated here in 1981 and remembers the lure vividly. "I felt I could just breathe in and feel creatively energized. It's a kind of creative ecosystem that really doesn't exist anywhere else in terms of the number of nonprofit galleries, nonprofit dance companies, performance groups, and arts organizations."

That range of organizations makes up a historic, and now threatened, part of the city's fabric, say a number of analysts.

"The perception is pretty clear that the soul of San Francisco is in jeopardy," says Richard Deleon, author of "Left Coast City," and a political scientist at San Francisco State University. "Not just the physical attributes of the city - its historic architecture and so on - but also the preservation of the avant-garde, nonconformist traditions of the people of San Francisco."

Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a longtime resident of San Francisco, says the city is losing the spirit that has made it a "frontier for free poetic life."

True, a revitalized waterfront, a new baseball park, and glittering entertainment complexes will only add to the city's traditional attractions like cable cars, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet for many, that is just a veneer.

"People come here to rub up against the edge, and we're getting gentrified into something you can find in any city in the country," says Krissy Kefer, artistic director of the Dance Mission.

Mayor Willie Brown and his former mayoral opponent, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, have come up with dueling plans offering various forms of financial help to nonprofits. And then there are the two growth-control ballot measures. But some say an answer must go deeper.

"The solution to the problem is really difficult, but I think will only be found by empowering the people to take control of the planning process," says Snyder.

That kind of cry for greater "people power" still has resonance and muscle here. But the clear perception is that the city's balance of power has shifted to developers and commercial interests, and that "people power" here is in danger.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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