Gentrification isn’t simply the process of urban change through the rise in property values. It involves power dynamics between people in control and people at their mercy, and often between the white majority and working-class minorities. One group affected by gentrification is artists. In Radio Silence, Ian S. Port writes about the way musicians continue to get squeezed out of cities like San Francisco, Paris and New York, about how their departure changes the character and economy of the cities that benefited from their cultural contributions, and about the impermanence of bohemia. Complicating the picture is the fact that artists and bohemians are often gentrifiers themselves, moving into lower-income neighborhoods early in the cycle in order to capitalize off of low rent. Not everyone sympathizes with ousted musicians, yet many of us who listen to music benefit from their ability to create it. Port’s piece originally appeared in April, 2015. The magazine says it’s their most talked about story.
This influx of newcomers raised unsettling questions. If San Francisco was already going the way of gentrified Manhattan—as Borsook described it, “a slightly faded kosher butcher shop replaced by an Italian fusion restaurant, what was the rehearsal space for a dance troupe become a lawyer [now tech company] loft”—where would the artists go? There’s a limited supply of dense, thoroughly urban places in the United States, and only a handful of large ones west of the Mississippi. If the newfound tastes of the upper-middle class and the wealthy made it so artists couldn’t afford to dwell in those places, what then? What would happen to bohemia when artists were shunted to more sprawling and affordable cities? A spread-out burg like Los Angeles might foster its own pockets of artistic activity, but there’s a vast difference between that sort of scattered bohemia and the concentrated energy of, say, North Beach in the 1950s.
San Francisco’s dot-com boom went bust in the early 2000s, and as its wealth evaporated, the city was jolted back toward normalcy. “For Rent” signs papered the windows of apartment buildings on Geary Boulevard from the city center out to the Pacific Ocean. Some artists and musicians who had left were able to return, bolstering the bohemian community that remained. Young people still came to San Francisco to find success in creative fields. With a little searching for the right living situation, one could find a room at a price that would leave plenty of time for making art after making the rent. John Dwyer lived on Haight Street in those days, and he could be seen riding his chromed bicycle around town during the hours normal people were at work.