Ghost Stories from SF: Art Mirrors Life

This piece was originally posted on my Outside the Circle blog, at, where you can find other writings, too, and sign up to receive my latest posts.

Submitted by Cindy Milstein on May 1, 2014

One can't always judge a social struggle by its art. Indeed, oftentimes, such cultural production far outstrips the substance of the resistance it's supposedly in cahoots with, and worse, has little relation to it. Street artists, no matter their medium, busily help to drive forward a social movement that, in fact, is barely there at all.

May Day 2012 in the United States was a case in point. Expectations for a general strike ("No work! No school! No shopping! No banking!) were propelled beyond any congruence with on-the-ground organizing, or the lack thereof, built only on the strawperson of Occupy nostalgia and the outburst of gorgeous poster designs galore (for a sampler, see It's not that May Day 2012 didn't matter (see; it's just that its art did not mirror the reality of the political terrain that US spring and its possibilities, or the lack thereof following so many Occupy evictions.

On the other hand, one can judge the strength of a social struggle by its art, when that cultural production finds itself in egalitarian concord with the substance of resistance, itself open to a diversity of tactics and imagination. That takes a certain amount of "listening" and reflecting back on the part of street artists, no matter their chosen form, from wheatpaste and stencils to theater and poetry, so that their work embodies the sensibilities and ethical impulses of the organizing, even as it enlivens it. It takes, too, militant research, in that the artists themselves are close enough to, and even thoroughly engaged in, the organizing along with the decision-making processes about strategies, tactics, and vision. And it generally entails a willingness on the part of artists to increasingly socialize and share culture-making.

Because perhaps more than what the artists are doing or creating, such a harmonic convergence of art and politics of the street seems to happen when many people who don't consider themselves artists begin to express themselves via cultural production and, at the same time, cultural production is a window into the reality of the social struggle. In an age when capitalism increasingly creates and commodifies culture, and makes good use of culture to create and commodify human beings, art and culture aren't sideshows to resistance. They are part of reclaiming neighborhoods and lives, homes and collective power, people's ability to imagine different social organization and values.

One can't simply make art to catalyze a movement, nor is inspiring a movement any sort of art, able to be crafted at will. But there are moments when the visual landscape and organizational acts of resistance seem to fuse into a force that touches nearly everyone, whether as social dialogue, social contestation, and/or social transformation, and the social movement thus finds itself one morning, as it were, both clearly existent and on the offensive. What is at stake is then almost inexplicably on nearly everyone's mind, such as is increasingly the case in San Francisco. So the stakes are being made visible here in everything from street art that grows more and more ubiquitous, to newspaper headlines and television stories, to window displays of sympathetic businesses, to the giant promotional lettering plastered on the scaffolding of in-progress luxury development, and on and on. Art and agitators are shaking up the city, propelling the landscape of the social order to respond. One sees the battle lines drawn publicly on walls, sidewalks, billboards, and the like.

This in itself is a win. The physical and visual space, the public conversation taking place in SF, is increasingly debating the world of potentiality that the social movement is proposing. Suddenly, the powers-that-be, at least for a time, "can't evict an idea," to harken to the language of Occupy. Topics like curtailing or ending speculation, homes as a right or as something simply for all, land trusts, collective refusals to leave ("hell no, we won't go" in many languages), eminent domain and community land ownership, and other "radical" ideas are papering the hearts and minds of the urban scape.

Art in San Francisco is becoming key to expressing the specific aspirations as well as anger of the social struggle, which increasingly feels like a social movement in that it's forcing the hand of the rich and powerful to react to it, and plainly visible, increasingly too, on the face of the city. Such street art is giving voice to the many real-life stories of resistance and victories here, helping to embolden more varied, real-life acts of resistance and hopefully more wins, even if small. It is, simultaneously, hearing and then illustrating the voices that are already out there, in partnership. This art is also the holder of memory of other struggles that came before, tying them together and borrowing from their strengths, to construct a platform for ghosts to speak of past losses and loves. And it is a way for those being made into ghosts in the present by a murderous capitalism to haunt those who care little about human suffering, about what it feels like to live within the precarious anxiety of not being able to make decisions about one's own home and life, because of the whims of those who have the power to evict.

