Since the gold rush of 1849, and until the 21st century, the city of San Francisco was a mecca for artists of all kinds. The 19th century brought writers like Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Bret Harte to the city, and in 1872, a cabal of writers, artists, musicians, and journalists formed the now invitation-only, and highly prestigious, Bohemian Club.
The wild west drew creative people of all types, and as the 20th century dawned, the city became known for the many creative movements that exploded here. When the Barbary Coast was still the turf of sailors and pirates, palaces of early jazz entertained them on Broadway. In the ‘20s and early ‘30s, the golden era of mystery fiction blossomed here, when Dashiell Hammett transformed the genre, while working for Pinkerton in the Flood Building. After World War II, the Fillmore became a jazz capital, the Harlem of the West. The Bay Area Figurative painters launched a movement on Russian Hill, and the Beat poets drew the eyes of the world to North Beach. A decade later, rock musicians in the Haight, such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, got instant, international fandom, as did their Latin rock counterparts in the Mission, including Santana. Bruce Lee was inventing kung fu films in Chinatown, and Francis Ford Coppola was writing The Godfather in Caffe Trieste. In the 1980s, performers like the Dead Kennedys launched punk, while South of Market, brand new art forms, like performance art and machine art, flourished. The city had a world-class symphony, opera, ballet, and art museums. It hummed with vibrant creative energy, adored by the entire world.
The last creative movement to grow in San Francisco was Burning Man, which was planned for the first several years in the flat of the founder of ArtHouse, P Segal, beginning in 1990. Soon thereafter, rents crept up, and artists started leaving the city, for places where it was possible to rent both a place to live and a place to work. A decade later, this once cheap city became the most expensive place to live in America.
In 2017, an Arts Commission survey showed that 70% of the city’s artists had either already left San Francisco, or were getting ready to move elsewhere. When the pandemic hit, artists in every medium found themselves suddenly without any work—no performances, book contracts, exhibitions, festivals, or any of the other ways that creative people, mostly part of the gig economy, made money. Magazines across the country laid off thousands of writers. Publishers stopped accepting submissions.
The San Francisco rental market made it certain that artists had to leave and couldn’t return. The current policy is to only accept tenants who can show pay stubs proving they make three times the rent. Even a highly successful person in the arts can’t do that. It virtually makes it impossible for any gig worker, self-employed person, retiree, or minimum wage worker to rent here at all.
Artists bring fresh energy to a city because the one thing that matters to them is creating things—music, words, images, experiences—that people will enjoy. When we give creative people a place and a platform, we give ourselves an untold wealth of future pleasures.
If we’re sincere in our desire for a diverse population, we have
to devise alternatives to the options given us by landlords and developers. ArtHouse proposes co-op live/work spaces and venues for the displaced community of artists, but it also offers a model for housing alternatives. We’re not going to change the policies of landlords and developers, but we can do something else— that would restore the bohemian charm of San Francisco that the whole world loved.