As Mission District rooftops harnessed the sun’s last rays and the sweltering October day drew to a close, a solemn group of people emerged from the evening shadows bearing a coffin.
Lovingly adorned with flowers and a banner that read “La Mission,” the coffin served as an allegory for the loss of a neighborhood.
“We are commemorating the death of the Mission,” said Dennis Maxwell, one of the organizers of the Oct. 5 ‘Muerte del barrio La Mission’ procession. “We are trying to create awareness— [gentrification] has affected so many people.”
A thriving art community, cultural diversity and a history of political activism are traits that make the neighborhood attractive to new residents and developers—yet many locals fear that the displacement of artists, working class residents, and immigrants that gave life and color to the neighborhood, will ultimately erase its unique flavor.
“You can see the artistic expression everywhere. If we have all these wealthy people coming into our neighborhood, all this is going to disappear,” said Maxwell. “I think it’s people who want to live in a cool place, but they don’t care very much about what’s already here.”
The funeral procession took place on the same evening as the Mission Arts and Performance Project (MAPP), a bi-monthly event that started 10 years ago in which neighborhood spaces are transformed into micro art centers.
Activists, community leaders and neighbors joined the procession down 23rd Street as some onlookers applauded and others sat on their stoops, watching curiously.
Stopping in front of an apartment building on the corner of 23rd and Folsom streets, they set the coffin onto the sidewalk. Using white paint, participants drew crosses in front of every doorway of the building, announcing the evictions that are taking place there.
“The Mission’s Chicano-Latino community worked very hard for many years to provide resources to disenfranchised people of color…and now because of all of the changes with gentrification, those resources are being lost,” said Sheila Hernandez, gallery coordinator at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA). “People are being pushed into the suburbs and to the periphery. They don’t have those kind of resources that can help them with life, education, health—their community.”
“I don’t think that it’s something that’s natural,” she added. “It’s more about where the rich want to live, and everybody else just has to live where we can.”
For local artists who have benefited from lax rental agreements and rent control, enabling them to hone their craft in small art studios outside of their homes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the counter-cultural, bohemian art scene that has distinguished San Francisco for years.
“I would not want to be 19-years-old trying to start something in this city,” said Ron Cordova, a Mission-based artist.
At Live Art Gallery at 15th and Potrero streets, Cordova wonders how he and the dozen other artists currently sharing the art space will be able to clear out their work spaces —packed from floor to ceiling with years worth of collections, materials and utensils—by Nov. 1.
Two months ago, the artists received a spotty eviction notice from a landlord that was mostly absent.
When Cordova attempted to contact the landlord about this issue, he found him to be on vacation.
Lax, sometimes even verbal, rental agreements were common practice years ago, and when the artists inquired about their rights, they were told by the landlord’s “middleman” that “it was always understood not to ask for anything.”
“For years, people could be here and create and try things,” said Julien Lallemand, a Parisian illustrator who has rented a space at the studio for three months.
“Some of us are thinking of staying together, and for the purpose of finding a place where we can work going nonprofit status.”
Despite the approaching eviction deadline, many artists have not began to clear out their spaces as uncertainty and a deep sense of injustice linger.
“We have art in our hearts, we can go to the streets and create there,” said renown Mexican printmaker and painter Calixto Robles, who has had his work space at the study for eight years. “But we want to make people aware what’s happening here.”
As community is uprooted, many refuse to leave in silence
Paula Tejeda was among the the leaders of the ‘Muerte del barrio La Mission’ procession. A few days earlier, the owner of the restaurant “Chile Lindo” was sitting in her Mission home, speaking of her own imminent eviction.
“Where is the value of all the sweat and collateral that went in by the artists and the people that created this environment…it’s not even accounted for,” said Tejeda, calling the ongoing eviction of Rene Yanez—co-founder of Galeria de la Raza and the Day of the Dead procession— and his family “appalling.”
“Why isn’t there a place for someone like him to be able to do the work that he does and not be in the situation that he is in now?” she said.
“People that live on rent control are working towards making their lives better and the lives of the community better—they are not sitting down all day watching TV… (are) lazy, or are simply not taking care of business,” said Tejeda. “That is an insult and a misconception. I don’t think that owning property is a reality for everybody in this city.”
In 1995, Tejeda started her business in the community, which she runs single-handedly. She has taken from the community, but she says she has also given back plenty.
“I have roots in the community all the way back to 1980—I have been part of the artistic movement here and I am introducing the culture of my family (from Chile),” said Tejeda.
With just a few months left in her home, Tejeda is trying to make sense of her eviction, find a new place to live, and continue running her business.
“If I leave that little business, it’s again one less thing that makes the day of many people. It’s where they get their cup of coffee in the morning, they say ‘hi’—the conversations have continuation.”
“Those ties can’t be severed because then you are constantly living with no roots, and that’s what’s being displaced from the community. Now the people in the restaurants don’t have a face, they don’t have a history, they don’t know your name,” she added.