There are many examples of how art in San Francisco is now mirroring the life of what feels, on good days, like social resistance on the move, creative, vibrant, dynamic, caring. Here's one, with its ghost story: "eviction = death." These words and their image can be seen on posters (such as here) and banners, calling forth the ghost of "silence = death" from another time of epidemic in San Francisco. Not so long ago, the AIDS crisis killed many, and many a gay man in particular, and sparked a movement. It also caused landlords to evict those with AIDS, and if word on the street is correct, made some sheriffs refuse to carry out those evictions because of their empathy for those with and dying from AIDS.

Today, eviction is the epidemic, often putting those who are sick, including with AIDS, on the streets, so clearly this phrase and image resonates with the reality of the situation. But much more poignantly, the spark for the poster pictured here emerged last year during a specific eviction. It involved a survivor of the time of Harvey Milk, the time of AIDS and death and homophobia, silence and direct action. That person here in contemporary San Francisco, having lived through an earlier purge, got evicted, and in their despair, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, to their death. The administrators-that-be have been spending much time of late trying to figure out new, improved ways to stem the new epidemic of people leaping off that iconic bridge to their death. It might be easier to offer homes for those without homes, and to let people stay in their homes of years and decades, then installing crisis call-boxes, anti-suicide signage, higher fencing on the bridge, or netting below it. But that doesn't generate more wealth and power, so suicides are up, homes are stolen, lives are lost.

Art -- this particular piece, but many others too -- mirrors life within this war against displacement, for self-determination and the power to stay in neighborhoods and communities that are home. For eviction does, horrendously, equal death these days in real life, as was yet again underscored recently at an eviction defense rally for some already-vulnerable tenants. A friend of one of the tenants mentioned how he now visits daily, bringing food and companionship, because his longtime friend "is under such stress. They've spoken of suicide to me."

People here are forced to think of themselves as ghosts, ahead of their time, in a cruel pre-self-mourning of all that might be stolen out from under them. New ghosts are also forced to appear, in solidarity, coming back through the art and action on the streets to cause trouble and just maybe make some change, even if far from enough. If these ghosts are particularly compelling, maybe they'll be able to put this slogan and image to rest, in peace and power, and let art mirror better lives, not the wrenching loss of them.

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(Photos by Cindy Milstein: screen-printed poster by Fernando Martí, given out for free at the Citywide Tenant Convention, San Francisco, February 8, 2014.)



10 years ago

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Submitted by Hieronymous on May 2, 2014

As someone who has called the San Francisco Bay Area home since 1986 (and with deep roots here; my widowed great-grandmother lived in San Francisco's Hayes Valley in the 1890s after the death of my great-grandfather, who had arrived Southern California in 1866), I personally think way too much ink is getting spilled over the city that I have called home for the last decade. Perhaps it's time for a moratorium on San Francisco obituaries -- or at least ones that don't have a class analysis.

Cindy, in all due respect, you're accounts are ahistorical and have this nauseating quality of glorifying pseudo-victimhood. In your -- and you share this positivism with other San Francisco obituary writers like activismist Rebecca Solnit-- worldview, people in San Francisco are somehow too precious than to have to suffer the degradations of the social relations of capital. There's this lame San Francisco exceptionalism where all the creative souls are classless angels whose muse is suddenly being strangled by evictions and displacement fomented by the "tech invasion." Google bus=death of artistic genius. This historical amnesia ignores that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded H-P in a garage in Palo Alto in 1939. Yeah, that's right, 75 years fucking ago! In 1961, again in the suburbs of San Francisco, Fairchild Semiconductor, Inc. built a circuit with four transistors on a single silicon wafer, creating the world's first silicon integrated circuit and propelling forward the cyber revolution. This tech invasion happened before our generation was even born!

What's worse are all these syrupy paens to the heroic artists, who are winning by losing. I'm sorry, but this struggle began with class-divided society -- well before the present capitalist mode of production -- and defending the mom-and-pop liquor stores where hipsters buy 12-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon or tourists buy middle class trinkets ain't gonna do jackshit in the struggle between the classes.

Case-in-point: this morning at 5:00 a.m., at the corner of Mission and 16th Streets -- literally outside your window, Cindy -- 75 working class militants organized into the anti-authoritarian United Rank and File, mostly from the building trades, celebrated International Workers' Day by marching to one of the plethora of ultra-hip condos going up along Market Street. For the last couple decades construction work has been based on multiple tiers at the same work site -- the "two-gate system." So unionized trades workers labor side-by-side with non-union ones at substantially lower wages, who in effect drag the whole city pay scale down. The tangle of contractors and subcontractors in the building trades profit greatly off these wedges dividing the working class, especially now as the city is going through a massive building boom. This morning, we got to the construction site before the workers and their bosses showed up and threw up a picket line. Of course the cops came and escorted scabs across the line, but we made it as difficult as possible. Several class conscious workers refused to cross and lost a days pay. It's the latter who are heroes in contemporary San Francisco.

Cindy, where were you? And if you're going to celebrate anyone on May Day, when the true kindred ghosts are those framed and hung after the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, make it Dow Wilson. If you don't know who he is -- and what happened to him at the corner of 16th Street and South Van Ness on April 5, 1966 -- perhaps it's time to go back to Vermont. Long before Harvey Milk was taking gay liberation to the ballot booth, shopfloor militants in the Marine Cooks and Stewards union in San Francisco were fomenting both class struggle and queer liberation -- and were some of the most stalwart militants in the 1934 General Strike. And before painting Tenderloin residents as passive victims, erasing their history of rebellion, you better learn about the militant queens, lesbians and street hustlers who sparked the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria Riot -- which occurred a full 3 years before Stonewall!

shambolic toad

10 years ago

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Submitted by shambolic toad on May 4, 2014

this is as nasty as kevin keatings anti cindy milstein anti station 40 rants

Black Badger

10 years ago

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Submitted by Black Badger on May 4, 2014

So Cindy's shit politics (left-liberalism masquerading as something radical -- remember her Hope Bloc, celebrating the end of racism through the election of Obama?) are to be left uncriticized because of your guilt by association? Whatever you think of Keating's feverish rants against anyone and everyone (and as someone on the receiving end of them for almost a decade, I don't think much of them at all), the fact is that Cindy is a dolt and Station 40 is a collective of uselessness.


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Submitted by Soapy on May 4, 2014

It did irk me a bit in that other piece that Cindy was bemoaning the loss of small businesses. The idea that "mom and pop" stores are somehow much better places than big chain stores is an empty liberal myth imo.

The opening paragraph of "The Power to Stay: Magical Realism from SF’s Mission" reads:

Daily life in San Francisco frequently involves bearing witness to yet another suddenly-shuttered local business, mostly the ones that don't worry so much about their looks, but instead are packed to the brim with everyday things, the urban version of a subsistence economy that's long fed lives and cultures.

The mythical "local business" with its owners who care only about genuine human expression and not about money is just garbage. This is capitalism, all small businesses fight tooth and nail to survive in the shark tank that is capitalism. Where I live (in a well known east coast city) there are small businesses sprawling out over the entirety of this city. Some of them are shitty at what they do and some of them are very good at it. All of them participate in wage labor, so many of them treat their employees like absolute shit like every other business. All of them use encironmentally unsustainable business practices and the ones that don't commit the sin of GENTRIFICATION (one of the seven deadly sins). Most of them will go out of business because they are not good enough at making money and frankly I don't give a shit because this is just how capitalism works and small business owners whom I've never met are not at the top of my list of people I feel sorry for. I doubt very much that the thrift store down the street treats its employees any better than the wal-mart that opened up right next to it.

All of the things she claims are being destroyed by GENTRIFICATION

unassuming businesses offering still-affordable goods and services include produce stands, dollar stores, dentists, fabric and clothing shops, pharmacies, taquerias, shoe and jewelry repair, church supplies, bodegas, electronics and hardware, laundromats galore, locksmiths, pawnbrokers, utilitarian furniture dealers, donut-and-Chinese-food spots, smoke shops, printers, and the like.

that are


exist a plenty in my heavily GENTRIFIED city because this is capitalism. There are still plenty of these types of stores post GENTRIFICATION in the city that I live in, and it doesn't make capitalism any better imo. Also, the reason those businesses opened up in the first place is because they thought they could make a profit, if new stores open up that make a profit in a different way this really seems no different to me and certainly not something I personally would spend any time mourning.

Additionally if the new businesses that open up are making a profit that means that the people of this Earth, who Cindy spends so much time writing melodramatically on behalf of, actually like spending money at the new places that have opened up rather than the ones before. When the new wal-mart opened up next to me the only people who cared were activists and liberals. The people of the holy COMMUNITY (all hail the COMMUNITY) that this wal-mart is supposedly destroying really don't seem to give a shit and shop there frequently.


10 years ago

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Submitted by Hieronymous on May 5, 2014

shambolic toad

this is as nasty as kevin keatings anti cindy milstein anti station 40 rants

Shambolic toad, you're a troll. If you have a critique of what I wrote, please give it more than an ad hominem one-liner.

And I'd say that Keating has more in common with Milstein than I do.

Here's why:

They both have a take on San Francisco that's based on an ounce of truth and a pound of fabrication. Their pseudo-analysis is based on a romantic attachment with the simulacrum (sorry for the PoMo language; nothing else fits) of San Francisco, which glosses over and even denies the banal -- capitalist -- reality. This place sucks! In a world of capitalism, every place sucks!

Both make San Francisco a metaphor for the capitalist world while looking only at the Mission District through a microscope. Once Sam Brannan was in on the secret that James Marshall had found gold at Sutter's Creek on January 24, 1848, shouting "Gold, gold, on the American River" upon arriving in the village of San Francisco (that had just recently changed its name from Yerba Buena), the population went from 469 to 25,000 by the end of the first year of the Gold Rush. Over 90,000 merely disembarked in the new city in '49 and headed directly to the gold fields. This rush for riches has never stopped in San Francisco.

No sooner had the gold yields faded than the Comstock Lode was discovered on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas in 1859, and turned out to be one of the world's richest ever veins of silver, with almost all of the financing for the subterranean mines coming from San Francisco. And once the Comstock mines stopped producing, San Francisco's distance from the Civil War only allowed its industries to enrich themselves as its economy boomed. But like the rest of the world, San Francisco suffered the bust of the depression that began with the Panic of 1873. With the end of that crisis, the city boomed again by benefiting from the Klondike Gold Rush that began in 1896.

The original robber barons, who clawed and manipulated their way to the top, were the Big Four -- Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker -- who built the Central Pacific, as the western end of the Transcontinental Railroad. Their four bourgeois palaces sat atop Nob Hill, until being burned to the ground in the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake. The newer robber barons relocated to the "Gold Coast," the stretch of ostentatious mansions on Broadway Street, atop Pacific Heights and overlooking the Marina. This row of rich houses is a better metaphor for the wealth that has dominated San Francisco since its birth; just trace the family name to the commodity. Getty for oil, Speckels for sugar, Folgers for coffee, countless others for silver, lumber, and green gold: agribusiness. Apple executives moved in later.

Being a military port city, meant that San Francisco continued to boom during the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam. The title of Marilyn Johnson's book, Second Gold Rush, sums this up. Massive wealth shifted to West Coast cities for defense industries in World War II, but especially massive Bay Area shipbuilding complex -- the largest the world has ever known. Much military contract work has been done by high tech firms, and it's the legacy of this part of the military-industrial-complex that San Francisco current tech boom was built as well as all the surveillance technologies they're innovating.

Despite all the corny mourning for the changes wrought by the "tech boom," San Francisco is only not a boom town when it's recovering from the bust from the previous cycle. For fuck's sake, this is the region of the world where the term "yuppie" was first fully realized in the early 1980s. And all this is well documented, just read "The Playground of US Capitalism? The Political Economy of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s" by Marxist geographer Richard Walker in Fire in the Hearth: The Radical Politics of Place in America. It was born out of national trends of suburbanization, deindustrialization and federally-funded schemes for redevelopment. And de- and re-population because of those factors; San Francisco's population dropped from 775,357 in 1950 to 678,974 in 1980. That's almost a hundred thousand people leaving, mostly because tens of thousand of units of housing stock were bulldozed -- or knocked down by wrecking balls. That's why there's a housing crunch now.

When I pass a shop that's recently been closed, which happens not infrequently, I usually just shrug and remember how surly and unhappy those who worked there seemed. The former were mostly petite-bourgeois shopkeepers who ran the place themselves; most of the latter were wage workers, more often than not overworked and underpaid. I just can't figure out what's so fucking sad about the closing of a site of exploitation and misery. The new shops open up and are simply more of the same. Some family-owned businesses, especially those run by immigrants, remind me of 19th century Yorkshire textile mills -- especially when I see their kids imprisoned inside for intensely long periods of time. I hate the state to the core of my existence, but I am thankful for laws abolishing child labor -- and hope we one day get around to abolishing all labor and class society.

Anyway, I moved into my current apartment 9 1/2 years ago and the most significant change to my neighborhood was the closing of two 24-hour supermarkets nearby. I attribute this to the shakeout in the California retail industry, and major changes of the workforce composition of supermarkets, in the aftermath of the defeat of the four-month UFCW grocery strike in Southern California in 2003-2004. The Northern California UFCW locals had had a similar contract prior to the strike and I think the management of the supermarket chains did major restructuring in the north rather than risk another strike. My surviving local 24-hour market ended up getting closed for a year soon after, to revamp it to be more like an upscale discount warehouse -- which in reality is as paradoxical as that sounds. This temporary closure made my immediate surroundings a food desert until the remodeling was complete and soon after market newcomers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's came to the neighborhood.

And this is all because global players, like Walmart, have changed retail worldwide. Other places of commodity consumption, like movie theaters and book stores, closed in droves too. But like the restructuring of supermarkets, that started over 10 years ago. I attribute that shift in consumption habits directly to the internet: YouTube, online retailers like Amazon,
e-books, Kindle and tablet readers, Netflix, streaming sites like Pirate Bay, and apps for everything.

I'll finish by saying all this is not only a national phenomenon, but an international one. Capitalism creates a veneer of uniqueness and difference that veils the common banality of wage labor and the ubiquitous of the commodity form. This is no different in any major urban area -- with a few exceptions for those places remote from the main circuits of capital accumulation -- whether they be Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Mumbai, Nairobi, Berlin, or Toronto. The march forward of the value form's total domination of our lives is obviously taking place at a different rate in different places. San Francisco just seems to be at the forefront of the IT aspect of it.

Milstein et al. are attached to middle class fantasies of a kinder, gentler San Francisco-style capitalism, as well as a fetishism for Latino culture. San Francisco is just over 40% white, 33% Asian and only about 15% from a Spanish-speaking background. So ghettos for newly arrived Chinese immigrants, stretching south from Chinatown proper to the Bayview, and again west to the Sunset and Richmond Districts get airbrushed out of the romantic obituaries (not to mention larger regional trench, with which San Francisco is fully integrated). These accounts of the city's demise are based more on creative license and their imaginations than any lived experience. Reminds me of the Kink's song "Village Green Preservation Society," as though these romantics are trying to hang on to the illusion of a steam-powered, gas-lit city where saloons still have player-pianos; they're firmly rooted in the past, having turned their backs away from the reality of the present and its implications for the capitalist future.

Here's a very thoroughly researched analysis of San Francisco's housing crisis called "How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained)". I have very strong disagreements with some of its liberal, pro-market/capitalist assumptions, but it does an excellent job of explaining many of the causative factors.


San Francisco is the hub of a regional cluster of capitalist accumulation. Other minor spokes in these chains of production, like Fresno and Central Valley agricultural and food processing cities, are much, much worse off with the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the U.S. They still have massive tent cities with tens of thousands living in misery. Their suffering would be much, much more worthy of all this literary attention.